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30 years ago…Today

November 1, 2017

FullSizeRenderIt was a crisp Monday morning, Nov.1, 1987. I opened the door to the converted rented garage and surveyed the 5 places to work I and a couple of young interns had put together over the last 2 months. It was the first day in 9 years I had not gone to work for a great good architect and woodworker, who had accepted me as a partner three years prior, then a named partner one year before I left. I had realized my need to control and create would have been an insufferable burden to any partner I might have.

I was about 1/2 mile from the one bedroom house we had built 3 years prior. My wife had graduated from law school and had a great job. My third book was underway, and I had work as an architect at age 32. I had been licensed for about 5 years, passing on my first taking of the 5 days of testing. I had about 20 active projects, about a third of them building.

It was a good time.

It was the Reagan Boom, even though we had just endured “Black Monday” a few weeks prior, where the stock market dropped over 20% and 500 points in one day, leaving it at 1,700. That freakout signaled the near future, especially for architects, and became the second bust in the housing market I had experienced since I graduated a decade ago.

I received referrals from a much more successful firm in Greenwich, who did not wish to do renovations, just new buildings. The woodworking shop I was associated with and co-owned by my partner did a lot of their millwork. They firm’s founders were only a little older than me, and became friends. They were jovial great good expressively crafty architects, dismissed by the shallow as “traditional” – so occasionally the renovation referrals did not become jobs for me.

But there was another difference in our work. I am almost obsessively committed to opening up design to complete client input and partnering through a design, bidding and building process that often takes longer as we offer multiple options and solicit feedback. The result was, and is, that we built over 70% of what we start, versus about 50% for the more traditional design process of selling a design to the patrons, with no options presented.

In the next 2 months post the stock market crash I kept all of the 20+ projects in my office, staffed by 3 others – while my friends saw their staff of 14 be reduced to 6. Their projects, all larger than mine, reduced from over 20 to under 10. They, of course, kept a brisk publication exposure and within a few years were bigger and brighter. The founding partners have retired, the firm goes on. I remain the same.

So went the next 30 years: 3 more busts: S&L, Tech Bubble, and then the 10 year cave-in of the Housing Crash we are still living in. We lived through each boom after the first three busts – where bad ideas by clients were vetted, explored, often blunted, but sometimes were built.

We went from 4 people in 1987 to 6 or 7 today, sometimes having an extra hand or two in boom times, but never laying anybody off, or missing a payroll: ever. I pay every person working for me, including interns, by the hour, double time for overtime: and we have had over 40 employees, with any number going on to great careers. I am happy to have those employees do their own freelance projects – in my office on my equipment, if desired. There are no hard office hours: outside interests are just fine if I know about them. We have had 1,000 payrolls all handwritten checks by the same bookkeeper.IMG_2119

We made every mortgage payment on the present office building purchased 28 years ago, paid it off, but still have a credit line that never seems to go away. I think I can make payroll next week without dipping into it for the first time in 18 months, but that has yet to be determined. I take one week off every year, needed or not.

But we did all this while breaking the rules: beyond the “open book” process of complete transparency I am committed to working for all those who need it: regardless of job size, type, style preference or location. Or the ability to pay.

We do pro bono work, a lot of it: upwards of 30% of the work in the office, keeping one or two folk busy at my donation. We are now finishing a 10 year effort where I gave about $100,000 of time to give the kids in our town a better place to play and perform:


Besides this anomalous devotion to working for everyone, with no posturing, agenda or “higher truth” of advocating a Canon of Modernist or Historicist aesthetics, we have had over 1,000 projects – about 300 not-for-profit efforts, for about 600 homeowners for homes new and remodeled,  and 100 other commercial or consulting efforts. We have built over 700 things, ranging in budget from $5,000 to $8,000,000. In today’s dollars the building costs range from $150 per square foot to over $1,000 per.

Sendak 1

Because we tailor our service, and thus our fees, to what is wanted by our clients, we have learned to generally work on an hourly basis with clear projections of what our costs would be. For not-for-profits we work for what the funder can pay. Despite the range in fees, our work tends to break rules for building costs as we work directly with builders to maximize the value of construction, no matter what the budget, as in this house almost done in California:


We have work in over 100 markets in about 15 states, on the water, inside skyscrapers, in the woods, inside a room, out in a field, anywhere. Now almost all our work is by word of mouth. I write for a bunch of interesting platforms (seen in those sidebars to the right of this piece) and have written 8 books this just out:


I write for several publications, including my blog, where this is, which has received over 20,000 visits this year alone and almost 130,000 visitors since it came to be. We just retooled our website, started over 20 years ago – using a barter system with a designer: a nicer version  for a nicer home.

We have won about 40 recognitions/awards from organizations, after being asked to compete I won a “Fellow” appellation in the AIA this year, I had a full feature in the New York Times about 20 years ago gaining 700 inquiries over a decade and a bunch of jobs. I helped create the Congress of Residential Architecture that bloomed, expressed a full-on Paper to the AIA, and died in the crash. I am just on the faculty of the “Building Beauty graduate program at UNIsob, in Naples, Italy. I have a radio program, and I podcast with others. TV happens from time to time, and I speak a lot (a lot of this is in the sidebars to the right of this piece or at the bottom of this page under “News”).

The model has worked. We started with the in-house Diazo printing with ammonia, a $1,800 fax machine and Mayline drawing on mylar and now have 9 computers with multiple hard drives and scanners and printers and, for me,  200 emails in and 100 out every day. From one bedroom my wife and I have built 3 more, conceived, received, sent forth and received back two children, each of us has had hospital stays, I have larded up 1/3 of myself, lost it, gained some back, now back to the weight I had in 1987 (still somewhat fat).

Thank You: your reading this means you have been part of all of this last 30 years in some way – a gift.

DDA 30 years hi res

16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2017 11:30 am

    I have been out on my own for 20 years, having worked for several museums in CT before taking the leap. As you know, it took, and takes, many hands to do it right.

  2. Leo Smith permalink
    November 1, 2017 2:15 pm

    Congratulations. I have had my practice for 19 years and appreciate the contributions you have made with your books and your participation with Hanley-Wood’s late, great Reinvention programs.

  3. November 1, 2017 3:58 pm

    Congratulations Duo. I’m inspired by your dedication to your profession!

  4. George permalink
    November 1, 2017 5:47 pm

    A hearty congratulations Duo! On 30 successful years.

    Those who know you know that you do so much more than what is here

    Thank you so much.

  5. November 1, 2017 8:39 pm

    Good job Duo. Keep up the good work.

  6. Bryan Mock permalink
    November 2, 2017 6:17 am

    Looking forward to learning from your experience at Building Beauty!

  7. Lee Hill permalink
    November 2, 2017 4:19 pm


    Congratulations on 30 years! My wife and I started our lives together by moving to Connecticut from Texas in 1987 settling in Clinton. Talk about culture shock! I worked for Herb Noyes and Fred Vogt for a time then John Matthews down the street from you. We moved back to Texas in 1997 and we fondly look back and remember our 10 years New England. I’ve gone on to be a part of great practice here in Texas but I have not forgotten all the great work you did and all the great lessons learned from the three architects I worked for.

  8. Cousin Liz permalink
    November 8, 2017 9:07 pm

    Pretty amazing contributions! Obviously you have touched many lives. Quite the legacy – & no sign of letting up! I am impressed xo


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