On Episode 50 of the Edge of Innovation, we are talking with Benjamin Nutter from Benjamin Nutter Architects, an architectural firm based in Topsfield, Massachusetts, about how architects approach design.

Show Notes

Benjamin Nutter Architects’ Website: benjaminnutter.com

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Sections

An Architecture Firm on the North Shore
What Kind of an Architect
The Architect’s Approach to Building
What is Design
Specialized Work Versus a Range of Styles
When to Get an Architect and Why
Design Matters

 

An Architectural Approach to Design

 

Paul: Hi, I’m Paul Parisi with the Edge of Innovation, hacking the future of business, and I’m here today with Benjamin Nutter who, in our area, is well-renowned. So first of all, it’s a great name.

Ben: Oh, thank you.

Paul: It’s a great name. It’s an old New England name, Nutter.

Ben: Yes.

Paul: Is that true?

Ben: That’s right.

Paul: How far do you guys go back?

Ben: Actually to about 1635. And the unique name that first settled in the Dover, New Hampshire area — this is true — his first name was Hatevil.

Paul: Hatevil Nutter?

Ben: Hatevil Nutter. Yes.

Paul: Wow. Was it a hyphenated name, or…?

Ben: No.

Paul: So was that his middle name, Evil?

Ben: No, H-a-t-e-v-i-l was his first name.

Paul: Wow. That’s so cool. That’s only in New England.

Ben: Right. Right. No pressure there.

Paul: No. Yeah, exactly. What did he do when he grew up?

Ben: Most likely farming and timber, fishing — what most people would have done what they arrived.

 

An Architecture Firm on the North Shore

 

Paul: Well, that’s really cool. So now, you work primarily on the North Shore of Boston?

Ben: Yes, most of our clients.

Paul: And southern New Hampshire?

Ben: That’s right.

Paul: Now you’re an architect.

Ben: Yes.

Paul: I imagine in the world of architecture, that’s a pretty broad statement.

Ben: That is very true, especially in the 21st century.

 

What Kind of an Architect

 

Paul: Okay. And so do you specialize? Or, if you were talking to another architect, what would you say you focus on?

Ben: We focus on small commercial and residential. And within those two categories, we do nearly everything you could imagine. So in the small commercial area, it’s been from something as simple as an administration building from the Topsfield Fairgrounds, a funeral home that we did just several years ago in Middleton, and we just finished doing a sheep farm and cheesery in Boxford.

Paul: Oh, cool. Okay.

Ben: And then in the residential world, it could be a building as old as the late 1600’s or a net-zero energy or mid-century, modern-inspired home built today. So very, very diverse variety of architecture.

 

The Architect’s Approach to Building

 

Paul: So let’s talk about sort of the whole approach to building. So there’s a point at which a person says, “I want to build something — a business, a house, or whatever — and they make a decision, “I need to go to an architect.” But a lot of people don’t. So what’s that tipping point that you find in your experience? Because I know you probably have more design-sensitive clients than less design-sensitive. So in other words—

Ben: That is so true. In fact, that was the very obvious answer to that question, even for myself, was that if design did not matter to our clients, they would not be our clients. That is so true, Paul. You nailed the essential, that’s what drives most of our clients to work with an architect.

 

What is Design?

 

Paul: So what is design? I mean, because is it the colors? It’s not the furniture. You know, we see all these TV shows, and you see these places that are being rehabbed. And they say, “Well, we’re going to take this wall out and this. And then we’re going to do this.” Or, “We’re going to paint this.” And it really doesn’t come together until they stage it with the furniture.

Ben: And that’s part of what makes design such a subjective subject, if you will, because what might appeal to you as a design might not appeal to, say, Mike. You might prefer a contemporary design. Mike make buy an old home and restore it and renovate it, add on to it.

Paul: How do you navigate that with clients?

Ben: Well… I suppose most people arrive with some notion of what kind of design appeals to them. So that begins to narrow that down. And actually thinking about, one of the things that I feel that we’ve been especially good at over the decades is what I refer to as clarity of style. And what I mean by that is really clarity of architectural style. So if we’re working with…An example would be, right now we’re doing a house with a couple out on Great Neck in Ipswich, and it’s a design inspired by mid-century modern, which in their particular case, would be house informed by the sort of homes that were being built from 1930 to 1950.

Paul: Okay. So I’m not expert on those terms, and I would imagine most of our listeners aren’t. What is mid-century modern? You said ’30 to ’50. What are the look?

Ben: The look is really what some people would think of as contemporary. So it would be most likely flat roofs, a very horizontal look, large areas of glass, and really structures and shapes that are much more streamlined than, let’s say, a 1790 Georgian, the dwindling farmhouse that is the classic center entrance, center chimney colonial that is reproduced endlessly in subdivisions, for example.

Paul: Right. Okay. Good. That’s good. That’s a good handle for me to get and understand. Okay so you’re work on this. Do you have sweet spots of design for your company or favorites of your… I know probably you have personal favorites. So do you have sweet spots as a company?

Ben: That also is a great question, and it’s not an easy question to answer because I actually find a great interest in almost all of the architectural styles that are part of, really, the American history of architecture. So that could be something like the first homes built in the United States along the East Coast are referred to as First Period because it was the first period of construction. Those would be dramatically different than that mid-century modern that I was referring to.
I suppose what I find especially exciting and inspiring is to work well as an architect, as a designer, within each one of those styles.

Paul: Okay. Yeah. And have you done that?

Ben: Yes. Well, we think so.

Paul: Yeah. I would… But, I imagine there’s architects out there that probably only do first period.

Ben: You’re absolutely right.

Paul: “Why are you coming to me to do this mid-century modern? I don’t do that. Go speak to these people.” But the story is a little different with you. You’re coming in and saying, “Tell me what your design inspirations are, and we can take and sample from them or be pure to one inspiration.

Ben: Absolutely. Another way I sometimes describe that is the analogy of, we think of ourselves as the chameleon that can change color, depending on the design influence for each client’s project. And it wouldn’t be, I suppose, if we worked with only clients who desire mid-century modern. I don’t know that we’d be dreadfully disappointed that we never did a historic restoration, but there’s a certain added excitement about having the opportunity to work on designs all across the spectrum.

 

Specialized Work Versus a Range of Styles

 

Paul: Right. So now I know you’ve won a lot of awards — congratulations of that— just throughout New England for the work you’ve done. So it sounds like you have some satisfied customers. And in that, I mean, you haven’t tried and failed. You’ve actually tried and succeeded across this broad swath of, really, architectural styles. So that’s exciting to see. In the architecture world, are most of them like your company? This is, “Well, we can pretty much handle everything,” or are they more specialized?

Ben: There are some that are very specialized, certain firms around the metropolitan Boston area, I think of as really, as you say, specializing in a more contemporary architecture. Other firms where I first worked in Boston was one of the really original older names. Royal Barry Wills was an architect who really promoted the Colonial Revival style. Although, ironically, in the ’50s, there was another architect Hugh Stubbins who worked there who did very contemporary work at the time. But not well known by most people is that Hugh sort of got his wings at the Royal Barry Wills office. Royal Barry Wills Associates continues today to do mostly traditional work — so Colonial, maybe some Shingle-style work. And their reputation is so excellent in that area that it’s most likely that a client calling them would be seeking to do a traditional design. It doesn’t necessarily mean they would rule out doing a contemporary design, but that’s what they’re especially well known for.

And, Maryann Thompson is an architect in the Metropolitan Boston area that really specializes in contemporary design. And yet, there are other firms like Hutker Architects which is on the Cape and the Vineyard. They’re… I can’t speak for them, but I would say they’re more as we are, where they get the great interest in working with styles across the spectrum.

 

When to get an Architect and Why

 

Paul: Right. So now we talked a little bit about this sort of inflection point. Where I’m saying, okay, I want to build something. What’s that inflection point for me to choose an architect or just build it, show up with wood one day and build it, or however that happens. If I’m trying to make that decision, or I know somebody that’s trying to make that decision… They say, “Gee, I want to build a house. Should I just go buy a set of plans, or should I talk to an architect?” Those are two vastly different options. Can you speak to why or what sort of the decisions points are and the things I can, the sort of hooks that I can hang on to say, “Okay, if I want this, I need to go to an architect. And does it have to do with expectations and all that kind of thing? Sort of dig into that a little bit.

Ben: Yes. Well, there must be so many things that go through people’s heads when they’re thinking about that, especially for residential. Commercial, I would say, is a little bit more, just frankly, business like. So for the example of the client for who we did the funeral home, it was a person who already was in that business. They had other locations where they were operating. They kind of knew what their needs were and their functions. And the whole process is, I suppose I would just say it’s more business-like, because they already kind of know their model. What they needed was a new building on a new site.

Paul: Why wouldn’t they say…? Is it even plausible to say to a general contractor, “I have a building in this town. I want you to replicate it over there”?

Ben: You could. But in the 21st century, you also really would need a set of construction drawings so that you could then acquire building permits, go through the process as required in a local community. Sometimes that would require planning board and zoning board, conservation commission.

Paul: Do you help with that?

Ben: We do. Yes. We don’t do site engineering, but we do assist with and collaborate, and we bring in appropriate people to do that kind of specific work.

Paul: So I’d be hiring you and you would bring in the site engineer.

Ben: We can. We don’t always, but we can do that, because it’s very much a collaborative process. So that’s a process where it’s really not only satisfying the design to make sure that the building suits their needs — how many people do they want to accommodate when there’s a wake or a service, but then also just really putting the information together so there’s a clear set of drawings that describe the building itself. And that allows a general contractor, or if they’re doing bids, a number of general contractors to actually price the project. So it’s really a combination of design, municipal process, how they want to go about getting pricing for the construction, and then completing the construction and following a set of good quality, detailed drawings.

Paul: Okay, so that seems reasonable. But it seems like — I don’t know because I’ve only built one building in my life, had it built. You designed it, actually.

Ben: Yes.

Paul: But I guess the point I’m trying to understand is there’s a decision point. And I don’t know what I don’t know. And so I get a contractor, a general contractor who comes, “Oh, yeah. I can build you a barn.” Or, “I can build you a two-car garage.” That’s a fundamentally different decision to go with that than it is to go with an architect who is… I imagine some architects could just say, “Yeah, we have a standard two-car garage. How do you want to modify it, if you do at all. We have a shrink-wrapped garage.” And those are good things. Those are fine. But what is the personal design ethic? Do you find any thread that runs through the people that are coming and saying, “No, I want something special”?

 

Design Matters

 

Ben: Well we do. And, not to repeat the earlier comment necessarily, but the whole point about design matters. So whether it is a small project or existing home or a new house, I truly think what drives person to the design profession, as opposed to just a general contractor, is their desire for something that’s unique for their own needs and their family, if that’s their situation, their location.

So all of those could be elements of their decision-making process. But if they don’t, if their core is not that they really care passionately about the design, then I suspect they would just go online. In new construction, it would be a little bit easier to go online and acquire a set of building plans for a house of all sorts of styles, and then they could go directly to a general contractor. They might have to make some modifications to the drawings to suit codes that are local to the area, but you could go that route.

Whereas our clients are… Whether it’s a small project, a longer project, renovation, or a new construction, it’s very clear that they’re really driven by the passion for good design, and they want to work with someone who will partner and collaborate with them to achieve that design and then work that into the building construction.

Paul: So now, I make the decision. There’s two things I want to go after here, one is what happens after I make the decision to go with an architect. But I would imagine, before we answer that, there are a lot of risks I’m taking if I go and download plans off the internet, that aren’t clear to me. I mean, because if you were to say, “All things being equal, yeah, I’ll go buy the plans on…” I don’t know how much they cost to download. $500? $100? You know, whatever.

Ben: I have no idea. Right. It could be. Yes.

Paul: You know, so I buy these plans for whatever amount. But I don’t know what I don’t know. Now if I alternatively go to an architect, general contractors are a little different because they don’t have the best reputation in the world. You know, they’re not somebody that’s necessarily working on your behalf. They’re working to get the thing built as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible so they can get on to the next project. I’m sure there’s some that aren’t as, maybe, crass as that. But there’s a difference of interest there. Maybe. Maybe I’m being unfair.

Ben: Well, fortunately, we partner with a lot of very good quality general contractors, whether they are small firm or large. And yes, they certainly, at the end of the day, they obviously, like any of us, they want to be able to put some money in their pocket. But they’re also rather passionate about the residential design arena, if you will. So we have great people we can collaborate with our clients.

Paul: Right. But that’s after I’ve made the decision to go with an architect.

Ben: Generally speaking, there is a rare occasion where a client may come to us, and they’ve already selected a general contractor. But that’s probably less than 10% of our clients. Might, might even be less than 5% of our clients. So usually part of our process is to help get them set up to collaborate with a particular general contractor. But back to your other question…

Paul: Well, actually, before we go there, let me get a little deeper on this because, I guess what I’m trying to pull out here — and tell me if I’m wrong — is that you’re really working solely to the benefit of the customer.

Ben: Yes. You’re absolutely right. And that’s what we should be doing.

Paul: And so that’s a unique role in this sort of ecosystem. Because if I go and download the plans, I don’t know what I didn’t know.

Ben: That’s right.

Paul: The minute I involve you, you expose me to everything I don’t know, if I need to. But you get me through the zoning board and all the different things and help assist with all that and bring in the right experts.