Navigating Change

Architect Julia Tate on stability in architecture

As inherently social beings, people are programmed to seek out and form an underlying support network to help navigate difficult situations,” says Julia Tate of Scott Simons Architects. “As architects we often are in the unique position of working with people or organizations who are, voluntarily or not, diving into a naturally disruptive undertaking in choosing to build. I have gone through some significant transitions over the past four years, including moving to Maine, and I find myself increasingly thinking about the importance of stability in both daily life and in the context of our broader communities.” MH+D asks Tate to tell us more.

Q. How do you approach the design process with your clients?

A. Changes in our built environment are often exciting and long-awaited improvements. The process itself is inevitably a mixture of stress, anxiety, and anticipation. In these instances, an architect’s collective experience helps guide clients through the balancing act of weighing wishes and expectations against the challenging realities of budget and schedule. Some clients, while eager for the end result, find the process of change difficult and need help imagining how they will adapt to new surroundings, or how current habits might change in response to their future space. Approaching these roles with thoughtfulness, sensitivity, consistency, and sometimes tough love is as critical to our success as our design abilities.

Q. Can you explain how architects can bring stability to projects?
A. Beyond the process itself, our hope is that the transformations we help realize, whether small or large in scale, for public or private use, share a common goal of making the experience better by providing security. Think of something as essential as signage and benches to help people navigate a public plaza, or even just feel welcome there. Picture a family looking for a home to grow into that will continue to meet their needs as they age. Or, on a larger scale, envision community members coming together to realize a public service such as a library, school, church, or shelter. Despite their programmatic differences, or how construction types may differ, each project requires the architect to consider context, how people will experience it, and at what time of their day or life. The solutions offered need to be reliable—our buildings must be beautiful but at the same time dependable and able to weather a myriad of conditions in their lifespan. Regardless of what climate change or political influence may bring, these constructions should bring comfort and enjoyment to those who inhabit them, and long-term benefits should outweigh any immediate upsets.

Q. Can you give an example of a recent project dealing with transition?
A. Recently I have had the privilege of working with a client who has an inspirational concept that addresses a particularly difficult kind of transition. With the support of a local cancer treatment community and input from a strong network of cancer survivors and their families, the Christine B. Foundation is working to develop a campus that would provide short-term housing and community support services to patients undergoing cancer treatment. They have identified a critical and underserved need of patients and their families to be able to stay near treatment facilities that sometimes take them hours away from the comfort of their own homes. Given that treatment durations can range from a few days to many months, their primary goal is to provide accommodations that empower patients and their families with choice, allowing them to live on their own terms during a difficult time, for as long as they might need to.

Q. How does your design bring stability?
A. Individual units within the campus, each with two possible sleeping areas and equipped with their own bathroom, kitchen facilities, and semi-private outdoor space, offer patients a sense of warmth and privacy while being in close proximity to a community center providing further support programming. In addition to feeling homelike, these units must fundamentally be hardworking, finished with resilient and durable materials to provide the healthiest possible environment. They must also have the flexibility to comfortably host a diverse range of patient needs and family dynamics. While the details are essential to individual comfort, this project has the potential to impact the industry of healthcare and improve the treatment experience.