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BuildChat: Seattle architect Eric Drivdahl of Gelotte Hommas Architecture


Architect Eric Drivdahl

Excellence in design and energy efficiency has long been the M.O. for architects based in the Pacific Northwest. Year after year, the region produces some of the  most innovative homes which feature sustainable materials and generous use of natural elements.

For that very reason, we sent some questions along to Eric Drivdahl, a Seattle-based architect who specializes in custom residential design, historic buildings and religious facilities. Drivdahl is a senior project manager for Gelotte Hommas Architecture.

What’s your favorite design trend right now? 
While the work in our office has historically been very diverse in style, I am seeing a larger trend in both the production and semi-custom markets towards a greater diversity in style. Here in the Pacific Northwest, craftsman style spec homes have been extremely popular. However, that seems to be changing. I’ve seen several projects in the last 24 months locally that have branched out and have included other traditional and contemporary styles such as traditional farm house, Santa Barbara/Mediterranean, English Tudor and other historical reinterpretations as well as what we affectionately refer to here in Seattle as Northwest Contemporary. Consumers are seeking out great design in the things they buy, and I’ve observed this trend is impacting housing as well.

When it comes to green building and sustainability, the Pacific Northwest continues to lead the nation and industry in new ideas and execution. Of course, a temperate climate helps, but for architects who design homes in harsher climates, what aspect of a home provides the greatest opportunity for green? 
It’s true that here in Washington State, we have a temperate climate west of the Cascade Mountains. However, on the East side of our state, the climate is much more extreme. We’ve done several houses in those harsher environments that incorporate best management practices in insulation and building envelop design that meet or exceed our state energy code. In fact, the Washington State Energy Code (WSEC) has been on the cutting edge of energy reduction for new construction and addresses both types of climates we have in the state. The WSEC has trended towards greater and greater insulation requirements to help reduce energy uses in new homes. However, beyond employing more rigorous insulation, I think architects through design can incorporate passive features that have every bit as much impact on energy reduction as the progressive energy code here in Washington State. Some techniques we’ve employed are large overhangs to provide shading in summer while allowing winter sun into the home. Similarly, we’ve worked with site design in a similar manner…locating a home so that deciduous trees offer shading in summer and allow more sun to warm the house in winter. There are many similar design techniques architects can use. In fact, the web has many resources for architects to access to start incorporating design elements to achieve reduced energy uses. Passive House Institute U.S.local net-zero projects, and even mainstream organizations like ENERGY STAR and NAHB Green Building Program.

 The floor plan for modern homes continues to open up each year and designated rooms are going the way of the dinosaur. As an architect, how do you feel about creating more livable homes with multifunctional spaces? Do you miss designated rooms? 
I think designing in flexibility to a home is essential. A home generally far outlasts the initial family it is built for. Some homes live on long beyond the third, fourth or fifth family that occupies the brick and mortar structure. It’s interesting that, historically, designated rooms were really the result of the common person trying to imitate the elite. Drawing rooms, libraries, studies…all were initially developed for the well-to-do aristocracy in Europe. When we started building homes for the middle class in America, we somehow thought adding these rooms would elevate the status of the common man…and perhaps it did in the eyes of the world. Winston Churchill even said, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” However, the reality of the family today is that we rarely have the leisure time to ‘draw away’ to the drawing room for a good long sit or to spend our time studying linguistics in the study.

Modern families live busy lives of activity and generally want the most out of their time. Therefore, it makes sense that the ‘great room’ with the kitchen/living/dining/study all combined has caught on as a most popular design feature. All of these activities can happen at once and there is a sense of togetherness a family can share as well, even if the individual members of the family are engaged in the separate activities of cooking, resting or working on projects from work or school. When budget and space allow, there are still good reasons to have designated spaces to keep either messy or intrusive activities from impinging on a family’s ability to enjoy the shared space. Exercise rooms, laundry rooms, and the like come to mind. However, when designing a new project, architects and builders should view even those spaces with an eye toward flexibility. Could the exercise room function as a guest room? Could the laundry be used as an art studio? While a client may not explicitly ask for this level of future flexibility, the one thing we ought to remember is what we design and build will eventually outlast the initial use for which it was designed.

A section of the Gelotte Hommas website explains the six components of quality design, including beauty, form, light, materials and rhythm. Perhaps this is like picking favorite child, but what do you see as the single most important component? Why?
Truly magnificent design and architecture indeed incorporates all of these components. Can you imagine the Pantheon without its oculus casting radiant light into its perfectly proportioned floor plan? Or Fallingwater without its dramatic cantilevered materials cascading down the slope in delightful rhythm? If a client held a gun to my head and demanded to know which was most important, I suppose my architectural career would necessarily come to a speedy end. “Go ahead and shoot me…I just can’t decide…”