Eric W. Reinholdt of 30X40 Design Workshop in Maine graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Architecture from Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. Since then, he has been practicing all across the Northeast. He brings a modern, regionalist design and his practice celebrates humble materials, subtle contrasts, and finely crafted details. Not only is Reinholdt a successful architect, but he also contributes to Houzz in a weekly series called “Design Workshop.” He has won awards including the Best of Houzz 2015 for Design + Client Satisfaction and Best of Houzz 2014 for Client Satisfaction. Last week Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Reinholdt and understand his philosophies on design.
On becoming an architect
As a child I always enjoyed model trains, building scale models and drawing. I would buy plan books from the local bookstore and redesign the floor plans and elevations, I loved the rigor of technical drawing. As college neared, this naturally led to choosing architecture as a professional course of study. But to be honest I had a very misguided idea of what an architect did at that point in my life. Architecture school opened up an entirely new world of possibilities, suddenly my world view of architecture and the design process grew much larger and consequently richer. Having practiced architecture at many different scales, I always gravitated toward the smaller more intimate projects — residential commissions remain my real love.
On discovering his voice as a designer
School, life, professional experiences? That’s difficult, it’s always evolving. I attribute as much to my father’s influence in my life as any particular formative educational experience, although there were those too. My father was a history professor and involved in museum education. So teaching and history have always been a part of my life. He instilled in me the value of provenance — the origin of things and the care that went into their making. In fact, he still sends me handwritten letters rather than email. A recent book he gifted me on the midcentury modern movement on Cape Cod was inscribed with a note that said, “Knowing about the history of an era, a movement, an event, a style offers an enhanced perspective on the future.” This speaks to who I am better than almost anything else.
I’m certainly not a historicist, I’m a modernist. But to be truly innovative — to function as a modernist — I have to have a frame of reference, a reverence for the past. My work reinterprets the familiar, the vernacular, the agrarian in new and sometimes unfamiliar ways. Wharf buildings become shells of their historical past, cantilevered and distilled down to thin threads. Farmsteads once connected out of necessity are pulled apart and stitched together with translucent breezeways. Finding the confidence to do this work has taken time and special clients.
On starting his own firm
In early 2013, I was working for a small firm who was struggling to make it through the recession. In lieu of laying off the entire staff, everyone agreed to a 20% pay cut. We were given the option to work a full five days with the fifth being unpaid, or to work four days and pursue outside work on the fifth. I chose the latter and began building the foundations of what is now 30X40 Design Workshop. I had always wanted to start my own business, I was ready, and that provided the nudge I needed. I also figured that the recession had just about played itself out and a new firm would be in a good position to take advantage of an improving economy. The process has been immensely rewarding. To chart my own course, choose the projects I work on, and self-direct opportunity creation — there’s just nothing better. I wrote about my experiences and the entire process in my book, Architect + Entrepreneur.
On how his design approach has evolved
At first I was so concerned with mastering the technical details of assembling a building that I prioritized design lower than I would’ve liked. If academia fosters an unbalanced bias toward design education, then practice typically promotes a bias toward value engineering and technical solutions. But neither approach works well in a vacuum. Honestly, clients expect you to be an expert in both. I finally feel like I’m in a place where I’ve managed to find the right balance between the two.
Establishing the right fee structure helps to accommodate these modalities of practice. I know enough about my design process to not short change the early stages of design. When you’re setting the conceptual underpinning of a project it’s crucial to have the fee in place to cover those early explorations. Design remains a high priority but equally high are business skills, which we haven’t really discussed. Business and design are a unique point of intersection that architects don’t typically explore, that’s where I’m working hard to differentiate.
On projects that represent his unique approach
Architecture can’t exist without the collaborative efforts and contributions of many. Contractors are our hands, clients are our inspiration (and funding apparatus) and architects lend form marrying the technical and artful constraints of a given problem. A healthy collaborative process is evident in all my work, but one good example is the Pond House project.
Here an impossible schedule and difficult site (a tidal salt pond with about 40’ of marine clay) were navigated with relative ease by a skilled contractor. A special client was willing to wave a magic wand and never wavered in their desire to do something different and unexpected. Perhaps the most interesting collaborative moment is the 12,000# boulder suspended above the pond in the center of the Wharf Cottage. The boulder is the central hearth element of the home with an incised firebox and a chimney cowling which is cantilevered from the roof. All of this is complemented by a cantilevered deck which abstracts the notion of the humble, working wharf structures that line the coast of Maine. From the land approach the structure appears as simple fishing shacks, as one enters and nears the water, the entire structure dematerializes into something unexpected.
At every step of the way collaboration played a part: from selecting the boulder to incising it, to designing and permitting the custom fireplace, to installing it using the largest crane in Maine, to testing it and making it work. That one aspect took many skilled tradespeople working together to realize; the entire project is pregnant with those stories.
I’m currently working on a small studio building which is the humble counterpoint to the excess of the previous project. I’m using it to tutor others about the design process and illustrate the thought and care that goes into the decision making that’s behind the creation of architecture. I’m pulling back the curtain on my process using my YouTube channel to describe the thinking and evolution of ideas. The design process is intimidating to many people. I’m using this simple structure as a chance to demystify and to promote my brand. The response so far has been phenomenal. People are interested in the work we do as architects, this is an opportunity to teach and inspire.
On entrepreneurship and architecture
Entrepreneurship is a relatively new concept to me. My family never owned a business, we were always employees of other businesses. And, business training, at least when I was in architecture school was completely absent. I would’ve laughed at the thought of taking a business class in university. Today, I spend as much time on the business as I do on design.
What I’ve discovered focusing on the business of architecture is that entrepreneurship can promote innovation and creativity. People like Tim Ferriss, Pat Flynn and others inspired me to view design practice through an entrepreneurial lens and the idea that trading time for dollars — the gold standard of architectural practice — doesn’t scale. Entrepreneurship flips that model upside down. Creating products and systems around those products to scale revenue builds both freedom and wealth. And, freedom allows you to pursue work of your choosing; work that matters.
I really believe that entrepreneurship will be a requirement for architects practicing in the future. The model we have for practice isn’t functioning well. Consumers don’t understand the value of architecture, it’s too abstract. Consumers understand products. We can evaluate a book or a Lego set and make an immediate value judgement. Either it’s worth it, or it isn’t. I’m exploring ways to productize the services and the value adds an architect brings. Reframing the value proposition and giving consumers options can help rebuild the architect’s authority in the built world, particularly single family housing. What does your design process look like? What is in your design toolkit?
On 3D modeling software
It’s an iterative, organic, non-linear process but I always begin with a narrative — a story line — the parti guides the decision-making from there. As a whole, the process is collaborative and I involve the client and builder at all stages. There is no black box of design where things disappear to be filtered by me and delivered in a neatly wrapped box to the client. I let the client see the mess of sketches rather than hide them away. This way the client understands that design is fluid, and they can connect the often sizeable invoice at the end of the month with all the products of design including the sketching and thinking.
Technical and budgeting agendas are layered on the idea, but they’re generally not the driving force. I begin by sketching and creating physical models, then computer models. Whatever is useful to the task at hand becomes part of my process. 3D modeling is an essential tool for testing concepts and I use SketchUp to quickly study ideas. I’m old school when it comes to drawing. Simple 2D CAD is the most efficient way for me to communicate the ideas that shape the final building. It would be hard to necessarily recommend that as a strategy in the age of BIM.
On the state of design software today
Design software, for me, is another tool in my toolkit, it’s like a pen. I use it to move the project forward but I’m never anxious to get to the project into the computer because from there it feels inherently less fluid. Design software has always been hindered by the UI. If it gets between the idea and the execution of the idea it’s not a tool, it’s an obstruction. I find much of the higher level modeling and BIM software today to be non-intuitive. When the hassle factor is too high with anything I won’t use it. SketchUp wins in the intuitive department but sorely fails to bring the aesthetic component that would 10x its value. I don’t know, maybe I’m just too old.
On his firm in the next 5–10 years
I’m focused on finding ways to make the design process accessible to more people particularly with respect to residential design. There’s immense opportunity in the home plan market that remains untouched by architects. People who want homes designed by architects but are unsure or unwilling to invest the time and funds it takes to make something completely custom. I think the model for practice can evolve to accommodate these needs without giving up on the custom work we find so rewarding.
From an operations standpoint I’m building out passive income streams with the goal of supporting the business on passive income alone. To do this I’m doubling down on the systems and processes that are working right now and developing the educational outreach of my business by recording more design process videos and writing books. There are so many aspects to practice to explore beyond constructing buildings. In 10 years, who knows?
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
I think the democratization of design with respect to housing will see massive change. Here again, architect’s operate under the naïve notion that we can only service clients with exclusive taste and budgets for custom services. These markets are currently being served by people without design skills but it’s architects that are best positioned to serve the housing needs of many. We need to jettison these antiquated service models and use a product delivery method or productized service model. These models benefit both architects and clients, and in fact far more clients than a sole practitioner — like myself — can currently handle.
On advice he would give himself before starting
Two things: One, that it’s far more risky to stay as an employee working for someone else than it is to forge your own path. Risk is a perception problem. Collecting a paycheck from an employer is risky because they control your entire future — financial and design — not you. Two: I would advise my younger self to start making things sooner. The world is divided between producers and consumers. For too long, I was a consumer. Now I’m a producer, each day I make things. Change in the world is driven by the creators.