My Annual Design Roundup

Trade Secrets by Louis Postel in New England Home, March 2016

Louis Postel, Contributing Editor of New England Home
Louis Postel, Contributing Editor of New England Home
It has been the best of times and the worst of times for design, architecture and building in New England and the world. 


  • Last December in Shenzhen, a landslide of construction debris and dirt buries the inhabitants alive. One poor guy – a migrant worker – gets pulled out after surviving 67 hours. His foot got trapped as he fled, landing him in the air pocket that saved him.
  • In the US, 50% of all waste continues to come from construction debris.
  • New precision building technologies exist to reduce waste and construction time, but few use them.
  • The dream of the detached family home with good schools has collided with nightmarish commuter traffic on Route 128 and other thoroughfares.
  • com predicts that Boston will be the No. 1 choice for empty-nesters in 2016.
  • 1500 hundred square feet in the city is pretty appealing for the traffic-weary, but what about a granny flat, a studio, a workshop, a garden?
  • Are there any real choices left other than your basic box with a style pasted on – Shingle, Colonial, Tuscan – take your pick.

susan israel
Architect Susan Israel of the Energy Necklace project

Given all these contradictions and pressures brought on by age, climate change, technology and economics, how does one even begin to make a difference in one’s own life and the life of others?

One step at a time, says architect Susan Israel of Boston whose Energy Necklace Project addresses the perils of climate change. “I try to encourage people to take incremental actions that lead to large changes when everyone does them. And so much of that change begins at home.

“That change is not an all or nothing proposition. It’s just a myth that is just too big and that what you do doesn’t matter. Getting someone started is the hardest part, but once we have someone’s emotional commitment, they will start making more changes on their own. For example, in 2012 alone the US saved $675 million dollars installing 49 million LEDs.

Maybe you’ve seen fish icons stuck to the sides of buildings around town. That’s Israel’s Rising Waters initiative, showing how sea levels and storm waters are projected to rise over time. “Using the buildings as a measuring tool gave people an idea of context and scale they could relate to,” said Israel, who recalls homeowners in Provincetown dropping a dime on her, because they were afraid her fish icons would adversely affect property values.

Israel is the daughter of two well-known innovators, Charlotte and David Israel, who gave us Trouvailles, Inc, a furniture reproduction business that existed between 1955 and 2002. Trouvailles specialized in French provincial, supplying many of New England’s designers and architects along with the Sultan of Brunei, and the Four Seasons hotels. “Dad based his first designs on photos of dressers he’d taken while fighting in WW2. His style was exuberant and fun and Mom’s was chic – that’s what made the company and the parties she threw so much fun.”

John Kilfoyle
John Kilfoyle

We all know those networking parties where like it or not one feels an inner compulsion to shake as many hands as possible. Why else be there? How else to make the good times roll? Typical dialogue: “How’s it going? Answer: We’re flat out, how about you? Response: Crazy!

“We wanted create a setting that was more meaningful,” says John Kilfoyle of United Marble Fabricators in Watertown who teamed up with  Paul Reidt and Linda Kochman of KR + H Cabinetmakers to develop the B/A/D Talks for Builders, Architects and Designers, moderated by New England Home’s Kyle Hoepner.

“In trade groups there’s often someone trying to sell something, or getting a plug. B/A/D is more along the lines of the TED Talks model, without any commercial considerations. We view these B/A/D talks as becoming more of a necessity than a luxury, because different disciplines need to collaborate more than ever before, a fully-defined team needs to be there at the start of a project, not assembled at the last minute. That way if something isn’t right they at least have to ability to speak up.

72 people showed up at the BDC for B/A/D’s latest meeting, even after a long day: War Stories: Could We Have Handled Things Better? The panelists were architect Doreve Nicholaeff, designer Liz Caan, builder Kevin Lagasse, and landscape designer Greg Lombardi. The next B/A/D comes to the BDC, January 27th. Videos of past talks can be seen for free at

While this may not rise to the level of a War Story, designer Sandra Lannan’s experience with a kitchen remodel exemplifies why we call this “the best of times and the worst of times in design.”

Sandra Lannan

“I was meeting with my clients for the first time,” recalls Lannan. “Before I know it the laptop came out and I found myself listening to a presentation on “what we are going to do”.  They were was so excited and passionate, all I could do was listen and absorb as much as possible.  The problem was that the direction the wife wanted to go with did not take into account the existing home. Her images were of some very contemporary west coast homes; however we were sitting in a colonial built in the late 50’s…… two very different esthetics.

“When the presentation was over I commented on how prepared she was and then proceeded to address each image and explain what could or could not work in her home.  It was a very laborious exercise and when it was over I could tell the wife was deflated.  In the end she and her husband decided to hold off on the project and focus on finding a different home.  Reflecting on this experience, I wondered if  the horse had stayed in front of the cart and the contemporary west coast esthetic had not entered (and ended) the design process, the couple would have ultimately found happiness in the colonial.

“In any case, I’m finding that clients sourcing over the Net can do as much to disrupt the design process as further it. With the increasing popularity of websites like Houzz, residential clients are taking a more hands on approach to establishing the design direction. Traditionally, an introductory design meeting was an opportunity to get to know your client and discuss their project goals.

“We would take notes then prepare appropriate conceptual design imagery for the subsequent meeting. These days, clients have their laptop or iPad at the initial meeting prepared to share images from Pinterest or similar sites to communicate their esthetic goals.

“The client is now looking for approval of their design direction without the opportunity and benefit of design dialog and development. We have always been in favor of an informed client, however, with so many options at her fingertips, the design process can be more like trying to handle ‘the kid in a candy store’ let loose.

“The designer’s new role is to untangle all this internet imagery and make sense of it. That said, there are admittedly times when a client’s research does serve to educate us to new finds and specific materials and solutions for the project.  For example, we were working on a kitchen renovation in Cambridge lately. Through Houzz the home owner had found a beautiful slab material for the countertop and island we were unfamiliar with.  We researched it together, located it locally, and ended up using it on the project.

marylou fraser

Designer Mary Lou Fraser of Wellesley welcomes the ubiquitous use of laptops and smartphones in the home for another reason. Once neglected spaces are finding themselves appreciated once more. Families have learned to migrate from one room to the next without being tethered to once favored spots – like in front of the TV, or at the kitchen table.

“I just completed a formal living room for a lovely family in Shrewsbury MA,” recalls Fraser about this in-home migration caused by technology. “Their main concern was that the room while formal be useful, comfortable and inviting. The old living room was dark and in need of adequate lighting. The sky blue painted walls that the homeowners could not wait to get rid of, gave a dreary feel to this space with its northern exposure. The furniture handed down from relatives was stiff, uncomfortable and not at all inviting. Window treatments on 5 windows worked to cover up any outside light. The question these clients faced for several years is “why invest in a space that is only there to look pretty?”

Now the husband and wife, with lap top and coffee in hand, enjoy comfy and stylish lounge chairs on days when they work from home. It is a space where the children do homework or even watch a movie with no more than the iPads on their laps.

I received a thank you note from the wife a week later she said “Thank you so much we love our new living room! And by the way, my husband literally has not left the space since you completed it!”

With all this roaming around in real and cyberspace, do floor plans themselves require a reappraisal? With wanting granny close by do we need to build with additions in mind? With sea levels rising does it make sense to try to deter clients seek higher ground for their dream home, and if so how much should one insist? Are we truly entertaining other healthier, more efficient and humane building options, ones  that don’t go on producing 50% of the waste in US landfills, or will the Shenzhen landslide happen here, at least metaphorically?

If we are committed as designers, architects, builders to “giving clients what they want” and that happens to be west coast bungalow shoe-horned into a New England colonial are we to push back? Do we have other “clients” to think of – our professional pride for one?

Surely, pressing topics such as professional pride, construction best practices, climate consciousness, the coming waves of urban migration, are ripe for some B/A/D discussions serious soul-searching afterwards. Meanwhile, let us welcome these best and worst of times with all the energy, talent, and humanity we can muster.

Shenzhen aftermath in The New York Times