The Edge: Karen Curtiss has a Red Dot Studio

January 28, 2014 4 min read

Karen Curtiss - Red Dot Studio - BanksSt-4272

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

Karen Curtiss: Architect, mother, small business person, public school advocate, wanna be surfer. I do all those things. Our office services residential and small business clients.

Karen Curtiss - Red Dot Studio

Novedge: You don't have a proper "Manifesto" on your website, but definitely express a unique take on architecture, from your international background, to the choice of your firm's name. What is your philosophy when it comes to architecture and design?

Karen Curtiss: We look for meaning in our work rather than a style backed up by a manifesto. I have a masters in philosophy, but philosophy taken as an architectural manifesto gets in the way of designing real spaces for real people and communities. 

Karen Curtiss - Red Dot Studio - pcyclegraphic

Novedge: How does your commitment to sustainability inform your practice?

Karen Curtiss: I have a great story about this! A contractor friend of mine asked me to design a modern porta-potty cover for an article in a local paper. It was the height of silliness, because really, porta-potties come with a surround already. I agreed to participate if we used recycled or salvaged materials, Then during the course of researching and designing the surround, one member of our team had the brilliant idea of recycling water which blossomed into recycling urine. It turns out urine is a fascinating subject. Urine accounts for only 1% of human waste but up to 80% of the nutrient content. The nutrients in urine are quite harmful to dump in oceans, but they can be extremely beneficial if used in agriculture. Urine is a great natural fertilizer! We diverted the urine from a porta-potty into a planter filled with wetland purifier plants. So a simple and rather silly little project became a metaphor and an exploration for the role our bodies play in a larger ecosystem and how we can design symbiotic rather than harmful relationships.

Karen Curtiss - Red Dot Studio - photo 4

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

Karen Curtiss: We have a saying for a recent project, Banks Street. Every inch counts. We transformed a one bedroom cottage into a three bedroom house without expanding the building envelope. 17’-1” wide interior face of stud to interior faceof stud. Every inch counts.

Karen Curtiss - Red Dot Studio - BanksSt-4290

The 1908 had been designated a potential historic resource prior to starting work. During the historic review process we discovered that the building was owned by three generations of the same family. While not architecturally significant the house certainly had meaning for this family.

Karen Curtiss - Red Dot Studio - BanksSt-4329

Karen Curtiss - Red Dot Studio - BanksSt-4311

Karen Curtiss - Red Dot Studio - BanksSt-4350

Karen Curtiss - Red Dot Studio - BanksSt-4464

With respect for this history, the house is both being reused and undergoing a complete transformation. The old floor plate has been lifted into a new location, sandblasted and left exposed. The collar ties (no longer needed with a new roof framing system) have been used as the board form for concrete retaining walls in the yard. Old framing members were reused in the shed. Most importantly the overall shape of the building remains recognizable to all who once lived there. We took full advantage of front rear and side yard access with the new layout. Rooms transition into the outdoor spaces making a diminutive house live large. The renovation will be Build It Green Certified and beats Title 24 by over 50%. Windows and skylights are positioned for balanced daylight. Concrete contains 25% fly ash. Laundry is hooked up to a grey water irrigation system and the gutters drain into rain barrels.

Karen Curtiss - Red Dot Studio - BanksSt-4512

Novedge: What software do you use? 

Karen Curtiss: AutoCAD, Rhino, 3ds Max and Adobe Creative Suites.

Novedge: How do you collaborate with clients during the creative process?

Karen Curtiss: Beautiful places are lived in. Our environment, and how we live within, reveals our story – a story of how we presently live, and glimpses of what future chapters might hold. Instead of simply designing a beautiful story-book house, we strive with each client to become their storyteller about how they live. We need to get to know our main characters to tell the story. Like any good story, sometimes the plot has intriguing twists and turns, and ideas which were solutions to previous problems may no longer be required. This process takes an invested client willing to explore and allow new ideas in along the way. 

Karen Curtiss - Red Dot Studio - BanksSt-1712

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

Karen Curtiss: It is the same advice I have for me when I decide to take a client:

1. Do you click?

2. Are you talking the same language about the appropriate level of design and craft?

3. Is it worth building with this team? Will the result be worth all the resources you are committing to the project. Will the result be meaningful? 

Novedge: One last fun question: as an architect, what is your favorite city to visit?

Karen Curtiss: My favorite place to visit isn't much of a city at all. It is the British Virgin Islands. Although there are a few notable exceptions, it does not have much to offer in terms of architecture. But the natural beauty, the reefs and the constellation of islands, the quality of the daylight and the colors just blow me away every time I go.

My favorite city is Budapest with all of its decrepit beauty and sense of dignity and quiet grandeur.


Credits: Architectural Photos by Joe Fletcher. Headshot by Sarah Deragon

To see more of Karen's work and learn all about Red Dot Studio, check her blog and website.

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