Jeff King Talks With

San Francisco Architect Dennis Budd

Dennis Budd, Principal at Gast Architects, is a well-rounded architect with design as well as hands-on construction experience. His 18-year tenure at GA has provided him a wealth of opportunities to stretch and flex his creative muscles so that even major changes that happen midway through the design process are welcomed rather than feared. Read on to discover how Dennis’s childhood curiosity influenced his career and enabled him to realize his dream of building his own home, why he values his LEED accreditation, and what’s in store for the future.

Jeff King: I read that you learned the ropes of various construction trades during the summers of your youth in New Jersey and that you were a building contractor before becoming an architect. What initially drew you to building and eventually designing homes?

Dennis Budd: In my youth, with both parents working in medicine and before podcasts like “How I Built This,” I had an unanswered curiosity about how things were put together. In that search, I would disassemble my bicycle, craft a large-scale model plane that never flew, build a halfpipe for the skateboarding neighbor kids, and fabricate hockey goals that would sit on our community lake all winter. By high school, I took up landscape jobs that included some residential construction like fences and decks. Through college I worked summers in our local chapter of the Laborer’s International Union mixing mortar, digging trenches, spraying fire-proofing, or any number of low-skill physical support tasks for union construction sites. By the time I was in graduate school I had acquired enough skills and tool equity to get assignments from the New Orleans-area carpenters local union, such as hanging ‘slat wall’ for retail stores along Canal Street. That income was parlayed into more tools, a pickup truck, and a lumber rack and more importantly, I reconnected with a New Jersey friend and architecture grad to start a design/build company in Baltimore. We designed, facilitated permitting, and built about a dozen small residential projects over a two-year period, culminating in a large addition to an A-frame house along the Patuxent River. It was this project that gave me the confidence to later build my own house. By the time I moved to California in the mid-90s, my natural inclination was to continue hands-on contracting work, this time for Bay Area projects designed by the celebrated late Architect Daniel Liebermann, a Taliesin fellow, and my most important mentor.

JK: How does your experience on the building side influence your role as an architect?

DB: Architects are expected to have such a broad understanding not only of design but of all aspects of the construction industry that having actual building experience is a great advantage. It’s a short cut to understanding the challenges of what designers are asking of builders, and a boost when the time comes to communicate with those who execute what we envision.  That being said, there is no substitute for complete drawings, whether you have a construction background or not.

JK: Where do you get your design inspiration?

DB: I am fond of vernacular building types interpreted through a modern expression and the evolution of building materials or techniques that feel like forward movement. Inspiration comes from artifacts (an Inuit totem), the essence of materials (cedar), travel (Greece), photography (Bernd & Hilla Becher), sculpture, and experiencing the work of others (Casa Malaparte).

JK: What’s your favorite part of the design process? 

DB: Assuming site issues are resolved or fixed, my favorite part of the process is developing a floor plan that resolves the design program with a balance of private and public spaces, logical adjacencies, short circulation, and a flow that feels timeless, not designed.  

JK: In urban environments such as San Francisco, you’re often tasked with remodeling homes with pre-existing structural challenges. What are some of the most challenging design concepts you’ve come up with that have stretched your creativity?

DB: In one past project we learned very late in the design process that the owner now wanted to add a 4-stop elevator for an aging relative. The only place for the elevator was in the center of a gracious 4-story multi-landing staircase located below a large skylight. The solution was to drop a steel-trussed hoistway with an all-glass cab through the open roof into the center of the staircase. The execution was complicated but in the end, there was no loss of natural light. It was a “wouldn’t it be cool if. . .” moment.

JK: It’s safe to say that improvement is the motivation behind all remodels. How do you know you’ve provided a good design for your clients?

DB: A “good design” is one that both solves the problem that needs fixing and in which the client is both excited to occupy and can afford it.  If you bring the client along in the design process, show options, and illustrate why certain paths are dead ends, having their buy-in to a unique concept is more likely. And designing within a budget is of the utmost importance as a good design does not improve our clients’ lives if it remains unbuilt.

JK: Is there a project that stands out as your favorite? What makes it great in your eyes?

DB: The house I built for my family in the Outer Sunset over the course of five years is a favorite because it challenged me in ways client projects do not. The design, documentation, permitting, and all phases of construction were on my shoulders and I was raising a family and maintaining a full-time job at the same time. I self-performed all the trades and went back to school to learn some new skills like how to weld a moment frame, install a hydronic heating system, and program the whole-house lighting control system. The project turned out how I envisioned: a weathered-grey beachy barn of vertical yellow cedar with an abundantly skylit, white, trimless interior.  

In general, though, my favorite collaborations are with the talented engineers and contractors with whom we partner. I also have a particular love for two ground-up houses we are designing right now, as well as recently completed one-story renovations to glassy mid-century homes that emanate the indoor-outdoor California lifestyle (one of which is our third Eichler project, that will break ground this May).

JK: What does being a LEED accredited professional mean to you in terms of how you approach projects? Why was this an important designation to obtain? 

DB: Preparing for the LEED accreditation provided a knowledge platform that is as important to me today as it was in 2007. LEED helps me to consider the many facets with which one can approach energy-efficient building design. I’m grateful to work in a state with energy codes like Title 24 and CalGreen because every project we do is approached more holistically.

JK: What sets your firm apart from the myriad other architectural firms in San Francisco? Why do your clients say they chose your firm to remodel/build their home? 

DB: We are fortunate to have almost all our clients select us based on a chain of referrals—it allows us the luxury of focusing on architecture rather than on marketing. Our new clients tend to notice that, no matter what the architectural style we’re working in, we design houses that you can actually comfortably live in with a family. We bring a relaxed, almost casual feel to our domestic spaces but they are also carefully detailed, durable, and thoughtful. After clients work with us, they most often remark on the collaborative, problem-solving approach that led to a home that they feel uniquely reflects how they want to live.

JK: You’ve spent the majority of your career at Gast Architects, 18 years I believe. And there are rumors that you will be taking the reins of the firm when David retires. What, if anything, can you tell us about that?

DB: Firm ownership is an honor and privilege, but not something I would want to do solo. Eric Hartz, our Director of Operations, and I are in our second year of a five-year transition process allowing David to slowly pull back. Owning a mid-size architecture firm was never an assumed inheritance; however, after two decades of growing the firm, mentoring staff, and providing client service, I am enjoying holding the reins.

JK: When you’re not working, what do you do for fun? 

DB: I spend my off-work time cycling, playing ice hockey, bike-camping with my wife, flying RC planes, enhancing the comforts of my vintage Volkswagen camper, and above-all, fathering two incredible teenagers.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Dennis. We look forward to working with you and Gast Architects again soon. To learn more about Dennis and Gast Architects, visit their website and follow them on Instagram.