The Edge: Sharon Portnoy- Sense and Sensibility

November 11, 2014 5 min read

Architect and Novedge customer Sharon Portnoy is making a lot of sense in what she says about "green" and residential Architecture. Read the interview and let us know if you agree with her sensibility!

Sharon Portnoy EXTERIOR1

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

Sharon Portnoy:  I am an Architect in Mill Valley, California. Though I have worked on a variety of projects types in my career, my current focus is on residential work. As a sole practitioner, I find that the intimate scale of residential work suits the scale of my practice.

Sharon Portnoy profile picture.
Novedge: Can you talk about your creative process? How do you approach each project?

Sharon Portnoy:  Because I live and work in Marin County, with its beautiful landscape and challenging topography, I would have to say that design almost always begins with the site, both its constraints and opportunities.


Novedge:  How do you collaborate with your clients?

Sharon Portnoy:  I do a lot of listening and a lot of sketching. I find that sketching is such a great way to communicate with clients. It's fast and easy (and therefore doesn't cost them a lot in fees) and enables me to respond in real time, as I am hearing the clients concerns. The last thing I want to do is go away for several weeks to develop a solution, only to find out I've been on the wrong track. Communication is really at the heart of my practice.

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

Sharon Portnoy:  Like many sole practitioners, between juggling the demands of design, client relationships and working with contractors and consultants, the thing that falls to the bottom of the list is documenting and marketing recent projects! I will share with you a couple of older projects, though.

Sharon Portnoy reno_03

The first one is a renovation in Mill Valley. Renovations can be so challenging here in Marin. Often existing houses have been added onto and renovated multiple times, resulting in jumbled, disorganized accretions of rooms. This one made no sense when we got started, but by focussing on rearranging the circulation, by moving a stair and creating a gallery to link distinct parts of the program, we were able to wrangle the floor plan into a coherent whole. It is so important for a floor plan to be clear. Clients often make the mistake of focussing too early on finishes and other embellishments, but unless organization, light and proportion are properly resolved, the space will never feel elegant no matter how much marble you slap onto the surfaces.

The other project I want to share is also in Mill Valley, but the challenge here related more to the section than the plan. The brief for this project was to create a seamless indoor/outdoor living space, but the site is steeply sloped, making it difficult to achieve that kind of horizontal flow. The solution was to borrow a renaissance concept called the "piano nobile," literally noble level or floor. That is the level above the ground level. The profane functions, like stabling horses (or in this case parking cars and doing laundry), are housed in the ground floor, and as one leaves behind the messy business of the street and ascends the stair to the main level, he or she enters a more refined space where the more elevated functions are served, such as dining and entertaining guests. In this project all of the main living spaces are organized around and unified by a beautifully level lawn (which looks wonderful year round because it is made of water-saving artificial turf).

Sharon Portnoy EXTERIOR2 - Copy

Sharon Portnoy ENTRYSTAIR

Sharon Portnoy KITCHEN -

Novedge:  What software do you use? 

Sharon Portnoy:   I use Vectorworks.I love it and I wish it were more widespread among architects. I started out using MiniCad for Mac about a hundred years ago (actually 20), and it was such a user-friendly departure from my early forays into Autocad that I never looked back. I'm actually surprised more architects don't use it. It is such an intuitive and attractive product.

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

Sharon Portnoy:   I think that the most important thing one can do for sustainability is to "right size" projects and to make sure that the orientation, relative to sun, prevailing winds, etc. makes sense. One of my pet peeves is seeing houses touted as "green," because they feature green materials, but they are monstrously large and inappropriately sited. I think a lot of people don't recognize the extent to which proper siting of a building contributes to energy efficiency, which I think is one of the most important aspects of sustainable architecture. I would rather see a smaller house with smarter siting using traditional methods and materials than an oversized one made of materials marketed as "green." With that said, however, I do make it a priority to keep up on all of the latest products and technologies so that I can make intelligent and informed recommendations to my clients.

Sharon Portnoy LR1

Novedge: What rewards and challenges have you encountered in the years you have been practicing architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area?

Sharon Portnoy:  One of the best things about practicing in the Bay Area is being part of an active, engaged and forward-thinking design community. California continues to lead the way on many fronts, especially sustainability, and it is exciting to be among other professionals who are at the forefront of this movement. Another benefit of being here is that so many of my clients are from other places. This keeps things interesting, as there are so many perspectives and points of view to discover. The Bay Area is the opposite of insular and that's one of the things I love most about it.

Novedge: What has been most important in developing and growing a successful architectural practice?

Sharon Portnoy:  For me the most important thing is relationships — with clients, contractors, consultants. It is so important to listen to clients, and to be aware that their project is really about them and their lives and aspirations, not about me and my "artistic" agenda.

Sharon Portnoy reno_10

Novedge:  What skills have you learned in life that are now serving you the best? 

Sharon Portnoy:  I'll go back to the communication skills. Sorry to keep harping on this, but over and over again I hear stories of architects who don't listen. Often clients don't have the vocabulary to express what they are looking for. I really consider it essential to my job to draw them out and to really listen, so that together we can formulate a vision for the project.

Looking for more inspired work? Check out Sharon Portnoy Design and follow Sharon on Pinterest.

And don't forget to follow Novedge on Twitter!

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