Washington, DC-based architect Donald Lococo, AIA, is the founder and principal of Donald Lococo Architects, an award winning residential firm on the front lines of a post-pandemic economy rife with supply chain and labor challenges, as well as a local real estate market ablaze with low inventory and fever-pitch prices. By focusing on current work, Lococo has been weathering the volatility, and by pausing to reflect, he’s been mapping a path forward for new work with an emphasis on sustainability.
Inform: The residential market fared better during COVID than other sectors, but the higher cost of materials and supply chain issues now affect everyone. How would you characterize the last 18 months for your practice? Have those national and regional trends affected you?
DL: Part of the basis of architecture is how architects wear different hats depending on the phase of the project. If you’re in the schematic or procurement phase of a project, tasks and relationships affect you in a very different way as opposed to, for example, the amount and type of work in the contract administration phase, when a project is being built. When COVID hit, my practice was in the inconvenient position of having every job in the contract administration phase. It wasn’t planned. Some of those projects were two, three, or even five years old, but they really did end up falling on that milestone phase at the same time and they all were completed between last November and February. Some of them were sizable, and there was only one project in the design and development phase. As a result, COVID affected us in an extremely amplified way.
One realm of impacts I see are logistical and at the industry level, and another component is on the client side as someone specializing in residential architecture. At the industry level, the unknown continues to impact the day to day of our work. There was a loss of certainty and a new relinquishment of control in how supply and demand strains intersect with a shortage of workers and supplies.
Cost has become an amazing factor. Projects that were at one time $2 million have ballooned into $5 million. Scarcity is an issue that our firm now constantly needs to consider. We’ve had almost a dozen situations where in reference to a garage door or material that was supposed to be delivered in three days, we receive a report that in fact it will arrive in three months. In this, contractors and our firm are helpless. From specialized species of wood to custom materials essential to our practice, it has been a new burden.
There has also been a new complexity to projects in response to fear and coping with chronic stress that COVID continues to put everyone working on the project through. What I see in architecture as someone interfacing with the building industry is that I find everyone exhausted. After the initial year, now at a distance away with some perspective, I think people are taking a breath and learning how much it has—and still is taking—a toll on everyone. In some ways, it led to a despondency that has prompted some, like our firm, to take a time-out. It’s created a level of pause and reflection. For our firm, this means that we’ve decided for a few months to not even take on new work to concentrate on what we currently have. Doing so has allowed us to take care of employees and contractors, as we’re all working so hard.
Inform: The DC and Northern Virginia residential real estate markets continue to amaze even its seasoned agents. How has this trend, which includes a double-digit average sale price increase, impacted your business from either a renovation or new construction perspective?
DL: I think something surprising for me is how the market has been so volatile. What happens two months from now and what has happened two months ago has directly informed every aspect of construction, architecture, and real estate. We’re making decisions now either to move forward, hold, spend, not spend, procure, or make other decisions on a much more variant and wider range of possibilities. Something that at one time was a given that could be available now all of a sudden is non-existent; something that used to be at a reliable price is now completely erratic. Now I find myself going down rabbit holes of conversations where we talk about commodities, stock market trends, and futures, which, unfortunately, is not our expertise. Additionally, because everything is so volatile, hypotheticals are expanded, and risks are heightened.
Inform: One of the ways you differentiate yourself as an architect is by parsing “modern style” and “classic design.” How does this resonate with potential clients? Does it reflect their aspirations or your philosophy, or perhaps both?
DL: That’s a great question. We’ve been fortunate enough to be recognized for both traditional and modern homes at the global and national level, but these seemingly stylistically orchestrated projects come about humbly and from the grassroots level, beginning with a first client meeting. I make my first meetings extremely free associative because you can only have a “first” meeting once, and there’s a narrow window of time where you can hear everything from a client’s perspective—exactly how they see things.
The expansive and free-associative first meeting is where I learn that people have had house fires, if they’ve lived in one home their entire life as a child, or if they were from a military family that moved from one house to another. All of these things fundamentally inform the home, manifesting as an opportunity for a client to guide me as the architect—instead of me dictating everything, including the style of a home. This guidance from a client allows the home to become all the more personal to them. So instead of sorting clients into boxes based on my agenda of classical, modern, transitional, or historic, the home is allowed to grow freely, sometimes even in parallel directions at the same time.
Now more than ever the fray between modern, contemporary, and traditional is a blur. By not putting a client or myself in one specific enclosure, the creative process is nurtured, and the design can thrive freely, allowing it to meander where it wants. Often in my homes and renovations, there’s a hazy line between what’s existing that tends to be traditional and what is new. That hazy line and the opportunity to dance between multiple styles is an asset because the knowledge and recognition that I have accrued for modern, historical, traditional designs allow clients’ homes to be stronger and clearer. My agency and facility with a range of styles enables home designs to be led by clients’ desires, with our firm not only permitting but embracing divergent stylistic elements and languages within one home.
Before becoming an architect, I trained to be a concert pianist. One particular memory stuck with me, particularly now as a conduit for different architectural styles. One of my piano teachers required changing the piano according to the piano piece played on it. If I practiced Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 and following it, I notified her that I was planning on playing Bach, my teacher would insist that I play it on a different piano. In her small home filled with pianos, opening a door would almost hit a concert grand. Switching between different musical styles, from Gershwin to Bartok, had to happen in a moment on a different instrument. That skill of quickly toggling from one style to another in real time, submerging myself to articulate and channel the essence of a piece, allowed me to apply the practice to architecture. Now as an architect, when encountering an addition of a renovation or considering new home designs, switching stylistic frameworks among or even within projects feels second nature.
Inform: How do you approach the broad narrative about sustainability within the AEC industry and are there specific ways you’ve internalized it in your practice?
DL: I think with residential architecture and interfacing with families, that programmatic requirements are usually quite defined, and although you can’t force an agenda, you can begin to turn a client’s shoulders towards sustainability when the topic arises. Sustainability is something that we tend to wait for an opportunity to make sure we bring it up at the right time. For instance, there’s an opportunity even if a client may not want solar panels, by informing them that adding 15% into the cost of stronger roof trusses now allows the potential for future solar panels later, or else they would have to add a new roof. This education style spans to adjacent issues like running a race away from the roof down to areas where solar would interface, the added wire making retrofitting easier, or even anticipating where geothermal could be located in the future. Another component of letting clients know about sustainability measures now allows them to consider their home’s potential marketability.
Because sustainability is about the future, even if a client doesn’t want to add sustainability elements, we look to educate them about the ways sustainability can allow a home to be more resilient to future change and keep possibilities open. As an architect, I want to make sure a client’s home is a forward-thinking object, and I’m sensitive to the fact that the definition of sustainability today is different than what it was ten years ago, and that today’s definition will change ten years in the future. We want to make sure clients’ homes are resilient, but we also want to make sure to answer the question of sustainability in ways people haven’t thought of. Buildings need to be adaptable to be resilient to future changes as opposed to just being resilient to the defined changes that we’re seeing today.
My angle is one on an individual decision-making level: I want to make sure that within a home, even if someone does not want to add sustainability measures now, that a home could easily adapt to sustainability additions and inclusions later. Consistently staying open to sustainability opportunities as a firm and educating clients allows future thinking to be continuously addressed and designed into a project.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Donald Lococo Architects.
About the author
William Richards is a writer and editorial consultant based in Washington, D.C. From 2007 to 2011, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Inform Magazine.