If You Build it, They Will Come

Interview with Alan Cohl, of Studio ACA

Where are you from Alan?
I am originally from New York, and made aliyah over 21 years ago.

What inspired you to study architecture and where did you study?
I wanted to be involved in building and design from a very early age. I was always the kid that could draw things, even abstractly; I simply saw things differently and figured out I had a sense of proportion. However, it was not until the year I spent in Israel between high school and university that it all came together. The country itself inspired me. Our land was, and still is, a construction site in many ways, literally and figuratively. It was then that I returned to the States and set out to pursue the practice of architecture. I first studied fine arts and theater as a foundation in the arts, then moved on to a Bachelors in Architecture from Pratt Institute in New York and eventually earned a Masters in Architecture from Harvard University.

What has been the most rewarding part of teaching Architecture and Interior Design in America and in Israel?
Teaching for me represents not only the clichéd notion of “giving back”, but also an opportunity to constantly regenerate the creative aspect of my own professional thought process. Often, an architectural student transitions from the world of design academia to built reality with an eye-opening shock, on realizing that most of one’s professional time is allocated to aspects of technical limitations and budgetary constraints. My teaching approach tries to bridge the gap, yet still encourages dreaming.

What are the differences between the US and Israeli approach to home design?
As you can imagine, there are too many to list. However the most important differences are the palette of materials and historic precedent. The local materials and resources of any location should directly guide the methods of construction. Nowadays, this might even be considered ecologically correct. Additionally, the traditions of building influence design approaches. The US has a much longer, rich history of European influence, while Israel has had to start with crisp modernism as its backdrop.

What type of projects do you do?
My practice is filled with many typologies and scales of projects, ranging from an item of furniture, through houses from scratch and all aspects of residential design, to large scale corporate interiors and even small civic buildings. However, a lot of my current work is residential, catering both to new olim and those who live in the States and are building a foothold here.

What has been your favorite project?
I still learn from every project – you could call that my favorite aspect of the profession! However, my favorite “project” would have to be my next one.

Should one use an architect just to add a room or two to the house or enclose a porch?
Only a trained architect has the design tools to apply a comprehensive approach to any existing space. Even when just adding a room, it should always be evaluated within the interior and exterior context. Sometimes those exclusively trained as interior designers lack the global vision.

What’s the advantage to dealing with an architect who is also an interior designer?
It’s much more than a one-stop shop and saving on costs. I approach architectural design methodology in a holistic manner. The condition for making habitable space is a fusion from within and without. Interiors are a natural outcome of function, as the sculptural form of any building is a result of the surrounding context: urban and natural. The integration of these two forces makes it difficult to isolate architecture from interiors. Also, an architect simply has much more knowledge than an interior designer of building methods and materials that enhance, and of design solutions.

What should you ask an architect before hiring him or her?
I always recommend not to spend too much time interviewing the architect. Of course, you should have a good rapport with your designer, creating a channel of communicative trust towards an open forum of exchanging ideas. However, more important is that you ask for a client list that pertains to your scope of project. Use this list to contact the previous clients and interview them on how the entire process transpired. Seductive photos on a website might have been the result of a very stressful and challenging process between designer and client – something you want to do your best to avoid.

What do people get when they hire you?
My practice provides comprehensive design services. I try to hand-hold the client though the entire aspect of the process: from understanding how to read plans to the smallest details of cabinetry. I don’t impose my design ideas, but rather take direct cues from my clients regarding their own sensitivities and aesthetics. In the end, they have to be comfortable with the space they eventually will use.

Can a good design save you money?
Always! Good design economizes, integrates and gets the most out of every square meter of your personalized space. Added to that, there are many financial benefits that are passed down to the client via recommendations of the designer – not only where to purchase materials, furniture, lighting and many other finishes, but also, the existence of actual well-designed plans provide a base for competitive bidding amongst tradespeople, such as contractors and carpenters.

Who should people hire first after they decide to build?
Always find your designer first: this person will be the team director. You need another pair of eyes, and a professional on your side, when you set out to structure the project team.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about renovating or building?
I would almost always recommend renovating over building, if it is an option. The simple ability to walk into an existing space and experience its size and proportions can never be duplicated in two dimensions, which are more often than not exaggerated in slick developer’s color brochures that show plans with smaller-scaled furnishings to make the rooms look larger. In all cases the best advice is: be prepared – to compromise, make changes, and adjust your budget. Remain flexible and the rewards will follow.

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