What is your first step in beginning a major project?
As a first step, I always spend some time at the property studying the surroundings and getting a sense of how the sun moves across the site. Light and views are so important to good design and they need to be considered before I begin my first sketch.
By many, you are considered to be one of the finest architects on the East Coast. Why do YOU think that is?
Thank you, that’s a tremendous compliment. It’s likely a combination of opportunity and creativity. I’ve had great luck in getting to work on so many beautiful properties. The key is to make the most of them by drawing inspiration from each location and client. I also work very hard to keep my work fresh and varied. Continuously learning and exploring new ideas makes for better and more relevant designs.
Do you prefer working from scratch on a new house or working on existing homes?
I quite enjoy both, and although they differ greatly, there is also much in common. With alterations, the challenge is to use as much of the existing as you can while creating spaces that live in a contemporary way. Assuming the original home is nice, I like my additions to appear as cohesive with the building as possible. For new homes, it’s great working with clients to learn their vision for their new home. We talk about how they live, what they like, and collect lots and lots of images. Once the client and I agree what we’re after, I love to make it happen for them.
Is there a particular project that stood out as a challenge that in hindsight significantly educated you?
There are lots of them; there’s no such thing as an easy custom home design. Every client is different and every property I work on is unique. If it seemed easy then I clearly wasn’t pushing myself. Architectural design is a continuous education process.
What is your biggest pet peeve in architecture?
As you can imagine, I look at buildings continuously. I just find it disappointing when I see an unfortunate design for which the client clearly spent a great deal of money.
Since you started out in your career what changes in technology or technique has made work easier for you?
As with all work, almost everything is different. Drafting is done quickly on computers, not paper and pencil. Prints roll perfectly out of plotters instead of smelly blueprint machines. Email correspondence replaced transmittals and faxes. 3-D modeling, etc. All of it makes my job easier. The one constant for me is hand sketching on trace paper; I don’t think there’s a better way to explore ideas quickly while keeping things fluid.
What is your favorite building in Fairfield County that you did not design?
I really love the Belle Haven mansion known as Fairholme. Built in 1891, the home features really bold forms and is so rich with architectural detail that I keep noticing new things about it. Its rooms all have interesting shapes, good light, and feature amazing craftsmanship.
Douglas Vanderhorn, Founder of Douglas Vanderhorn Architects