Hi! We are excited to publish today’s interview with Erin Sterling Lewis and Matthew Henning Griffith, of In Situ Studio. Last month, Erin and Matt were invited to speak at our IDEAS Friday Lecture Series. We loved what they had to say and we wanted more, so we asked them for an interview. In Situ’s work is contemporary and sustainable. They prioritize stewardship of water, light, and energy. They are not prone to imitating any particular style; rather, they seek an authentic logic for every project that transcends style. Check out their website to see more great work. And, coincidently, this week marks In Situ’s 3rd anniversary — congrats to them!
Images courtesy of In Situ Studio.
VT: In Situ’s goal is to create a portfolio of projects that stand alone from one another. How do you learn from past projects without allowing them to interfere with new clients, environmental factors and purpose?
IS: “We have really bad memories.” One of the most exciting facets of design is the consideration to the world around us in a pretty detailed way. If you can do that, one of the fun things about new work is the diverse set of parameters each project brings. That can be something as inspiring as the site and an important view or topographic feature, or it can be something as pragmatic as the client’s budget or schedule. If you are open to allowing all of the parameters in a given project to speak into the process, then it is pretty unlikely that you will repeat yourself. If you listen to the needs of the client and site, it is pretty easy to not do the same thing twice. While the work ends up looking different every time, we do not go through a different process for each project. We are not hired for a particular image of the work; we are hired for our process which is unique to the individual client — it’s about listening and collecting information.
VT: In each of your projects you mention being actively involved with the site and the client. How does this relationship contribute not only to a successful design but to a unique structure? How does this contribute to the foundation of your company?
IS: A catalog of house plans to pick and choose from is the opposite of what we do at In Situ. The firm does not let pen touch paper without being on the site. From a business perspective, we do not approach a new client with a pre-formulated agenda. Our firm comes into the project without an agenda, wanting to learn about the client and their needs, visit the land they will build on and respond directly to those parameters. This personal tailored approach does not appeal to everyone. We made a conscience decision to name our firm after an idea rather than people. An idea that is really important to us, one that is in our DNA. In Situ, a Latin phrase for something that is in its natural or original state. We want the things we design to feel like they belong there, have always been there, and will always be there.
VT: Many of your projects are located in an impoverished part of the community. How do you contribute to the growth of a community while adhering to a strict budget? Do these concerns ever hinder your design process?
IS: We have three projects that are in downtown Raleigh; they are in Southeast Raleigh, are historically lower end, and are in up and coming neighborhoods. They do not have robust budgets. However, we are not characterized by this kind of work. We are proud of the fact that we can design at multiple levels. Of course we can design for a client that has an endless budget, anyone can do that. On the contrary, we try to take on and attempt to be successful with projects that are a little less generous with construction costs. With the Chasen Residence, it became really important to bring our design expertise to the table and incorporate what the word “design” means — not just in terms of aesthetics, but in design efficiency. The challenging thing is being able to constructively say no to a client. Our goal is to bring the same energy and commitment to projects of all budgets. You can make really great space and form out of a lot of materials. Something doesn’t have to be completely wrapped in copper to be beautiful (let’s be honest, copper is beautiful). A good form is a good form, a good space is a good space, and good light is good light. If all the budget supports is hardy panel and sheet rock, then it’s your job to make good form and space while bringing in good light. The best compliment we ever got on a project like this was “this is just a really dumb, beautiful box”. The palette of materials is so small, but we did so much with form and light.
VT: In Situ not only takes advantage of every project it receives but also spends time participating in competitions and educational opportunities. How important is continuing your personal design growth and education? Do you feel that professionals lose skills and interest from years of repetitive design work?
IS: None of us in the office just do architecture; some of us teach, and some play music. We all have things that we do outside of the office that are either directly or indirectly related to architecture. We attend different lectures or events that may or may not be directly related to what we are doing in the office. We learn things from these events and bring it back to the office and apply to what we are currently doing. Between everything we do, it’s not possible for us to become stagnant. Things like design competitions and projects with major constraints really challenge your skills as a designer to still imagine something amazing. These challenges are good at keeping us fresh. Some of our proudest projects have had the most financial, physical, and/or time constraints — they really force you out of your comfort zone and require that you figure out how to make things happen. Competitions definitely play that role as well, as you can imagine what things become and remain unfettered by many of the normal, practical constraints which allows you to flex your muscles a little bit.