I first became aware of Alexandra Barker when I visited a friend’s house last year. Impressed by the simple, stylish and very livable renovation I asked the obvious question:”Who’s your architect?”.
It seems I was late to the party. Alexandra and her architecture and design firm BFDO, have been more than prolific with both public and private clients, undertaking a wide variety of projects from townhouse renovations to beach house new builds.
Her ingenious designs, frequently featured on Brooklyn’s own Brownstoner, have transformed her client’s homes into striking and stylish renderings of space and functionality. Combining modern interiors with period ‘bones’ Alexandra consistently manages to reveal a home’s best self, while leaving its heart intact.
I met with Alexandra at Cafe Dada to talk about her design process and the joys and challenges of working as an architect.
Why architecture? Was it something you wanted to do from an early age?
Yes. I had a great grandfather who was an architect and I remember looking at his drawings and drafting tools with him when I was very young, around four. I loved to draw building section perspectives and build with blocks.
How do you approach a project?
I always discuss the client’s interests as well as their needs and we brainstorm together about how to incorporate elements that respond to these interests into the design. Projects with unusual site constraints are also really exciting. The challenges of strange shapes and extreme dimensions bring opportunities for invention.
With speculative projects the approach is more dependent on the goals for the project. We may be producing a design to show our capability with incorporating interesting materials, for example, or to show our approach to building types or sites we would like to do but have not been hired to design yet.
Can you describe your design process?
With ground-up projects we like to work back and forth between massing models that work through various responses to the site and on diagramming relationships between interior spaces, keeping in mind code and zoning constraints on the building bulk.
On urban renovation projects we spend lots of time examining interior relationships especially as they relate to light and air requirements. We try to balance the practical desire to carve as many spaces and functions out of an interior as possible with the desire to have open space and connections between levels, especially to let light filter into spaces deep within the interior of a building.
What challenges do you face when working with residential clients?
There is often a difference of opinion between the clients of a partnership and it’s a challenge to make sure they are both heard in the design process. We often have to explain to clients that some of their desires for a space are not possible again, due to zoning or code restrictions. Sometimes we have to make design decisions that are unwanted because of these same requirements.
Do these restrictions ever lead to breakthroughs in the design process or more creative solutions?
Yes. Sometimes the requirement to provide light and air results in beautiful skylights, or rooms with large amounts of glazing. Requirements to provide setbacks from the side property line can result in windows that wrap the corner to take advantage of diagonal views. Setback requirements for vertical extensions can also produce interesting exterior spaces on the roof.
For a 20th Street row house, we were required to keep a certain percentage of the existing envelope of the front extension since it was a noncompliant extension (it fell outside required setbacks). Keeping the roof and parts of the walls produced a really nice covered porch/stoop that provides a degree of privacy for the house, which has a considerable amount of glazing and extends the mudroom zone into an outside area that is not visible from the street.
For a homeowner on a budget, what simple but effective design tweaks do you recommend most often?
I’ve often been able to make kitchens more affordable by having the clients purchase the IKEA cabinets and having a contractor create custom doors and shelving. Interesting paint choices and tile choices can also really make a space special.
Which design features do you think are most fashionable in residential renovation right now?
Vestibules and mudrooms are highly desirable and often challenging to create in a narrow house. Opening up the rear wall of a row house to maximize light penetration has been quite popular for several years now.
What advice would you give to someone about to embark on a project with an architect?
Be aware that DOB requirements are always changing and are getting more restrictive. The architect may not know what is going to be approved by the DOB until they get written feedback from their filing package. It is a much better use of time and money to stretch to do your entire scope of work at once rather than working in phases. It’s hard to interest good contractors (and often good architects) in small projects because they have to commit a certain amount of energy and manpower to each client relationship regardless of the size and the good ones get booked up very quickly, especially for summer construction.
How early in the home search process do you work with buyers if they’re seeking a property to renovate? Will you go and see potential properties with them to advise them?
Yes. I like to see the properties and advise the clients before they purchase if possible.
Which project have you most enjoyed so far and why?
I really liked a beach house project I did in breezy point, Queens because it was a ground-up project on a fantastic site and we were able to make a really interesting building.
I also liked a project for a couple who were poets and artists with two cats. We were able to make a fantastic built-in structure that incorporated their books and art and allowed the cats to have their own terrain and circulation space.
What inspires you?
I get inspired by all kinds of experiences. I like to go on outdoor adventures and take in cultural sites as well as watching movies and reading thought-provoking books. I think inspiration can come from a place of high culture like a museum or from industrial design or graphic design. Sometimes I get inspired by common objects or even food.
Do you have a favorite architect, past or present?
What’s your favorite building?
I don’t think I can choose!
Describe your design style.
Opportunistic strategic design approach. I love moments of immersion–in color or light and moments of unexpected visual connections.
For more information on Alexandra and to see more of her work, visit her website here.
Photo credits: Francis Dzikowski and Lesley Unruh.