American architect Brian Mac grew up near Detroit. He graduated from the Architecture School at the University of Detroit in 1988 and for the next five years worked for a preservationist firm, Quinn Evans Architects in Ann Arbor. There he learned to love historic architectural detailing, and, while working at the firm, in 1992, became a licensed architect. Then followed a short period of disillusion with the profession and moving to Ohio to work in a residential treatment center for adolescent felony offenders.
After the stint there, Mac worked at small architecture studios of friends, while actively taking part in community work. Mac realized the importance of being confident about what he was drawing and wanted to learn how to build with his own hands. He started working with carpenters, trying to figure out how buildings were put together. In 1995, Mac moved to Vermont in search of a better, more fulfilling life.
It was reading The Good Life, a book by Scott and Helen Nearing, a couple that left the city for the countryside in search of a family life, good health, self-reliance, and living simply on land in Vermont, that led to the strong desire to move there and start afresh. The move occurred in 1994. Mac appreciated the local strong sense of history and yet, freedom to do something new. He settled in the Mad River Valley and soon met building partners, Jim Converse and John Seibert, the founders of Birdseye, an architecture and building company of skilled craftsmen. Established a decade earlier, Birdseye was focused on building high quality custom homes and additions. They hired Mac initially as a carpenter. However, luckily for him, the very first project he worked on needed an architect. The original designer was fired. So, Mac revealed to the owner of the house that he was an architect, not just the carpenter. The “architect in disguise” was promoted to head architecture projects and soon Birdseye, in addition to building, sitework, and wood and metal fabrication, was expanded into an architecture firm. Over the last 25 years, Mac built its architecture department into the company’s main focus. Since then, Birdseye grew from nine to 60 people, working on up to 20 projects at a time. The following is a condensed version of my conversation with Brian Mac via Zoom about what kind of architecture he wants to achieve, professional challenges, three of his favorite houses, and his conviction that architects are in total control of turning buildings into emotional and joyous works of art.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You recently said, “I think architecture is a profession that you need to challenge in order to find your place.” After 25 years of practice how would you define your current place in the profession?
Brian Mac: I would say it morphed over time. But honestly, I don’t think in such terms. I follow my own path with the intention of staying busy and I look for interesting opportunities along the way. At the same time, to avoid being isolated, especially living here, in such a low-density state as Vermont, I do try to keep up with the profession. For example, over the last couple of decades I have attended half a dozen AIA conventions. It is important for me to belong to the profession of likely minded people. I am interested in knowing what other architects are doing, especially in my own region. Even as a student, I was active in AIA student chapter simply to get a better perspective of what was going on and to understand all kinds of possibilities, not to mention the opportunities for meeting other students and being able to travel and experience different places.
VB: About Birdseye, you said, “We discovered how to market an architecture and building company over the years without being too architect-y or too wood-sy.” Could you elaborate on that?
BM: Well, we want to be progressive in our architecture but not techy in how we do it. We want to hold true to what we are, as a company, rooted in a very traditional place. For example, it is much easier to market ourselves here as craft people, as opposed to contemporary architects. This model was a good strategy for us and by now we have become known for our houses. People from other parts of the country want to commission us to design homes for them. If we wanted to, we could abandon the building and craftsmanship component of busines and focus on architecture by increasing the production and embracing other building types. But that would not be who we are. We grew from a building company to an architecture office and we want to maintain this full service approach. People are interested in us because of our ability to build and craft. But it is our architecture that gives us an identity. And we must maintain both to remain who we are and stay relevant. Apart from architects we employ artisans, carpenters, wood workers, metal workers, and machinery operators to create lasting works of art. Ultimately, we are interested in the intimate relationship between architecture and the art of building, a unique balance of innovation and tradition.
VB: Could you talk about your Bank Barn in Vermont? How did you derive at your solution?
BM: Our client knew that we have a flair for taking something familiar and give it a new meaning. They love the idea of a contemporary barn. Of course, there are a million contemporary barns on Instagram. But we wanted to question what a Vermont barn looks like and how to turn it into a contemporary project, how to define its unique sensibility to the landscape, how does it sit on the land. And we had a lot of freedom because the site is very large, and we had many options in how to site the building. Here in Vermont, we often deal with properties that are 150 acres and larger.
A traditional bank barn is typically built into the side of a hill, or a bank, to provide ground-level access both to the lower and upper stories. Of course, our barn is different, and it is a three-level residence with the lover floor built into the site. It does not look like a traditional bank barn, but it is inspired by it. That’s where our design started, and it evolved into something much more open and contemporary. The original concept was to realize this romantic idea of marrying the building, an artwork, to the surrounding landscape. What appears as a two story-building from its long side is revealed as a three-story structure from its front, as it sits atop two 160-foot-long concrete retaining walls that cut into the sloping hilltop, framing the driveway, garage, pool room, mechanical room, and storage – all hidden underground.
VB: You designed and built this house like an artwork?
BM: I would like to think so. And I am not saying this because of my personal intention as an architect but as a product of the whole team – the client, the architect, the builder, and all the crafters who worked on this project. The result is interesting, it is different. I would not be afraid of calling it an artwork. To me it is. Definitely!
VB: Most of your projects are houses. What is the main appeal for designing houses?
BM: I am a Mid-Westerner. I am from Michigan. I grew up in Frank Lloyd Wright’s territory. I went to Chicago every chance I would get. I explored every house Frank Lloyd Wright built there. I visited his Fallingwater in every season. I can really understand his own romance with an idea of home. His houses are beyond architecture. They are about what home means, how a family may live together. That’s what inspires me to work directly with people who are going to occupy spaces I design and build. I used to interact with developers or owners’ reps. That’s not what I want. And working on such intimate scale I feel I am given great opportunities to explore details and nuances of architecture. There is nothing that I haven’t explored that can’t be explored on the scale of a house. I have no desire to work on much larger or more public buildings. I enjoy the intimacy of working with people who will be living in my houses.
VB: Which one of your houses is your favorite?
BM: Well, Bank Barn is one of my favorites. I would say Woodshed, which is also in Vermont, is another favorite because it was that house that inspired the Lathhousein Sagaponack on Long Island, which is very special to me. These houses are similar, particularly because the owner of Lathhouse wanted a similar feel of the Woodshed. It was all about waiting for the right client that would allow me to explore a particular sensibility of a home that I thought about for a long time. It was about creating something familiar but also very fresh and unseen by applying very minimal and simple techniques with very straight forward materials. It was about exploring what editing can do for a project. It was about building on what I have done before but in a more refined way. That house happened as a result of being patient, particularly about waiting for the right client. And I am not looking for anything radically new. There is sense of quietness to what we are exploring. Architecture is too loud these days.
VB: How do you see your work in contrast to that?
BM: Rather than comparing us to others, I am focusing on pairing down the materiality of architecture, to the point that we may use the same material in different ways. I don’t see a reason for using many different materials to make a particular point. We can achieve what we are aiming at without displaying too many surfaces. We are trying to be essential.
VB: Essential in what way?
BM: We are trying to minimize our work to doing what’s necessary. To do all kinds of gymnastics around a palette is not our goal. I think it is more important to define a particular palette that would respond to the weather, the sky, the site. It is not about the variety that makes the house dance, not about changing costumes constantly, so to speak. We like to make the house transform through a more reserved and refined form. And we never close the door on design after the client says he or she likes it. We may go to the client saying, “We didn’t like it. What about this? We thought it was done. But now we think it is better.” That door never closes for us until the client’s family is literally living in the house.
VB: Let’s talk about your design process, inspirations, and where your ideas originate.
BM: I start with looking around. A lot of it about knowing the history of the place and vernacular models. The familiarity aspect is important. We always draw from the landscape and the context. I believe, architecture needs a landscape. That’s an architect’s job unless you are creating a folly of some sort. Which occasionally we might. But to build a new home that already has a connection to its place is the essence of a new house for a family. We design spaces, not volumes. And we constantly play with what’s outside and inside, and how they relate to one another. We are exploringinnovative use of materials, excellent craftsmanship, a richness of detail, and how traditional forms transform into those that are fresh and edgy.
VB: Yet, you just likened your Bank Barn to an artwork, which means that at least on occasions your ideas come from outside of the immediate context because that’s what an artwork is – it travels from place to place and carries its own message. So, as an architect, I assume you bring something from within that no one else can see or expect, something beyond what can be found on site.
BM: Of course, architecture can be about the person and the person’s own internal world; that’s true. But I am much more interested in expressing my ideas when they are relevant to a particular opportunity. I am patiently waiting for the right opportunities. My inspirations are not specific. For example, I spent a lot of time in Marfa, Texas where I explored the work of Donald Judd. But if I start telling you my experience there it will be completely foreign from what he meant. What I like is my understanding of what he did.
Most importantly,I want my places to come alive. I want my clients to discover something new every time, just like when you look at the great work of art you discover something new every time you see it. I want to experience a dynamic emotion, differently every day – how it connects to nature, to light. I want my homes to inspire positive, invigorating experiences. When people enter my houses, I want them to feel the beauty of these places. They may not know why, but emotionally they would feel connected and joyous. Architects are in control of such feelings. Architects have control of creating such spaces. I love the idea that families are getting raised in houses I designed, families having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Things like that matters to me. I want people to be happy in my houses.
VB: When you discuss your work, you mention such words as craft, process, quietness. What other words would you use to describe your work or the kind of architecture that you try to achieve?
BM: Care.Love. Beauty. Essentiality. For me architecture should represent the essential and the emotional. I hate when architecture tries to be obscured. In my view it needs to be accessible, simple, self-evident. My ultimate goal is to create a building that’s alive, that’s dynamic. And I don’t mean that they appear to be moving. What I mean is that a building is responding to the site, the view, the weather; that’s how buildings become alive. It is not a static experience. When you live inside of a space that’s responding to the environment, it becomes a part of it. That’s my intention.