The Edge: Lee Calisti Thinks Architect

January 21, 2014 5 min read

Lee Calisti - FarmHouse_01

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

Lee Calisti: I am a husband and a dad, but I suppose most people are more interested in my life as an architect. I am a sole-practitioner who lives in southwest Pennsylvania—about an hour's drive east of Pittsburgh. The dream of working for Marvel Comics went away some time as a kid as I discovered a bigger interest in architecture. I graduated from Kent State University in 1991 with a B.Arch and earned the AIA Medal of Honor for being the top of my class. My license came in 1995.

After working for two other offices and with twelve years of being in practice, I started my own firm in 2003. Now I am looking at celebrating the eleventh anniversary of my own firm. I’d like to think our work is contemporary, relevant and sensitive. 

We were fortunate to design and build our own house in 2007 which includes my studio. Besides my busy life as a firm owner, I've been an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Architecture since 2002. I currently teach first year design studio.

Lee Calisti - 2014-01-06

Novedge: What matters most to you in design?

Lee Calisti: I don't believe I can reduce it down to a single idea or mission, but I'm sure I'd list things that most architects would or should list. However, if I must answer, what comes to mind is I want to create spaces and buildings where the function and beauty are one and the same. They should make sense and serve the occupants well. I don't believe in ordering form and function (one before the other): they ought to be inseparable. Furthermore, I don't think architecture needs adornment to be beautiful. Therefore, I strive to make things that are attractive in their purest form—they simply just are. Hopefully someday I'll get there and be considered good.

Lee Calisti - FarmHouse_12

Novedge: How does teaching inform your practice and vice versa?

Lee Calisti: The process we guide our students to adopt is the same fundamental process I use in my office. For instance, simple things like various types of drawing as a means of thinking and testing are part of my life as well as part of the curriculum I teach. How can I work in my office without thinking about the same things I tell my students? It keeps my process pure and my thinking fresh. Call me an idealist. 

In studio, I use anecdotes to share aspects of practice with them when appropriate. They probably roll their eyes, but in time it will mean more to them. I believe they deserve to know why we teach things as much as how or what we teach them. Once they move into practice it becomes important to use the same process on any project whether it is a common project or that rare dream project. Every client is equally as important.

Lee Calisti - Lakewood 03

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

Lee Calisti: On the boards we have a feasibility study for a 17,000 SF adaptive reuse for a church, an interior renovation to a nursing care staffing office, a 2,500 SF new house, two apartment structures for a community based organization and a design study for a farmer's market structure.

Lee Calisti - ab01

Lee Calisti - ab02

One recently built project is a complete renovation of an anonymous building converted to a pizza restaurant. This mixed use structure posed a multitude of challenges from budget, space requirements, building codes and many technical challenges. We strove to develop a series of bold but inexpensive design solutions that solved a multitude of tasks into one cohesive design that delivers a new image and brand to this former take-out-only business. 

Lee Calisti - ab03

For instance, the new outdoor features carry their energy inside where the architectural elements serve as a means of directing customers and giving an identity to each space. The multi-colored storefront provides solar and wind control and appears to tenuously support the new canopy. The metal “folded” element leads one from the parking into the building, transforms into wood ceiling panels and defines the circulation space from the eating space. Even the two-colored floor is included to give the dining space its own identity.

Lee Calisti - ab04

Another project completed in 2012 is an expansion to the Rialto Cafe, a landmark in downtown Greensburg, PA. The owner decided to forgo two tenant spaces in his building next door that sits adjacent to the cafe’s outdoor courtyard. His decision to expand his space into his neighboring building lent a new concept in expansion. The new space would be connected via the courtyard where patrons can transfer between the two bar/restaurant spaces by moving through the courtyard. Its architecture fits both with its budget and target audience. This space is designed with simple off-the-shelf industrial parts. Plywood panels, black steel pipe railings, bold colors and corrugated metal begin to define a new Rialto, one for future generations.

Lee Calisti - Rialto 01

Lee Calisti - Rialto 02

Lee Calisti - Rialto 03

All Photos © by Skysight Photography

Novedge: What software do you use? 

Lee Calisti: I use Vectorworks 2014 (and Renderworks) as my CAD/BIM software. I've used it since 1995 and in recent years I've been using it to model more and more projects. A rare quick project may still be drawn in 2D CAD. Despite my past critiques of BIM software in the process of how architecture is made, I really like what it offers and its price point. Beyond that, I still integrate my sketching and occasional hand drawings into the process. I can also easily adopt my graphic expectations into my drawings quite easily.

On my recent projects I've been using some of Vectorworks' powerful features for diagramming a project's programmatic requirements and extracting information into worksheets. I'm also wading into using the solar animation tools to study design issues early in the process. I do have ongoing criticisms of how software should adopt the architect's thought process rather than vice versa, but hearing from my many architect friends who use the other main line BIM software packages, I have no interest in switching.

Lee Calisti - house6-01

Novedge: What innovations do you find most exciting in your field?

Lee Calisti: Technology is being assimilated into architecture and construction at a rapid pace and architects are getting better at using software to predict outcomes that would never have been possible years ago. However, I still find common sense and simple thinking like efficiency, resourcefulness and creativity to be our best assets. The construction method that currently interests me is the Passive House technique gaining its momentum with a focus on the envelope. The other area that deserves more consideration is pre-fabrication. Every other avenue of innovation seems to be manufactured in a controlled environment like a factory, why can't buildings or large portions of buildings be done the same way?

Lee Calisti - Latrobe 01

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

Lee Calisti: Be engaged in the process. Prepare yourself by researching and reading and not rushing the process to get to the supposed end (i.e. construction). From there, find an architect through referrals if possible, but if necessary interview more than one. Consider avoiding the standard questions at first and simply have a conversation with the architect. This person is not going to fix your roof or paint your dining room, they are going to design where you live, work or pray. Get to know this person(s) so you can share honestly and let them feel ownership of the process. Then once you trust them and have hired them, let them do what they do best. You can still be the leader of the project, but you might be pleasantly surprised if you allow them room to explore.


Interested in finding out more about Lee's work? Check his website and his blog, Think Architect. Lee Calisti has a wide reach on social media, and you can find him also on Twitter, Facebook and Houzz, just to name a few.


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