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Designing a Modern Home with Style: An Interview with Maryann Thompson

By Maryann Thompson

Tell us a little bit about your company and the services you offer.

Maryann Thompson Architects is a Cambridge-based architecture firm that offers a wide range of services to public and private clients, from new construction, to master planning, renovation and adaptive reuse. We specialize in architecture that is sustainable, regionally driven and that attempts to heighten the phenomenological qualities of the site in which we work. Our architectural investigations revolve around such concerns as the creation of a rich and thoughtful edge between inside and outside, utilizing light as a medium, and employing warm, natural materials in order to accentuate a sense of place.

Inside dissolves with outside. Residence in Stonington, Maryann Thompson Architects Photo Credit: Chuck Choi

What are some of the biggest decisions that a homeowner will need to make about the design of a modern home?

I would say, among other things, energy use and spatial needs. The energy impact starts from a common-sense approach to site planning and layout -working with the sun-angle can really help to lessen the need to mechanically heat and cool a home. We also incorporate as much sustainable technology as possible, informed by the client's desires. The client then needs to do some deep thinking about what they need - how much space? Do you need a separate living from dining area, or do you all like a whole blended communal area? Our approach is an attempt to create an architecture that not only heightens one's awareness of the site, but also attempts to "tread lightly," thus to design for the needs and desires of the client.

What is your design philosophy, or style, with including raw elements in order to create a modern feel?

We believe great art, including architecture, should resonate emotionally. Our work attempts to resonate at a visceral level with anyone who interacts with it. We are interested in the creation of a sensorial human experience that prioritizes the subjective, the direct human experience of architectural form. Our design philosophy is grounded in a belief in the power of dialogue and relationship. Our goal is to create an innovative architecture, which elevates the dynamic interplay between subject and place.

For example, we are working on The Visitor Center at Walden Pond, within a site of deeper cultural and historical significance. Our design strategy is to create an architecture that seems to knit and fold into the wooded landscape - to appear as if it's always been there. We worked with the client, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, to source oak timbers from Massachusetts forests. The warm natural materials in a modern language thus accentuates the visitor connection to a sense of place. We are creating a building that "treads lightly" in its energy use. It is super-insulated with triple-pane windows in order to reduce the heating demands. Ample cross-ventilation and ceiling fans has lessened the need for hefty mechanical air conditioning.

What are some important design elements that define a modern-styled building or home?

The Modern movement is diverse and there are many branches. We adhere to modern principles that addresses human comfort and well-being. The architecture seeks to dissolve the boundaries between indoors and outdoors. We believe that architecture should inspire and seek to raise awareness of one's place in the world. In our practice of architecture, we like to celebrate the art of building, and in many projects we have been interested in the creation of a "woven architecture" that acknowledges, even symbolically, the act of building. Our attempt is to facilitate a tactile comprehension of construction as a means by which to engage, enrich and give meaning to the perception of the subject. Surface, joinery, connection, technique are not appliqué but rather embedded into the principles of the architectural idea. We believe that the art of making (craft) carries an important agenda in the human experience of space. We view the dialogue between space making and tectonics as essential to the craft of meaningful place making.

What are some of the misconceptions you've come across when it comes to modern homes?

That modern design is somehow cold, formal, rational or a white cube, cut off from the surroundings. We employ modern design that emphasizes simplicity and elegance so that the architecture is not an object, but instead within a relationship with the occupants, site, context and greater environ.

Warm materials, connection to context, Maryann Thompson Architects Photo Credit: Chuck Choi

What advice would you give a client who wants a modern home that combines progressive design and comfort?

My first advice would be for the client to think over what are the needs and requirements from a home. In our own design practice, we have clients fill out a wishlist that addresses both the pragmatic and emotional needs that the home should meet. For example, we ask, "What types of feelings, if any, should this house activate in you and your family? How do you want to feel in this house? (For example: wonder / magical, subdued / quiet, calm / reflective, energized / active, etc?)" The client can then evaluate homes based from what they value and desire. For example, we had some clients who came to us seeking to build a modern home, and we developed some form-based guidelines. One strategy is to put windows up high-it gives a sense of being outside, so that light comes in from above. Another strategy is to create an unfolding sequence of spaces so that the design creates a sense of exploration and wonder.

What's the best way for people to get in contact with you and your company?

Give us a call at 617 744-5187, or stop by our office in Watertown, located at 741 Mount Auburn Street.

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