Finding the True Essence

David Morris | Calen Johnsons Architects and Builders | MH+D

David Morris of Caleb Johnson Architects and Builders on the responsibility—and challenges—of giving voice to clients’ dreams

When people ask David Morris of Caleb Johnson Architects and Builders what his favorite thing about being an architect is, he has a hard time answering. “There are so many aspects of my profession that keep me inspired,” he says. “But if I had to pin it down to one sentiment, it would be the satisfaction I feel when clients walk into their house and they know they’re home.” This feeling is one that architects are privileged to experience through their clients. The road to this reward, however, is long, and it leads to places both familiar and new, exciting and uncomfortable. Simply stated, it’s hard work. MH+D asked Morris to tell us more.

Q. What is the biggest challenge of being an architect?

A. We’re engaged for our perspective, our ideas, and our opinions. The real challenge, however, is to take this vision that we have and to help give a voice to our clients’ dreams. Most people will never build a house, and for those who do, most will build once and few will build more than that. I am always humbled that our clients entrust us with such an important life venture. I have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how I, as an architect, protect my own architectural principles while giving my clients a place that represents who they are and how they live. What I have found is that I need to listen more than speak, seek the true essence of the project, and always be flexible.

Q. How do you break through barriers with clients to seek that true essence?

A. As architects, we have opinions and we all love to express them, but the real meaning to a project lies in the client’s opinions. So I have to let my clients guide and inform me. While we as professionals talk design all the time, our clients don’t, so we have to learn to decipher what they cannot express. It is often in these unspoken moments that the real meaning is waiting to be discovered. I once had a client show me a picture of a kitchen that appealed to her and I asked, “What do you like about this picture? The cabinets, the countertops, the paint color?” She looked a little puzzled and then responded, “No…I don’t really like any of those things. I just see myself walking into that kitchen and taking an apple out of that basket on the counter.” At that point, it was my turn to be puzzled. How do I translate that into architecture? So together we explored what that meant, and we found that the basket of apples reminded her of her grandmother’s kitchen, which in no way resembled the kitchen in the picture. However, the picture sparked a story, a memory that took us to an unexpected, personal, and special place. It showed me in a profound way that the old adage “home is where the heart is” rings as loudly as any architectural vision I can conjure. Our clients are driven by notions of family and friends, of comfort, of memories, and of the senses. Had I not listened, I would have definitely missed it. Through that process, we found the fundamental goals for the project, and we kept boiling it down until we found the essence. In my opinion, this is what truly roots the home to that particular client. Often this has nothing to do with architectural styles or motifs, but rather more about finding ways to highlight and elevate the everyday moments that our clients will experience. When the above-mentioned client walks into her kitchen and grabs an apple from a basket on her counter, I hope she feels a special connection to that space and a connection to her own personal memories of a different kitchen from a different moment in her life. This essence is the meter by which our decisions should be measured, the metronome that sets the rhythm and beat of the project. In that case, it was a basket of apples, but it could just as easily have been a beautiful view, a piece of furniture, an inspiring painting, or a connection to the land. It’s a constant cyclical process of checking ideas against the essence, keeping those notions that enhance it and discarding those that don’t.

Q. How do you demonstrate flexibility?

A. The art of flexibility is the hardest of the three to exercise. There are a million things that will attempt to distract us. We’re all faced with budgets, building codes, momentary whims, and mood swings; one day I like something and the next, I may not. Accepting that modifications and revisions will likely occur means that you can roll with them, explore them, and arrive at a more focused and more perfected realization.

Q. How do you balance translating your clients’ voice while also putting your own stamp on a project?

A. The architecture gets to be the vessel that expresses all that has been discovered, and our clients are yearning for us to help them create something remarkable. As an architect I get to add my voice to the story, and every story is different. An honest use of materials, a sensitive balance of scale and proportion, and a clear connection to the land are ideas that are ever present in my process. Architects, designers, and clients are all along for the ride, and hopefully it will take us on a great adventure where we’re all better for having been a part of it together. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.