An Interview with Architect Davey McEathron, Founder of Davey McEathron Architecture
Photography by Leonid Furmansky
In the summer of 2014, Davey McEathron Architecture was founded upon the idea of the architect as an artist and master craftsman. DMA celebrates the process of designing and building through listening, collaboration, and experimentation. With an equal amount of space dedicated to a design studio and a fabrication studio, DMA positions itself in a unique location between design, testing, and realization.
What sparked your interest in architecture and interior design?
While traveling the country as a musician in my 20’s, I was reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The story of an individualist architect, Howard Roark, and his struggle to stay true to his beliefs introduced me to architecture as a form of creative expression – something that struck a chord for me as a struggling musician. Once I started to study architecture, I began to recognize similarities in my processes of creating music and architecture.
How did you begin your career as an architect/designer?
While attending school in Portland, OR, I worked summers for Bob Schatz Architect – a small firm of between 2-3 designers and Bob Schatz. While working there, Bob reinforced the idea of having fun with the design – often saying things like, “OK, now how can we make it funky?”
I graduated from Portland State University, in 2008 – just prior to the Great Recession. My future wife and I had already decided to make a big move to Austin, TX that Summer. After arriving in Texas and interviewing at a half dozen firms, I had a half dozen job offers on the table and chose the one that I felt the most connected to the work – The Hailey Group designed modern, mixed-use, multifamily projects in Austin’s Eastside – an area that was up and coming. After 3 months of working at the Hailey Group, the recession had decimated our industry and I was laid off.
Reaching back to one of the previous job prospects, I was given a position at Carter Design Associates – a firm that worked primarily on Civic projects – ones that had been funded by government funds that weren’t affected by the recession. During my 5 years at CDA, I was able to work on large projects, from historic renovations, to community pools and an indoor shooting range for the Austin Police Department – it’s a right of passage for an architect in Texas to work on a shooting range.
Looking to work on more intimately scaled residential projects, and to get my hands dirty doing design/build, I went to work for Jay Hargrave Architect. At JHA, I was able to hone my skills in carpentry and welding, and learn about the efficiencies of the design/build process.
How would you best describe your design principles and philosophy?
Davey McEathron Architecture approaches architecture as both a function and sculpture. Once we have solved the programmatic elements of a project, we work hard to refine the concepts to just a couple big moves. We often jokingly reference Coco Chanel, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” After we’ve refined the concept, we then work out the proportions and material that best suit the project.
For materials and concepts, we believe in having one star of the show, and everything else is a supporting actor. For the rare moment where we have two main actors, we typically will have a protagonist and an antagonist.
Being intimately involved with the craft of making buildings, our material palette is most often stocked with materials that can be worked by hand – rich woods, raw steel, stone, and tile. On the job sites, we like to work closely with the builders to learn and understand their skills and approaches so that we can relate to their work and become better designers and partners in the process.
What do you find the most challenging and most rewarding part of the job?
Architecture is problem solving reinforced by a long learning process – as are many careers. One of the most challenging parts of my job has been to learn to delegate duties and allow people to formulate their own processes and sometimes fail. If you are always solving problems for the people on your team, they don’t learn how to solve the problems themselves. At the same time, you’ve learned through your own experimentation and failures, and want to warn others of the tripping hazards.
The most rewarding part of the job is the friendships you develop with your colleagues and clients. The process of creating a building is long, and a lot of times, taxing. Coming out on the other side of a project with excited clients and happy builders is a great feeling – many times, all of the parties want to do it again, but on a new lot, with the same team.
What does a typical day as an architect look like for you?
DMA usually has between 12-18 projects in construction at a time, and about the same amount of projects in design. My day always starts with a long, hot shower, where I collect my thoughts and process new or lingering ideas. Then, a morning coffee with my wife, who has been building/remodeling houses with me for about 4 years. Typically, my day is spent responding to RFI’s, and charetting on a design with my team. Sometimes I work from home for a couple of hours before heading into the blitzkreig of the day, and sometimes my phone just starts ringing at 7:00 am and doesn’t stop till 7:00 pm.
What’s been your favourite project so far?
One of my favorite projects so far is the Chelsea House and ADU. About three years ago we were approached by Urban ATX, a new builder/developer that was looking to start doing speculative development in South Austin. We shared our ideas on what we both thought was lacking in the speculative housing market – good design and quality craftsmanship being at the top of the list.
Urban ATX put a lot of trust in us and let us design exactly what we thought the project needed, and even brought in some great ideas that pushed the design even further. In the end, the project was a huge success – the ADU sold 45 minutes after the listing went active, setting a record price/sf in the area, and the house followed suit within a couple of weeks.
Given the success of the Chelsea project, Urban ATX began purchasing as many lots as they could handle – and expanded their team exponentially to increase their load. We have more than doubled our team as well. Since the first project together, we have completed 18 projects. We currently have 15 in construction and 5 in design – including houses, ADU’s, apartments, townhomes, mixed use buildings and a small 17 unit neighborhood. Continuing our shared vision for unique, high quality architecture and builds has allowed us to really explore our creativity in ways that we weren’t typically able to do.
What is a common client misconception?
A common client misconception is that the architecture should be fast and cheap. One of the first questions that I ask a potential new client is if they have worked with an architect before. If they have, I ask them about the project and about the experience that they had. If they haven’t, I walk them through how much fun we are going to have together, but that it’s going to be a deep dive into how they live in a home, what their pet peeves are, what my pet peeves are, and how long we will be hanging out on this project together.
What are some things you’ve learned throughout the years as an architect?
When taking on a new client, trust your gut. If you feel like the project and/or client may not be a good fit for you, walk away. There’s a very slim chance that you can flip a client into liking modern architecture if they really just want a gothic cathedral. And after you’ve failed at convincing them into appreciating large expanses of butt joined glazing, you’re going to dread the next 500 hours of detailing pointed arch windows and barrel vaults – unless they flip you into becoming a fan of gothic architecture.
What advice would you give to young architects and designers?
Build. Build. Build.
Spend a year or two working on jobsites before you start your career as an architect. Or build on the side.
All of the little tips and tricks that you learn from the craftsman; the sequence of events, the means and methods; all of the bits of knowledge you learn from being on a jobsite is exponential to your growth as a great architect. We often get accolades from builders for being knowledgeable about the build process.
The future of Davey McEathron Architecture
Davey McEathron Architecture is moving towards a design/build/develop model for the firm. We enjoy the design process, and we enjoy the build process. Now we are taking on the role of developer as well so we can gain a little more control over our destiny.
Best places or works you’ve seen or visited?
Italy. All of Italy. The people, the history, the food, the wine, the beaches. All of it is magical.
Favourite ways to get creative juices flowing?
Listening or playing music is a great way to unfocus the brain and relax, allowing new thoughts and feelings to filter in. Instrumental music is great for schematic design and design development, while heavier, guitar driven music helps drive home the more mundane tasks – like adding notes and dimensions.
Where to find him