Novedge: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do
Tiffany Redding: I’m Tiffany Redding and my business partner is Brandon Marshall. We’re friends who met several years ago while working at a large-ish architecture firm in San Francisco. In 2012 we decided to take the risk and reward into our own hands and start our own practice. After much debate and research we decided to call ourselves FOG Studio. We work and live in the Bay Area and fog plays a recurring role in our experience of this place – and fog makes a nifty metaphor for the design process itself, which begins in a haze of possibilities and unknown setbacks, and eventually lifts to reveal something beautiful and clear beneath. And – this might seem a little corny, but we mean it – the acronym FOG stands for “For Our Good”, meaning the good of our community as well as our immediate families. We’ve built in a commitment to pro bono and volunteer work in hopes that we never get bogged down and forget what’s really important – like our friendship.
Brandon Marshall: We bring a significantly diverse project experience to such a small firm and we hope that gives us an edge. We were extremely fortunate to gain a lot of public experience, both academic and municipal through our careers. From libraries and classrooms to police stations and affordable housing we’ve accrued a nice diversity and worked with a lot of different public entities.
We’ve also worked with private clients on offices, labs, and master planning efforts. All this experience has made us confident when approaching large or small projects and it’s given us some flexibility in deciding what projects to focus on. What really makes us tick are projects that are community-based. It’s usually hard to find an architect that doesn’t cringe when the words “community” and “presentation” are said together but we want to change that. We see so much potential in engaging the people that come out and care so much. Our goal is always to create things that are lasting and truly engaging and we hope to do that by listening.
Novedge: How do you divide the work between the two of you?
Brandon Marshall: We are both very versatile when it comes to the work we do. We are both designers but we very much think of ourselves as problem solvers. Tiffany’s expertise is in sustainable design, presentation, project management and design execution. I bring experience to the design process through research and idea generation, BIM modelling, integration of technology and presentation. Tiffany fronts our business development efforts and depending on the project, one of us will take the lead as project manager. We pride ourselves in being very nimble in that we are able to adapt to different project schedules and deliverables and harness our diverse experience. One of our biggest sells to our clients (other than our enthusiasm) is that we are the design team. We don’t pass off work as usually is necessary in larger firm structures – we are designing, drawing, managing and executing our projects. For smaller scale public projects this has worked quite well so far.Novedge: How do you collaborate with clients during the design process?
Brandon Marshall: This always depends on the client but typically we make every effort to engage the client early and often. Our design process typically involves using multiple mediums to convey ideas including built imagery, physical models, data analysis, and computer and hand sketches. As Tiffany puts it, we are friendly modernists. We make every effort to not be tied to any style but rather let the client, the locale, the climate and other factors drive design. At the end of the day, the process of working with a client and sometimes a community is all about communication and managing expectations. Every effort we take is about making the process very transparent for all parties and being good communicators.
Novedge: What is a recent project that you worked on?
Tiffany Redding: Cooley Landing is an interesting project we’re working on with the City of East Palo Alto. This is a community that’s suffered from a whole host of problems for decades, each feeding off the other: crime, poverty, environmental degradation, a shortage of resources. It’s right on the Bay but until now, the citizens had no real access to that amazing natural environment. But now some Proposition 84 grant money has been awarded that has enabled restoration of a toxic landfill into a waterfront natural area. FOG has been awarded design of a small community building called the Education Center.
What’s really unusual about this project is the City’s populist approach. The selection of architect was determined by hanging the 15 proposals in the Library lobby for two weeks and letting the citizens vote on a shortlist. Those firms were asked to present at a public meeting instead of an interview, and the attendees then voted to select an architect. And our contract stipulates nine monthly public meetings during the design phase! They are really going beyond lip service to ensure the community gets what it needs.
We’re also currently working with the City of Brentwood, a terrific client, on expansion of their library. There are always other things cooking as well, such as constructing houses with Habitat for Humanity, and pro bono design, and ideas competitions.
Novedge: What software do you use?
Brandon Marshall: We like to think we use the right tool for the job. Our base platform is Revit Architecture but we’ve both used Archicad and I’ve used Autocad. We currently use SketchUp quite a bit early on for idea generation and development. We do a lot of rendering in Revit but have used Podium, 3ds Max and more often than not rely on Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for developing presentation ideas. Again, it goes back to being nimble, not letting the software drive the process but rather using the most appropriate tool to best communicate the task. We are both firm believers in the potential that a program like Revit has to do everything but through experience I’ve found that one can really get lost in the process by relying on just one tool or expecting that tool to solve all problems. BIM software tends to provide a false sense of accomplishment in how quickly it can produce drawings and imagery but the challenge with using BIM is really maintaining the mindset of an architect first, and being a software expert after. Good ideas and hopefully good architecture comes from there.
Novedge: What are some of the rewards and challenges of founding and running your own company?
Tiffany Redding: I didn’t realize how much family life I was missing until I quit my “day” job. Rushing off every morning for a stressful bus commute to the City and not getting home until 8:00 in the evening, when my little kids should have been in bed – and my husband was going to work at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, even on weekends, so that he could pick them up in the afternoons. I know many families deal with this and worse, so I couldn’t see an alternative for a very long time! Having my own firm means that I can work in the wee hours of the night if I need to take care of my family during the day. It is amazing to have this kind of freedom after thirty years of punching a clock, sometimes quite literally.
That said, we primarily depend on my earnings, so the pressure of finding future work is always there. I’m confident that if Brandon and I always focus on doing the right thing, and bring others up with as us we succeed, the money will follow.
Brandon Marshall: This question hits directly on why we left the jobs we were at. As Tiffany mentioned, it’s about being able to spend time with our young families, to see our kids grow up because they do it quick! The challenge has been balancing work time and play time. When you work from home and the family is around this can be tricky. We both have supportive spouses (also with careers) and at the end of the day it’s really about everybody adopting a team mentality, communicating well and sometimes making sacrifices. While the money isn’t as stable as a 40 hour job, we were not really dissuaded by the inherent risk of starting a small business. In fact the reward of being around our families, doing work we really believe in and having time for things like hosting blood drives and pro bono work has really overshadowed that risk entirely.
Novedge: How does your commitment to sustainability inform your practice?
Tiffany Redding: FOG always begins with a site analysis so that we are clear on the effects of solar orientation, passive heating and cooling, daylighting, and other “free” design strategies. Even the smallest tenant improvement projects can benefit from working with the natural environment instead of against it. We’re also fortunate to have some amazing consultants in the engineering disciplines who always bring terrific ideas to the table.
I am certain that clean water will soon become the scarcest resource in the United States, as it already has in much of the “developing” world, and architects have a unique responsibility to help manage this precious commodity in the way that we deal with water and sewage. If rainfall on a roof can be employed to flush toilets, therefore preserving potable water for higher uses – then it’s our challenge to find a creative, cost-efficient, beautiful way to make this happen.
My personal passion is for straw bale construction. We’re about to submit for permit on a straw bale addition to my little house – we’ll be building it ourselves with the help of our contractor friend Adam Traver. It’s a post-and-beam framework with bale infill walls, which is the most common way to do it, and then the walls are plastered inside and out with natural lime plaster which performs a carbon-sequestering action. The straw is a waste product from grain farming and bale walls have terrific insulating properties. Straw Bale as a building material makes so much sense to me, and the effort to put up a building can be so communal and fun. I actually wrote an article about my first straw bale workshop, because that experience helped to open my eyes in way that went beyond architecture and beyond sustainability. You can read a reprint here.
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