The Edge: A River Runs Through It

July 26, 2013 6 min read

Marica McKeel

Novedge: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do

Marica McKeel: Architect, designer, foodie, entrepreneur. I am the founder of Studio MM, an architecture firm based in New York City and focused on contemporary modern design. Currently I'm working on projects in both NYC and Upstate New York.

Studio MM approaches each design as a unique story, one which begins by identifying and understanding the needs and desires of the client. The working and reworking of those initial ideas, considering the constraints and influences of the surrounding site, and the modifications that each design goes through, are fascinating to me. Design is not a linear process. It is much more than simply putting a drawing on paper. One of the reasons I am most interested in residential architecture is the opportunity to inspire people's most intimate space – their home.

Marica McKeel - CreekHouse2

Photo courtesy of Paul Warchol.

Novedge: Where do you find inspiration?

Marica McKeel: Growing up my grandmother took me to art museums and contemporary art galleries and was a big supporter of emerging local artists. My mother is an engineer and an extremely practical and motivated woman. Both my grandmother and my mother are a great inspiration for me in life and in work.

As far as design goes I find inspiration in creating things, in watching something get built, in building things myself. I compiled this video of the building of the Creek House- our most recently completed project – and I love it. It's exciting to me, still, every time I watch it.

//player.vimeo.com/video/66869190

Creek House Construction from Studio MM on Vimeo.

Similarly, it's inspiring to watch someone interact with something you've created. At the opening for the Creek House it was pretty amazing to see guests drawn to the living room window and the view of the creek below.  

Marica McKeel - CreekHouse OpenHouse

Photo courtesy of Paul Warchol.

Novedge: What is a recent project that you worked on?

Marica McKeel: We recently completed a 2,600 square foot residence, the Creek House, in Kerhonkson, New York, which is about 2 hours north of New York City in the Hudson Valley. Located in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, this weekend retreat is sited at the top of a steep slope overlooking the Mombaccus Creek. The home draws on the privacy of 7 acres of dense woods and undulating terrain to provide a peaceful escape from the intensity of the city. One side of the house is nestled into the hillside while the opposite facade opens up to capture the views of the rushing creek 100 feet below.

Marica McKeel - CreekHouse7

Photo courtesy of Paul Warchol.

The form of the house was determined by the slope of the site and the view of the creek. On approach from the road a single story cedar-clad house is barely visible through the trees. Once inside, the home extends down the hill into the open living area created as a focal point and gathering place for friends and family. Floor to ceiling windows along one edge of the living room draw the visitor toward the view. On the adjacent walls, sliding glass doors open up to an expansive deck and to the woods beyond, nearly doubling the downstairs living space. Essentially the outdoors becomes the living room.

Marica McKeel - CreekHouse3

Photo courtesy of Paul Warchol.

The connection to the land is reinforced not only in the architectural form but also in the environmental footprint. Carving the house into the slope of the hill minimizes the impact of the mass of the house on the site and reduces energy loads through passive geothermal heating and cooling. The house is heated with radiant floor loops which supplement the heat gained from the earth as well as from the large southern facing windows. In addition there is no mechanical cooling. The organization of the plan and the placement of the operable windows facilitate passive ventilation that draws cool air through the house. The flexible spatial qualities of the house and the emphasis on the natural surroundings make this a perfect place to forget about the stress of urban life.

Marica McKeel - CreekHouse1

Photo courtesy of Paul Warchol.

Novedge: You also design furniture. What is your approach to furniture design?

Marica McKeel: My approach to furniture design began as an experimental study in materials and form. I was very lucky in that the architecture firm I worked for after undergrad also had a furniture shop which they encouraged us to use. The first major furniture project I built was a cantilevered desk- the Planche Table – made of laminated birch plywood, concrete and steel with custom stainless steel connections to secure the glass top. The whole concept for the table was to explore the structural integrity of the materials and challenge the limits of balance.

Marica McKeel - NINE table_grid light

Photo by George Cott

Designing and building furniture allows a means of playing with geometry and form and materials and connections- a way of thinking beyond the use of a space, and studying how one tangibly engages a space.

Marica McKeel - Planche Table1

Specific needs, as well as the continued desire for experimentation, resulted in the creation of the NINE Dining Table and the coordinating Grid Chandelier. Form is driven by mathematics and material properties. The total dimensions of the massive base for the table are 18” x 18” x 27” and the horizontal plane of light of the chandelier above reflects the implied rectangle from separating the square. The negative space created by the individual flowing strands of light form a perpendicular vertical grid of 6 x 3.

Marica McKeel - Planche Table2

Novedge: What software do you use?

Marica McKeel: I use AutoCAD 2014 for my 2D drawing and typically SketchUp 2013 for all 3D modeling. I used to render 3D in AutoCAD but I find that SketchUp allows me to create a rendered sketch model much more quickly. AutoCAD renderings can be amazing but there are far too many steps involved to get to that point… I like to work in 3D along with 2D when I'm designing so faster is better. I also "render" final presentation images in Adobe Photoshop and lay out projects, both documents and graphics, in InDesign.

Marica McKeel - SketchUp2

Marica McKeel - SketchUp1

Novedge: As a small studio, what has been most important in developing and growing a successful practice?

Marica McKeel: As a small studio it's essential to create my own motivation a lot of the time. I try to surround myself with creative people as much as I can – my best friend is a textile designer in LA and we are constantly back and forth with ideas and inspiration. And as far as day to day I rely most on the "water cooler" chat and encouragement of my twitter-mates. I've found that social media is not only a critical way to get my name and my work out to the world, but it also provides the opportunity for exposure to a much broader architecture and design network. As the world of design is constantly innovating, twitter and Google+ have been limitless resources for developing my practice.

An architect's website is an important tool for presenting one's firm to a potential client. My website, www.maricamckeel.com, should not only highlight my style and success as an architect, but also provide insight into the process through which I design and my approach to architecture. Social media is extremely helpful for making connections and marketing for a small firm, but ultimately my work must speak for itself.

The success of my projects, which of course directly relates to the success of my firm, depends largely on collaboration. Most important is working closely with the client throughout the entire design and construction process. But almost as significant, especially for a small firm, is establishing a collaborative approach with the engineers and builders, utilizing all of their experiences and knowledge, in order to create the best design and most cost effective solution for the client. I attribute much of the success of the Creek House project to the fact that Studio MM established a close working relationship with Hank Starr, our contractor, from early-on in the design process. I met with Hank and many of his subcontractors to discuss materials and methods of building prior to finalizing the design. This not only contributed to a large reduction in cost , allowing the project to move forward within the client's budget, but also allowed the concept of the design and the client's wishes to remain in the forefront.

Marica McKeel - CreekHouse8

Photo courtesy of Paul Warchol.

Novedge: Do you have any advice for people who are looking to hiring an architect for the first time?

Marica McKeel: As a friend of mine, Enoch Sears from Business of Architecture, says regarding hiring an architect, "It's like dating." A client should "get to know" architects through various means before selecting one to work with. Of course word of mouth is a great way to find architects, but as the relationship between architect and client is the most important part of the design process, the client should focus on finding an architect that they can trust.

For me, this is another way social media plays a critical role in growing a successful practice. My presence within the architectural communities on Google+ or Twitter or Facebook or Pinterest, as well as my website, should reflect a sense of who I am as an architect, more than merely looking at photos of my previous projects.

 

Intrigued? See more of Marica's work on her website and don't forget to tweet us your ideas for future interviews!

Related articles

How to Succeed in Architecture: Master the Art of Presentation
The Edge: Mark R. LePage and the Psychology of Success
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