Interview with an Expert: Designing a Home with Intention

Architect Bill Hutchins of Helicon Works Architects

Architect Bill Hutchins has been designing homes and renovations for three decades in locales as far-reaching as California, North Carolina, Baja Mexico and Nepal. His innovative firm, Helicon Works Architects, functions as a collaborative—a unique group of architects and natural builders, as well as a project manager, lighting designer, wood artisan, metal craftsman, renewable energy systems building scientist, interior designer, and a landscape designer. All can be called upon during different phases of the design process to ensure that the client gets the home or renovation they want.

Hutchins and his colleagues are committed to ecologically responsive design so that, whenever possible, the house and land can be “woven together into a coherent whole.” Helicon Works Architects seeks to “create homes where you can live intentionally and consciously with nature and those that surround you.”

Sitting in the spacious and airy living room of the home Bill and his wife renovated for themselves in Takoma Park, Maryland, I asked Bill to describe how he helps people create a living space that is ideal for them.

Hutchins home w/straw bale addition

Where do you begin when someone comes to you and says they’re thinking of building a house or undertaking a renovation?

I offer a variety of ways for them to tell me who they are and to explore what they want from the design process. Though I’m the architect, I never forget that it’s their home. I don’t impose my own ideas or preferences on them. Instead, I foster a process that enables the home to come out of the people themselves, as well as the place where they live.

What’s the actual first thing you ask your clients to do in the design process?

The first thing I do is give them homework, and ask 6 or 7 or 8 questions. I stress it is their process, that they should do with their home what they want to do. The questions explore both the pragmatic and psychological aspects of their vision for their home. On the practical side, I’ll ask, “What kind of rooms do you want? What do you want to do in the rooms? “ On the flip side, I’ll ask, “What do you want the feeling to be? What do you want that room to put you in a relationship with?”

I often ask them to write a narrative about how they want to live. Language is inherently spatial, so I ask them to write the story of how they currently live and how they want to live. Often, many of the people I work with feel kind of stuck in their life and need some transformation. They realize that working on their home can do that. Sometimes their home will create the stage for the rest of their life! It’s an intimate process to explore all the possibilities for what their home could look like, and to help them achieve exactly what will be necessary for their dream home.

Once someone decides to work with you, how do you proceed?

My Letter of Agreement is 90% about processes and services. In addition to design, we can do stormwater management, energy consulting, lighting design, structural engineering, the works. We can also bring in steel fabricators, craftsmen, carpenters, and even a feng shui consultant. It’s up to our clients where they go with everything we offer.

What happens when the budget just doesn’t match the dreams?

Some people will say, “My heart’s green, but my budget’s not.” And that’s when I explain that it’s about building maybe smaller and more efficiently, but they can still get a home they’ll love.

Hutchins home interior w/use of natural light

Do you incorporate recycled and reused materials into your designs?

Everyone comes to me because we’re incredibly passionate about that. In fact, I used straw bales on my own home renovation. I love how “alive” it feels. And there are plenty of practical reasons to use it. It’s a great way to use a waste product. It’s an efficient insulator. And it’s fun to build with—putting it in is a lot like a barn raising!

Are you using LEDs in your lighting designs?

You can retrofit almost anything with LEDs these days. But there’s always a question of light quality versus light quantity. Quantity is the energy efficient part. Quality is what the nature of the light actually is. In some places, we might use low voltage halogens that give off sparkling clear quality of light. Otherwise, we use LEDs and energy efficient lights wherever we can.

Any last words?

I like to use a “sailboat” metaphor when I talk to people about homes. In our society, we live in buildings like powerboats. We jump in and flip on switches and try to get from A to B as quickly as possible. But a sailboat puts us into contact with the elements as we move along the path. It lets us engage with our home as a live building, and helps us form a relationship with the world we want to live in through our home. That makes a lot more sense to me.

This guest post was provided by Bill Hutchins of Helicon Works Architects.

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