Welcome to our first ever "
Spotlight On..." interview.  Today we have the pleasure of presenting an interview we had with Ken Martin, an architect from Berkeley. 

Lori met Ken about 15 years ago when she moved to her home in the Elmwood District of Berkeley.  He was working on several home renovations on her street at the time, including his own.  Lori describes Ken as thoughtful, generous, and witty, with a very dry sense of humor.  Above all, she said, he is very down to earth and accessible.  They have worked on several projects together over the past 15 years and he is very much in demand for his tremendous sense of style and creativity.

When not working, you may see him biking the East Bay Hills or in the Presidio in San Francisco with his faithful companion Raphael, a giant German Shorthair Pointer.

Lori:  Ken, tell us the basics: How long have you been an architect?  How did you get started?

Ken:    It was when I was in college, back in 1982. 

Janelle Renée:  What did you major in?

Ken:    Environmental design.  I worked while in school at UCLA.  After I graduated I lived and worked all around the world: Nicaragua, Barcelona, Boston... I came back to the Bay Area and lived and worked in Berkeley from '88 to '92.  Then, I got laid off.  I started volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, but discovered that unpaid work is endless.  I did this for three years and I was starving!  I realized that what I really wanted to do was to work for myself.

Lori:  And how did you make that happen?

Ken:      Well, I bought a house!  It’s not too far from here actually.   One of the first things I started on was the garden.  One day a garden contractor drove by and asked me if I would be interested in doing landscape design.  He presented me to his client as a landscape designer, and from there the work kept coming in.  Those projects were great, because you get in and are done in a month's time.

The next house I bought, in this neighborhood, started bringing in the architecture work.  Neighbors liked the renovations I was doing to my house; before I knew it I was doing 4 other houses just in this neighborhood.  From there, my work took off by word of mouth.

Janelle:  What has been your most favorite project?

Ken:    Hm...

Janelle: Or most memorable [project]?

Ken:      I had a client who was a neurosurgeon.  He was a brainiac, a very cerebral man, and he took it upon himself to write a program, using logarithms, to come up with the parameters for the design of his home.  In the end, he handed me a bunch of 8 x 11 sheets of paper taped together and told me to finish it up.  The scale was completely off.  He had rooms that were strange proportions, like 5 x 80 feet!  I told him, "These would make good hallways, not rooms."  His response?  "Now I have to rewrite my program!"  That project was memorable.

I really love one of my current projects.  It's a 1880s cottage, a historical landmark building, in San Francisco.  It’s what you would expect a historical landmark building to look like, down to the copper gutters and brackets, at least on the outside.  Open the doors, however, and it is completely modern--concrete floors, glass walls, open plan.  If I had my druthers, it would be the sort of home I would have--clean, open, full of light.

Lori:  Do you think people "evolve" to that design aesthetic?

Ken:     It's hard to say if it is just a matter of preference or if it is what's in fashion now.  Lifestyles are less formal now.  90% of the time, even in Piedmont, people are wanting that loft-like feel extended throughout the house.  The most common remodel is opening up the kitchen and dining room, to create one continuous space there.  Perhaps people are "de-cave-ifying."  That would qualify as an evolution.

Lori:    What are your favorite style of homes?

Ken:     I love homes built in the 10s and 20s, like the Spanish style and also Craftsman bungalows.  There is more work involved in the ascetic details, but a good architect updating these homes will make it look like nothing was ever done to the home.

As strange as this might sound, I also enjoy doing ranch houses—the plain, not tarted-up ones.   They are relatively easy and a lot of fun to work with; you can pull them in any which direction. I like helping them achieve their full potential. 

Janelle:  What advice would you give people to help them decide whether or not they should
hire a particular architect?

Ken:     They need to ask for references and talk to people who have worked with that architect.  It is a big undertaking, but it is worthwhile.  Check references and look at the previous work done.  It's a relationship they are entering into with the architect.  That architect will be in their life for a couple of years and longer.  The architect is the first person people call when there's a problem--the biggest one being, by the way, double pane windows fogging up.

Lori:     Yes, talking to references is very important.  People just don’t do it, even though they should.

Ken:    I think people go with their gut, and that’s important too. 

Janelle:  What's one thing you wish clients instinctively knew at the onset of a project?

Ken:     That the project will always cost more and take longer than expected.  It’s difficult to appreciate how much time it takes to pick out appliances. 

Also, for couples, projects can put a huge strain on the relationship.  I think people should test their relationship on soap dishes first.  If they aren’t able to pick out a soap dish together as a couple without drama, then their relationship probably won’t survive the demands of a home renovation which is a huge investment of time and money.  Probably more importantly, our homes reflect our personas, priorities, tastes, values, and image.  If within a couple there are conflicting ideas and feelings about these, it is a recipe for disaster.

Janelle:    Soap dish test… I like that!  It’s probably a good test to do before actually getting married.

Ken:    Probably the worst thing people can do is enter into a home renovation project with ambivalence.  Before calling an architect, most people debate about whether or not to buy a new home or remodel the one they have.  It’s very frustrating to work with somebody who goes into this process without certainty that they have made the right choice.

I went on a bike ride through the Presidio saw an art installation on wildlife not too long ago.  There were these huge san serif, stainless steel, hollowed-out letters in the forest with red robins perched upon them.  There was straw in each letter, to resemble a nest.  One set read, “Build your nest from the inside out.” How true! It’s important to work out your shit before entering into a commitment to remodel your home. 

However, I did have one couple who were literally trapped in the wrong nest.  Their home was ugly and disorganized.  After the renovation they themselves seemed transformed; from the outside it seemed that the remodel had major positive impact on them and their life.  But, I think their old environment was oppressive because it didn’t reflect who they were on the inside. They recognized that they needed an architect and it transformed how they lived.

Good architecture looks easy.  Some people believe that they need an architect for the technical stuff or for the acquisition of permits.  There is a lot of synthesis with different forces and the best jobs keep this invisible.

Janelle:     Can you give us an example?

Ken:     For example, ducts. Ducts run through the walls and into each room; you have to locate the best position for them while maintaining structural integrity.

A lot of preliminary work happens before one even starts the drawings.  There’s tedious planning, coordinating of different parts, city rules you have to know, etc.; very few projects are easy.

I did have one couple as clients who made one project particularly enjoyable.  They got along with everybody, had little reaction to the costs, and they loved everybody who was a part of the job.  They really got into the project and relished it.  My work was easier working with them because things seemed to flow.

There was another set of letters at that art installation in the Presidio, in addition to the “build your nest from the inside out” one.  It read, “Resolve conflict through song”. 

Lori:  Don’t stay trapped in the wrong nest (hire Ken!), build your nest from the inside out,
and resolve conflict through song.  Those are lovely and sage words to conclude our interview.  Thank you, Ken, for meeting with us.

Janelle:  Ken, it was wonderful meeting you and what a wonderful way to start our
Spotlight On…” feature.  Thank you!

*Ken Martin can be contacted at 415-971-2613