Architect Crush: Robert Swatt, FAIA and George Miers, AIA of Swatt | Miers

 

1. The firm was formed as a merger of two long established San Francisco Bay Area firms, Swatt Architects and George Miers and Associates, Architects and Planners - why the decision to join forces?

In 2009 we decided to merge two long established firms, Swatt Architects and George Miers and Associates, and became Swatt | Miers Architects. The reason for the merger was quite simple – to bring a sense of project diversity to the firm…and to have fun. The Principals of the firm, Robert Swatt, FAIA, and George Miers, AIA, hail from different parts of the state – Swatt from Los Angeles and Miers from San Francisco. The two firms had produced distinctly different work – while Miers specialized in a wide range of public service buildings, including ground-breaking work in the field of animal-care facilities, Swatt had in recent years primarily focused on one-of-a-kind modern homes – many located in the Bay Area, and others located in other states and abroad. We simply felt that by combining these two successful practices, we could create a synergy that would enrich all of the work on all levels. 

 

2. What distinguishes Swatt | Miers from other architecture firms?

There are several things that distinguish Swatt | Miers from other firms, First, the founding Principals are still active in every phase of the work, beginning with traditional design drawings on the board. We also insist on making “old school” physical design study models of almost all of our projects. We find that we learn so much about the architecture through the process of making the model…so much more than we learn from our 3-D computer modeling. And finally, we think that our mix of project types is unique to the Bay Area. It is quite unusual for a firm of our size to focus so much on private one-of-a-kind houses. Most firms do houses now and again, but we, on the other hand have made custom homes a prime specialty of the firm. Last we checked, we had 32 ongoing house projects: 16 under construction and 16 on the boards – with houses underway throughout the Bay Region, in Los Angeles, Hawaii, Canada, India and Spain. Complementing our residential work, our work with Companion Animal facilities – pioneered by George Miers – has set new standards for the design of animal care facilities nationwide.  

3. Tell us about your historic renovation of The Icehouse, San Francisco's largest pair of masonry buildings, for Levi Strauss & Co.

The Icehouse is San Francisco’s largest masonry complex, built in 1914 to manufacture ice for the city’s fishing industry. In 1990 Levi Strauss & Co. purchased the Icehouse and Swatt Architects was charged with turning the 200,000 square foot complex into part of the corporate headquarters. The design was to reflect the company’s culture and the style of its products – practical, flexible, understated and comfortable, with a sense of uniqueness and quality. The design celebrates what is old, unusual and historical about the Icehouse – brick walls, timber columns and beams, and steel seismic bracing have been uncovered and left exposed. New light furnishings and finishes with sophisticated and minimal detailing contrast with the heavy historical elements. The Icehouse now speaks of two ages: the period of San Francisco’s bustling northern waterfront fishing industry, and today’s modern Bay Area corporate environment.  

4. What’s another project that has really stood out as an unusual and rewarding accomplishment?

Robert Swatt: I am very fond of one of our smallest projects – the three Tea Houses in Silicon Valley. These freestanding structures are located on a beautiful hillside above a 6,000 square foot house that we designed years ago. Each Tea House is designed as a transparent steel and glass pavilion, hovering like a lantern over the natural landscape. Cast-in-place concrete core elements anchor the pavilions, supporting steel channel rim joists that cantilever beyond the cores to support the floor and roof planes. With its minimal footprint, the design treads lightly on the land, minimizing grading and preserving the delicate root systems of the native oaks. 

5. Robert, emphasizing the transparency between indoors and outdoors has been a focus for you - what are some ways you achieve that vision?

Robert Swatt: For me there are three key ideas in modern West Coast residential architecture: knitting the building to the land; open planning for informal family living; and blurring the distinction between inside and outside. Visually we connect inside and outside with large areas of glass, often floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Functionally we connect indoor/outdoor spaces with large areas of operable glazing for ventilation and glass doors of all types (bi-folding, sliding, pocketing, etc.) to provide physical connections. When practical we also like to use similar materials for indoor and outdoor surfaces to visually reinforce the indoor/outdoor connection. 

6. George, tell us about your work with Companion Animal facilities.

George Miers: Over the last 35 years of designing a wide array of public and private facilities, I have received more questions about the design of Companion Animal Facilities than about Libraries, City Halls, Police Facilities and Residential projects combined. While Domestic Animal Care Facilities have today become more common than when I designed my first facility nearly 30 years ago (as part of the City of Antioch Police Facility), most people still find the idea of a facility specifically designed “for domestic animals” as unusual. While they see this as a very “unique” specialty that requires an enormous amount of understanding about domestic animals, they generally do not think of these facilities as “architecture” in the same way they might other building types. Hence, my response often surprises them because first, I don’t see these facilities being as much about companion animals as I see them being about the humans who adopt them and second, I see these facilities in the same light as I do each special-use building, namely that they have their own unique programmatic issues which need to be carefully analyzed, programmed and designed like any other building. And at the end of the day, Architecture remains the Art of Building and good architectural design remains the ability to meaningfully organize site and all related programmatic criteria into the three-dimensional form which at once appears both pleasing and inevitable – concepts that quite honestly are often lost on those focused only on animals. 

 With that out of the way, some of the most important programmatic issues about Companion Animal “shelter” Facilities (as opposed to Day Care Facilities) include: 

  • Understanding stress-related issues affecting the animal’s intake and holding – All animals entering an Animal Shelter do so under varying levels of stress regardless of whether they are healthy or sick and most tend to be in the latter category. Since the goal of these shelters is for the animal to quickly leave the facilities with a human, the key to any successful shelter design is the ability to reduce stress and anxiety. While much of past and even present shelter design has focused around the functions of cleaning, medical treatment and adoption, the stress-related needs of animals is unfortunately often overlooked. Most shelters can’t hold animals for more than several weeks which means if an animal cannot reach an “adoptable” state of mind, they often do not make it out of the shelter. As one of my sharpest clients impressed on me, “the only animal that leaves a shelter alive, leaves with a human being!” Humans generally are not interested in anti-social animals and since it is difficult for an animal to be “social” when they are significantly stressed, the importance of the shelter as a calming and supportive environment is critical. 
  • Creating an operationally responsive facility – The care of animals, not unlike a human hospital, requires significant staff input and daily protocol, from cleaning to feeding to grooming. Understanding how a particular organization wishes to handle these functions is a key part of Companion Animal Design. 
  • Public Presentation and Education – Adoption habitats, classrooms and educational presentations are the fun side of animal care design and the part of which the public most understands and relates. However, even here, understanding the client’s programmatic goals and the companion animal’s environmental needs is critical to a successful shelter design. 

7. Which musical albums/artists have you influenced you most and why?

Robert Swatt: To chill after work I generally listen to jazz, often to Keith Jarrett. To get into the creative design groove I turn to Dylan. 

George Miers: While I am not sure which music has most influenced the way I approach architecture, I would have to say that the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys Pet Sounds (and no, that did not turn me to Companion Animal Design) and Mozart’s concertos, particularly Symphony 40 made an early impressions. During my professional career, I have turned to a wide array of jazz artists although at heart Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett hold a special place. 

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