Colorado Expressions Magazine Article
Think of Frank Lloyd Wright, with his flowing cloak and haughty pronouncements about the high calling of architecture: the very image of the architect as creative master of the universe. And now meet three savvy Colorado practitioners whose homely operating motto is just the opposite: "It's really about the client, and not about us as egomaniacal architects."
So says Jeffrey Terrell, one of the three principals at Robertson Miller Terrell Architects located in Avon, smack in the middle of the trophy-home belt sweeping from Vail to Beaver Creek. With a combined total of approximately 30 years of architectural wisdom spanning three continents, Harvey Robertson, Paul Miller, and Jeff Terrell a few years ago found themselves working side by side at Zehren and Associates, a major Vail Valley Firm.
Discovering they shared a similar put-the-client-first attitude, the three decided in 1996 to join forces. "Though as individuals we all possess very different stylistic and creative approaches to problem-solving," says Robertson, "we all share the understanding that the architect's role is to facilitate the client's dreams."
The three are convinced that their profession has suffered from losing some of that client-service focus, and they mean to remedy that lack. By working closely with the client and fine-tuning their approach to the client's needs, the architects try to come up with designs that become a stone-and-mortar echo of the client's thoughts. This is particularly important in their residential designs, where a somewhat modest vacation home in the Rockies can start at well over $1 million, quickly going stratospheric from there. The architects have found that, given the extraordinary international backgrounds of many who come to Vail seeking a spectacular retreat, there's no telling where the Pied Piper of a client's personal expression will lead.
One such recent project was an unique vacation home built on a mountaintop at The Ranch at Cordillera, west of Vail. The family lives in Hong Kong where the owner, who was educated London, has his business. Transforming the personal into the practical for this multi-national client became a rewarding design challenge for partner Paul Miller.
"The owner wanted to integrate his Islamic tradition, somewhat akin to feng shui, into this very Western log house, yet he was sort of embarrassed at first about wanting to impart his philosophy. We had to encourage him that he could express his beliefs, and once he started to open up, the house transformed dramatically."
For example, the bedrooms had to be oriented to embrace the gorgeous mountain views while making sure the space was arranged so that never would the foot of any bed be pointed toward a door. The reason: in Islamic practice, the dead are carried feet first directly out the door from their beds, and so it was essential to avoid this association. Even the placement of the toilets took special care- they could face any direction except East, towards Mecca.
The architects often form a lasting personal relationship with their clients, a natural outgrowth of spending months and even years bent over sketches and then plans, together shaping the skin of a home to fit the client's lifestyle. They find these friendships bring a rich dimension to their work. Harvey Robertson is currently working on a vacation home in Bachelor Gulch for an owner who lives in France. "I've really felt rewarded by this interaction with the client, and being able to provide him and his family and friends a home that allows them to come from all over the world to enjoy one another's company," he says. "He's a delightful person, and our friendship will extend far beyond the creation of this vacation home."
The architects agree that one of the great strengths of their partnership is the diversity their individual backgrounds bring to their projects. While the majority of their current buildings are exclusive residential designs, their experience also extends to commercial and institutional projects of international scope. Robertson's past work includes a leading role in small commercial projects, as well as large urban development in the South Pacific for a prominent Auckland, New Zealand, design firm. One of his most fulfilling undertakings was the convention center and hotel for the City of London, Ontario. The project, hugely important to the city's image and future prosperity, took nearly 10 years to complete. Recalls Robertson: "I got a lot of pleasure, especially from the people I worked with and seeing what it meant to them, to be able to help provide them with a public facility that meant so much to them."
Paul Miller has worded on commercial and residential projects in California and Arizona, as well as being part of an award-winning team designing urban housing for a firm in Kent, England.
One of Jeffrey Terrell's favorite design adventures was working on the Disney Institute in Orlando, a kind of new vacation concept wherein guests take music classes, make pottery, learn computers, or pursue other interests. Terrell says it was fascinating project because each of the "town" buildings expressed a different chunk of the history of American architecture; one was New England colonial style, another Romanesque, another a Chautauqua tent-like design. Also memorable was his work several years ago on the new $40 million library at Kansas State University that doubled the size of the original 1927 building, and, he wryly notes, "made it possible for students to actually find books."
The year he lived in Kansas working on the job reinforced his belief that architecture is primarily about communication, not piling bricks on top of teach other . "If you do the job right," he says, "you're a very inspirational conductor of a team of people. Communicating with those people is what makes it go well...listening to everybody from the university president to a student sorting books, and figuring out what was wrong so we could make it right. That's what gives people a sense of ownership, and in the process, self-worth."
This collaborative style is also the style they prefer when brainstorming design solutions in the office. Although each project has one partner in charge, the three like to use each other as creative foils, They find that by bouncing ideas off one another, they can stimulate discussion and spur each other to creatively defend his unique point of view.
Says Robertson, "We think we can produce better design, better product, and better service for the client due to the fact that it's not one person cranking out the same thing time after time."
Robertson Miller Terrell has come a ways since the memorable night the partners-to-be sat over beers and steaks at Cassidy's in Avon and excitedly decided to seek their fortune as a team. That was just over three years ago, yet the firm is already attracting notice around the country. Their reputation is likely to expand following the television special that aired last November on the Home and Garden TV Network. Showcasing the traditional American log home, the hour-long program featured the first home built in Bachelor Gulch, an RMT commission.
The partners now have several out-of-state projects in the works, including a large destination resort in Georgia that will involve starting with a blank canvas and creating a new community, literally from a raw piece of earth.
"Vision creation" the architects call it, relishing this new challenge for the firm. They look forward to a future full of a broad range of clients and compelling projects. "It helps to keep our minds open, and that's what keeps the profession fresh for us," says Terrell.