Transcription of Love Maine Radio #327: Rob Whitten + Todd Richardson and Russ Doucette + Teresa Simpson
Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Dr Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 327 airing for the first time on Sunday December 24, 2017. Today we feature two sets of individuals who offer great examples of collaboration across working disciplines. Our guests are Rob Whitten of Whitten Architects, and landscape architect Todd Richardson of Richardson and Associates, and Russ Doucette of Russ Doucette Custom Home Builders, and Teresa Simpson of Midcoast Home Designs. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest, and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in it’s newly expanded space, including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at artcollectormaine.com.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Rob Whitten is the founder of Whitten Architects a residential architecture firm based in Portland, and Todd Richardson a landscape architect, is the owner of Richardson and Associates in Saco. Thanks for coming in today.
Rob Whitten: Thank you.
Todd Richardson: Thanks for having us.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Rob, you and I have had a conversation over to you before, but on the radio.
Rob Whitten: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr Lisa Belisle: Todd, you and I have just met. You have both been working together on some interesting projects I hear.
Todd Richardson: Yes.
Dr Lisa Belisle: And that’s why we wanted you to come in today, is to really talk about the collaboration between the types of work that each of you are doing to create nice spaces for people. So how did you come to start working with one another.
Rob Whitten: You know I’ve been looking for a landscape architect that was a complement to our residential practice. Someone that really understood the sort of Maine vernacular, the Maine tradition and what made Maine have a special sense of place. And someone said, you should talk to this guy Todd. So I did, and we started collaborating on a project and … 10, 12 years ago Todd?
Todd Richardson: Yeah, at least.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, so when the subject was collaboration, the first person that came to mind was you. I said great, here’s a guy that can finish my sentence. Perfect, you know?
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well that is good. And I’m not sure everybody … I think people understand what an architect might do. Todd, tell us, what does a landscape architect do?
Todd Richardson: Yeah, that’s a great question, a lot of people do not understand what we do. The joke in the profession is that we all drive green trucks, but that’s obviously not the case, although I do have a truck.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Is it green?
Todd Richardson: It’s not green.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Oh.
Todd Richardson: But anyway, I think the analogy that could be used is you know, Rob’s role as an architect is to design a building. My role as a landscape architect is to design a landscape. So that’s the level of work that we do, is focused on design. And we certainly develop construction drawings and have construction administration associated with what we do. But I think like an architect who would design a building, we would design a landscape, and those landscapes could be of various types. The common work that Rob and I share is focused on our residential work for sure.
Rob Whitten: Yeah. And I like bringing Todd in as early as I can. So oftentimes a potential client will reach out to us and we’ll explain that we would like to meet them on the site they’re considering, because that means as much to us in many respects as their program of spatial needs, and it can also really define the type of house they’re looking for. And ideally, Todd can be part of that initial meeting. Because we read a landscape one way, Todd reads it another. I value his input. There’s assets and there’s liabilities to every site and every project, and so the trick is to turn those liabilities into assets if possible, and I think Todd’s really wonderful at that.
Dr Lisa Belisle: So describe what would a liability and an asset of … I guess there’s two possibly separate things, but what would that mean?
Todd Richardson: Yeah, I think that the dollop of optimism that Rob talks about where a constraint might be turned into an opportunity I think is really the frame that you … how you view it I guess. And so for us, getting on a site early, and I think Rob hit a point that I think is really valuable in the work that we do together, that it starts early. It’s not something where we would come in at the tail end of a project, and there would be a couple issues that the architects may be asking us to address. I think with the work that we do with Whitten Architects, it’s terrific in that the conversation starts early and it starts at the conceptual level, and often that’s paired with visiting the site together and often that’s without clients which has its benefits, both do. But I think it’s great to get on the site with Rob to talk about what we’re seeing, and what things really strike us as drivers for a particular project, what are the opportunities?
You know, constraints can be many. I think that sites are more and more challenging that can align with regulatory constraints as an example, setbacks or critical resources that obviously need to be respected. Other examples might be run-off or drainage, or steep slopes that begin to put some building blocks around where you might not choose the site to have us. But I think that we take those in light of where the real opportunities are and we gravitate the project to the place on the site where we can find the most opportunities and make the most of the project.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, oftentimes as we approach a site … I love Google Earth because it gives us great overview, so you see it from a mile up and you see big patterns, and you see big relationships. And you can really see it in a very macro way. Thanks to doing this for a number of years, I can kind of read that landscape and that site and get a feel for it. The other thing that happens oftentimes is, Maine is over 300 years old. The good sites got picked early. And first comers get choice. So if you’re dealing with a new site today, it’s been passed over probably many times. And so whether you have to be more creative and more inventive to make that site really work for the family whose home you’re designing.
And I think that again, plays right into landscape. So it could have unstable coastal bluffs, it could have wetlands, it could have soils problems that are creating other issues. So it’s exposure could be bad. Now it’s a northwest slope, and the best slope is southeast. Okay, how we design for that? You know, how do we work with that? So with the views to the northwest I want a house that’s long and narrow so the sun’s on your back as you’re looking at the view. I mean it’s just … and again, playing with that. And I really love … because Todd will have a grade problem, and it’ll be like, oh here’s an opportunity, we can manage the grade with a series of subtle manipulations.
Whether it’s … Todd loves bringing in large native boulders and they just become part of the landscape. And it’s like they’ve always been there. One of our sites that we worked on together was a pond that was so pristine, it was a trout hatchery. And we had fairly big interventions on that site. At the end of the day, it looks like it always had been just like that. So it’s kind of fun to think about.
Dr Lisa Belisle: So an intervention I’m assuming is something that disrupts the things-
Todd Richardson: Dynamite.
Dr Lisa Belisle: That’s pretty interventionous, right? So how Todd would you keep something like that pristine pond intact so that the people who are going to move into a house on that site can enjoy it, and like creatures that are using the pond already don’t stop enjoying it.
Todd Richardson: Yeah, I think that begins with the conversations that we might have earlier on in the process where we identify it as a real asset. And then I think the extent to which one goes to preserve or conserve that I think becomes how we begin to talk not only amongst ourselves, but with a client as well. Because part of the role from the beginning moving forward, is educating our clients as to what some of those values are and beginning to paint a vision for a project that puts value in protecting the pond, or boulder, or cluster of trees which truth be told, would be easier to take down or to roll over to do that.
And I think what we’re able to do is talk at the ground level about what will make this project great. And I think that one of the things that Rob and I focus on collectively and collaboratively is, many times, is the things that you preserve and that you reveal that ultimately make the project. I mean there’s certainly some things that are brought to the project, how about a house and some landscape. But I think fundamentally it starts with some of the core things that are pivotal in the project, some existing condition that really inspires the direction for the project. And when we get excited about that and started thinking about ways to design with that, not against that, but with that, and then fold our client into the process. I think that’s where some of the magic takes place.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, and it is fun to as I say have this overview, this Google view, the mile view, mile high view. And then to have identified perhaps some things that will influence the design of the house or the landscape. And then to have that information in hand, and then go visit the site for the first time. This is really kind of like … there’s always a revelation like, “Oh, that’s a cranberry bog, cool.” You know that means wonderful color, wonderful fruit, wonderful bird life. It also means it’s a wetland. So we understand that. But again, it can become this great asset where as perhaps an unsympathetic person could say, “Why it’s just a swamp.” But no, it’s a wonderful resource. And so we really enjoy things like that. The other thing is to try to visit the site with Todd, but also to visit it with a client so you can see the site through their eyes. You can see what they saw, why they’re buying it, what it means to them, or if there are some things that they’re particularly focused on.
And oftentimes it’s helping educate a client so you could say, “What part of the site do you really like? What’s the best part of the site for you? Is this why you bought it?” And then you say, “Well then let’s not put the house right on top of it. Let’s let it be beside the house. So it’s still the best part of the site, and the house gets to share it.” And there’s this real synergy now between the house and the landscape. And I think when that starts to work together… we’ve recently done a project in a pretty well established coastal community and there was an older home that wasn’t a good fit. It didn’t serve the family very well. It didn’t have good inside/outside living spaces, in a principally a summer recreational community. And when we all finished, I’d like to have a house that fits, it respects it’s context, it really feels like it has been there, and everybody’s enjoying the outside living there. I mean, it’s always fun when you go to a house and it’s under construction and you say, “So where did the guys have their lunch?”
They get to pick. They get to pick the room with the nice view, with the nice sun, with the nice exposure. So it’s always kind of fun. It’s very telling. You know, it’s like where does the dog lie in the sun? Okay, right there. I think that kind of information you get somehow from nature, really influences the way we make a lot of design decisions.
Dr Lisa Belisle: I remember having a conversation about the sun and how you can never really know the way that the sun is going to be in the building until you live in a place for a full year. So I mean that’s very much a inside/outside element. How do you design around something that you won’t be able to actually experience, but is clearly very important to the people who are going to live in that structure?
Todd Richardson: Yeah I would answer that by saying, there is some ways, techniques, to understand generally what the sun might be telling us about morning light, midday light and afternoon light. I think that, Rob, I think it was you that said people are drawn to the light in the home and outside. And I think that’s important. I think it’s maybe as important or more important for people that cherish Maine and come to Maine because they really like the outdoors, many of them. So I think really understanding what is the south aspect, what’s the early morning light, and then designing kind of a reciprocity between indoor and outdoor spaces, so that their living can flow seamlessly inside and outside.
I think that’s an interesting way that Rob and I have often talked about the work that we do, and that is less about the divisions between architecture and landscape. I mean Rob’s a terrific architect, I’m a landscape architect, we have our roles and responsibilities in a project. But I think sort of eroding some of those differences and really focusing on some of the commonalities really makes a lot of sense early on in the project. So we’re thinking more holistically about a place and the qualities of the place. So the light to which you refer, I think is not an architecture conversation or a landscape conversation, it’s really born out of a conversation that says, “How do we want to collectively maximize our client’s opportunity to really relish and enjoy the sun here?” So where the entrances are, where indoor/outdoor living and eating might occur are a couple ways in which we would focus on that.
Rob Whitten: We really think about it from the very beginning. And we actually on every project, all our work is site specific. We show the client in the very beginning a site plan showing where the prevailing breezes are, here come the tropic storms that are going to hit here in March and November that come from the east, they’re loaded with moisture, they come from the northeast, the prevailing summer breezes are southwest. The big polar highs in the winter are coming out of the northwest, and they’re cold and they’re dry. So it’s just getting them to think that they bought a piece of nature, and now we have to design a house that works with nature. And also we love the Maine precedent, the vernacular precedent. All of Maine was off the grid until 1900 let’s say. So how they use their resources, how they use the sun, how they organize their day, how they organize their workspace, where their families lived.
There’s a lot to be learned from that. So we like that precedent. And so the house has a bigger allegiance to the sun than a road for example. I mean the sun is really fundamental. Ideally if you’re warm, dry and comfortable, and your health is good, you have a sustainable house. And the sun is a huge player in that. So we think about that a lot. I mean that’s number one for us. It’s kind of funny, here we are almost at 44 degrees north latitude, that’s a huge player. I mean that’s … and if someone coming from away, you kind of have to educate them about that. So it’s just, again, I like that process. I like having bigger forces help us make decisions. Because they’ll be right at the end of the day.
Dr Lisa Belisle: As you’re talking about this, I’m almost getting the sense of the house on the landscape as being it’s own, I don’t want to say creature, but entity being?
Rob Whitten: Oh it is, absolutely.
Dr Lisa Belisle: And more of a living thing versus like a structure.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, oh absolutely. So you can bring nature in and … so also man has a pretty grim climate many times a year. So we have to protect you from it. But when it’s nice, it’s got to be accessible, you’ve got to get out into it. So it does have a dynamic quality, it is like an animal in a sense, it makes changes. And the other thing is you work with your building forms, you can start to create these little micro climates. So here’s this little sun pocket, here’s the barn or the garage that’s protecting you from that north wind. You just play with all those elements. And you end up as I say, with a happier, better place to live, that’s really what it amounts to.
Dr Lisa Belisle: I know you’ve had some recent projects and some that Maine Home Design has been particularly interested in that you’ve worked on together. Tell me about one of your favorites that you’ve worked on and what that process was like for you.
Todd Richardson: I can talk to this, Berwick Retreat, I think that for me, that’s a really great project that was meaningful from a number of perspectives I think, and I’ll talk to the collaboration as being one of those. But I think also, just an outstanding site and a terrific client, I think that was the sort of trifecta if you will there. But one of the aspects of that project that was terrific on this end, was the call that Rob placed to me early when his office was on board with the project and we began to get on board, and Rob said, “Could you come up to the office? We’re going to do this, where everyone in the office is going to participate in thinking about this project and putting some ideas out as a way to generate a departure point for the conversation and we’d like you to be a part of that.” And it was just a memorable morning or afternoon, I forget what it was, where Rob’s office really to me demonstrated a clear understanding of site and building, and the relationships between the two.
And it was an open forum for me to contribute to the work that they were doing and help sow some seeds early on in the process. So the beginning of that project was I think fundamental to the outcome of that project to be honest with you. I think it was the early days that the collaboration really began to talk about the direction and the vision of how the building and the site would become kind of synonymous with each other. And I think that worked tirelessly to every detail including materials that started on the inside and moved right to the outside, and walls that literally slid away so that the landscape would flow through the house. So I think there’s a couple exemplary outcomes that I really think were talked about not from day one, but in the early part of the process. So that was a really great one for me.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, and it was a really significant project. But at the same time, both of us together took on … Russ Tyson works closely with me in my office and he was project architect on that. But it was a house on a lake in Maine, in western Maine. And it was a totally unsympathetic, what shall I say, uninspired vinyl clad house, and they just destroyed the landscape. And our client approached us and said, “I want to make it different,” and we stepped up and did that in terms of design of the house. But most of all, it was taunts for a mediating really of a landscape that could have been lovely once, but boy when we got there it was just run-off right to the lake, no features at all, really hostile. You couldn’t be out in that landscape because it was … particularly in the summer, because it just was bright and sunny, and you felt very exposed. And by the end, unsolicited we got … Todd’s office received an award from the Lakes Commission for doing all the right things.
Todd Richardson: Yeah, that project was really interesting in terms of the client standing in front of the house early on and saying, “You know this just doesn’t fit. How can we make this fit?” I mean look at the context here and what we’re looking at. And I think that Rob’s office really worked hard to transform quite honestly almost a suburban character home-
Rob Whitten: It was, yeah.
Todd Richardson: … It was on a beautiful lakeside into … just a tremendous lakeside cottage, and our mandate was to integrate it and make it fit. So we used a lot of native plants, we addressed some of the run-off challenges which being right on the lakes edge, to think of what was happening and how that could change. We were really excited about that, and we had the support of the client and wove together a lot of aspects of the indoor/outdoor living. So I think we … that house did a 180 overall and the landscape followed.
Rob Whitten: Yeah exactly, so it was a complete turnaround. The other thing that as yet unacknowledged, is the collaboration we get with both the builders and the installers. And again, there’s a wonderful sense of Maine craft. We’re fortunate in that we don’t have to tell them how to do it right. Inherently I think they want to do it right. And if your budget is sufficient they can do it right. And we will be advocates for doing it right. We’re not disappointed. And I think there’s a sense of pride, and there’s a sense of continuity. The other thing that we both are fortunate, we tend to work on what I’ll call sustainable projects, because they are going to stay with this family for a long period of time.
It’s not a short cycle, it’s not a five year cycle, it’s a 30 year cycle, or it’s the next generation. So it’s really fun to plan and think that way. And it’s also fun to watch Todd’s landscapes mature, and it’s fun to watch our houses age a little bit. When we photograph them for the magazine, we don’t photograph them day one, we like to give them a year, you know, let them get seasoned, let them become assimilated, let them become part of Maine. Then there’s something special that goes on. And it’s always … again, it’s that sense of time is an important continuum here.
Todd Richardson: I’d like to echo something that Rob said that I think is really fundamental, and that is, we’re having a conversation with two principles of two offices, but as Rob eluded to I think the notion of collaboration extends beyond Rob and I. I think both our offices fundamentally operate that way and benefit from that process. But to Rob’s point about how contractors and owners, if a team of collaborators is broader and they really understand not just the content but the intent of what the project is, I think that it serves the project really well. And I think I can speak for both of us really trying to nurture that sense of the more holistic team collaborating and I don’t know if that’s selfish or not, but I think the outcome is far better when you get people that really understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. And I think we’ve seen terrific results working with builders, and craftsmen, and suppliers, and our own staff in our offices to make that all come together. So I think that’s collaboration with a capital C I think.
Rob Whitten: Yeah. And the sense of place can really be reinforced by the materials you use and how you use them. And I think Maine has an abundant supply of stone and wood, and accustomed to work with the products. It’s fun, it’s really fun. And I think what’s exciting for us now is the pallet has grown. There’s more and more materials to work with and is better performing, more sustainable, more durable materials to work with. I think that it’s a very exciting time quite honestly to be an architect.
Dr Lisa Belisle: How about you Rob, do you have any particular favorite projects that you’ve worked on with Todd that you can think of as being exemplary?
Rob Whitten: Well it’s always the next project you know, that’s the optimism that drives us all. I do, but they’re all very, very different you know? I think it’s the seamlessness between Todd has an ability to understand the architectural intent and his responses really reinforce what we’re designing. So whether it’s Grady’s Lake, or Spurwink Retreat or a recently completed project up in Yarmouth, they fit, they belong. I think at the end, also to sort of have the owner say, “Gee, I didn’t know where you guys were going,” perhaps, we like to think we’re good communicators, we’d like to think they know where they’re going. But at the end, they’re always pleased, they’re always really pleased where we are. And the result is they do own these houses for a long period of time. They really enjoy, they really settle in, they really fit. So it’s the fit, the collaboration that’s important.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Do you think that we went through a time where we were more thinking of ourselves as protecting ourselves from the elements? Where we were building houses so it’s just sort of a protection against the storm.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, us and them?
Dr Lisa Belisle: Exactly. Exactly. Because the way you’re describing it, it seems like a more natural back and forth. But I’ve lived in many houses … well actually I haven’t lived in that many of them because I can’t stand to be in that space too long. But I’ve been in industrial spaces where it’s like, “We have to put these walls here because there’s scary stuff on the outside of them, so we have to protect ourselves.”
Rob Whitten: Yeah, to a certain extent, if someone has an attitude like what your describing, they wouldn’t be attracted to our work. So there is a little bit of a self-selection that goes on here. But I do think the materials are better. I think we can do a better job of making you warm, dry and healthy in a house today, than we could 20 years ago, 5 years ago. Just because it’s gotten more sophisticated. I think people are thinking differently about how they live in houses. I think they are thinking about their relationship with a house, and so the main climate is an enemy, because we have better materials and better ways of designing, it’s not quite as much of an enemy. We can co-exist better today, don’t you think Todd?
Todd Richardson: Yeah, I don’t know.
Rob Whitten: At least if we’ve made the right decisions, you and I have made the right decisions and it’s been carried through.
Todd Richardson: I don’t know if this is a subjective opinion about this, but I feel that in Maine we have unique clients. And I think that at the end of the day, they’re looking for something that really brings meaning to them and their family, and connects them to place. And that’s through the terrific architecture and the way that the site works. I talked to colleagues outside of Maine, and I’m continually reminded that, “Wow that’s different, it’s different in Maine,” and I just think that the people that come to Rob and my offices are really soulful about the way that they appreciate what Maine is and what makes Maine distinctive. I think of this, that your magazine, you know this, but I think that translates into architecture and landscape architecture and the ways those two can perform together. It’s really, what’s the there there? And why are people coming to Maine and choosing to develop a property.
And a lot of things matter. I think the quality of the materials, the exposure. I think all those are significantly important. But I think at the end of the day those are contributors to that connection to the place that I think people are really longing for and yearning for when they decide to come to Maine and decide to stay in Maine. So I think that’s a fun part of what we do, is from the get-go those clients are keenly interested in some things that we’re passionate about and think we do well together.
Rob Whitten: The Spurwink Retreat project that Todd mentioned, there was a house on that site, and it was a big site. But we were limited to a building envelope that came with the property. Again, there’s a constraint. So it was, “How can we make the best use of this portion that we’re working in?” And our client had said that all the other houses he’d looked at, and the house he was buying, seemed to get in the way. In other words, it was an obstacle. It didn’t protect him, but it was a barrier to his being able to reach out into the landscape. And so his early charge to us was, “I want to feel like I’m connected to the landscape.” And I’d like to think that’s why the house is such a success. We had a sympathic owner, he was very clear in his wants. He’s a very good communicator. And we provided it.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well I’m fascinated by this topic, and I could really keep talking about it forever and ever, because I think there’s a lot of crossover between the way that I look at human beings and their relationships with one another in my medical practice. And the way that you’re talking about people’s relationships with the way that they live their lives, I encourage people to read more about your projects in Maine Home and Design, and hopefully I can give you guys a call if they’re feeling like they were equally soulful as homeowners, home builders. I’ve been speaking with Rob Whitten who is the founder of Whitten Architects, a residential architectural firm based in Portland, and Todd Richardson, a landscape architect, who is the owner of Richardson and Associates in Saco. Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing.
Rob Whitten: Thank you.
Dr Lisa Belisle: And I appreciate the time that you have come in today.
Todd Richardson: Thanks.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Yep. Our pleasure.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is also brought to you by Aristelle, a lingerie boutique on Exchange Street in Portland’s Old Port, where every body is seen as a work of art, and beauty is celebrated from the inside out. Shop with us in person or online at aristelle.com.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Russ Doucette is the owner of Russ Doucette Custom Home Builders in Scarborough, and Teresa Simpson is the owner of Midcoast Home Designs in Wiscasset. Thanks for coming in today.
Russ Doucette: Thank you.
Teresa Simpson: Thank you for having us.
Dr Lisa Belisle: So one I’m using Scarborough, one I’m using Wiscasset, but from what I’m understanding you actually do quite a bit of work together.
Teresa Simpson: Yeah, I’m lucky enough to be able to work under Mr. Doucette here. I think we collaborated a few years ago on a project in [inaudible 00:30:19] when we got to first meet.
Russ Doucette: Correct.
Teresa Simpson: It’s about three years ago?
Russ Doucette: Roughly three years ago. I had started off with a client and felt that it was best that they go find a true architect. And they did, and they found Teresa which was actually a Godsend for me.
Teresa Simpson: Thanks.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well tell me about that. So tell me what is the benefit … well first of all, I guess I should get a little bit of background from each of you for people who are listening who don’t know you, as to what each of you do as individuals.
Teresa Simpson: Well I, let’s see, I’ve been a home designer, let’s see, since 1988. I actually started designing homes for my family when I was actually in high school. So I put myself through college, through engineering school, and then I started my own business really in a small little town working outside of the perimeters of my family and subbing out to contractors. At some point I had actually heard of Russ Doucette Builders, but I hadn’t made it down to the Portland area. I was just working in the Midcoast Brunswick, Freeport area. And then later on as my family started to retire and contractors were getting more busy, I started advertising and then lo and behold, 20 some odd years later I get to finally meet Russ Doucette in person. And from there we’ve collaborated on quite a few projects, now that I’m more in the Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Saco area. So that’s a little bit about my background.
Russ Doucette: A little bit about mine, I come from a little town up north in Van Buren and moved here on the 4th of July of ’76. And this was shortly after I had graduated from the University of Presque Isle Vocational School. While I was here, I started doing carpentry work, it’s what I went to school for. As time progressed I knew that I just didn’t want to be a regular carpenter, so I was looking to start my own business. And at the time I was working for a company, Dartmouth Company in Portland and got to know the supervisor really well, became very good friends with him. And so I had an opportunity to start my business at that point and they had some projects. When I did start my business, that was back in 1981, ’80, ’81, interest rate was 22.5%. So needless to say there wasn’t too much work out there. So what was I doing starting my own business? Well, I had an opportunity and I took it. And things led to this point. Did some great projects, at some beautiful homes, some commercial work, had some slow times just like everybody else in our business, no matter what kind of business you’re in.
Three years ago I had been dealing with a draftsman in Portland. Unfortunately he had passed away unexpectedly. So I was looking for a new designer to help me along, and again, met Teresa and here we are. And we have done three or four, five homes together. We just finished one up, a fairly good sized one in Cape Elizabeth. And we are doing one right now, underway. I believe a 5000 square foot home. Things are going well.
Teresa Simpson: It’s a lot of fun.
Russ Doucette: Yes.
Teresa Simpson: I feel like I’m blessed to finally met him and work with him. It’s kind of a dream of mine.
Russ Doucette: It goes both ways.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well, talk to me about the collaboration. What is it about each of your individual skill sets and also the way that you communicate that seems to work well for you?
Teresa Simpson: I feel that I’ve noticed, having feedback from my clients, that I tend to listen well and I can envision what a client’s needs and wants are. And I really think that being an architect, it’s key to be able to understand what a client wants. Not necessarily to give them my design, but work with them in trying to obtain their design and facilitate it. And I’ve always noticed that the key details that Russ just said in his homes and his craftsmanship show, is exactly what I try to instill into my client’s homes. So it’s sort of we’re on the same road. And now that we get to work together, we can facilitate that a little bit better in project management for our clients.
Russ Doucette: For me it’s the communication between her and I is great because she doesn’t take criticism, she takes it very well. And it’s not criticism, it’s a different way of doing things. Where I have the ability to design homes and build them, in the past I haven’t had much luck dealing with architects, they kind of stay away from me, because they know that I can do it myself. But that’s not really what I wanted to do. I can. And unfortunately a lot of them have their own way of doing things, and where I’m the builder, there are different ways to do it. And I would like to collaborate with them to get the job done in a manner that the client wants, and give the client the outcome they’re looking for. With Teresa, we’ve gone around and around a few times. Where she designed things or how she, when she designs things she’s trying to build it in her mind. Well, sometimes building in your mind and the way you’re accustomed to do it might be different than what I’m accustomed to doing it and how I approach things. So we communicate very well with that, and she’s always asking, “Well how are you doing this? Can we do it different?” Et cetera. So it’s a really good balance, no question.
Teresa Simpson: I definitely have found that I have learned so much from him, it’s like hands on experience with Russ. From the aspects of framing to finish carpentry, how to deal with clients when I had, say that when we feel that we’re right and we try to teach the client maybe what a better solution is. He always an integral way of how to deal with a problem. So I really … I’m like a sponge with his information.
Russ Doucette: Well I think in her background, your parents, your father was a builder?
Teresa Simpson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). In the trades.
Russ Doucette: He was in the trades. So she learned the trades, so she learned it from the bottom up. So when she’s designing she can figure things out, and it’s not always according to the books. In my case, where I started from the ground up. I actually did the physical work. The framing of the homes, the structurals of the homes, the interior trim of the home. So I feel that in my business and where I am today, that helped me tremendously. I’m not what you would call a briefcase contractor that someone just come off the street and start building homes. I know it from the ground up.
Teresa Simpson: Everything about it.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Do you think that that can some times be an issue where there’s one person who is dealing with things in a theoretical way, you know they’re designing things based by the books, the way you’re describing it. And then you have somebody else that’s being called in to deal with the very practical nature of say building materials or timelines, or structural details?
Russ Doucette: It can be. Basically you can pretty much draw anything you want on paper. But actually physically doing it out on the field is somewhat different. You’re always faced with different challenges because the way they draw it on paper looks great. But when you’re starting to put these grafters together or structurally, you have to have the field knowledge of how to build it. Not just read it from a blueprint, you have to have the practical experience. And in a lot of cases you have to improvise. And when you improvise and you have a architect involved, they want to know what’s going on. So before you go ahead and change certain things different than the plans, they want to know about it. And as I mentioned earlier, some of them are willing to go along with it, some of them aren’t. So it’s a balancing act. Again the end product is the most important thing.
Teresa Simpson: I have a lot of clients who come to me with, who have either watched HGTV or get all the fancy magazines including … I actually do use Main Home and Design as a reference material. Because it’s local, it’s trendy, it’s upbeat, everybody gets ideas from it. But with the clients who tend to look at a lot of Pinterest or Howse which are great resources, it sometimes gives an unrealistic approach to design or what not. It misleads our clients. So Russ and I really tend to design what we feel is best for that particular piece of land, or that landscape. Whether it’s inland or on the ocean, and that’s another way that we tend to bounce ideas. They’re true from our hearts and how we feel something should look, as if we would live there. Not necessarily from opening up a webpage or a magazine, even though it’s a good resource. So we try to show clients out of the box per se, rather than out of the magazine per se.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Do you think that sometimes people don’t … they think they know what they want, but they don’t really know what they want?
Teresa Simpson: That tends to happen quite a bit with me, or they don’t really know how to verbalize it. They want to be trendy, but they want to be unique at the same time, and we have a tendency to show clients whether it’s from past projects, or again, thinking out of the box. You don’t want the cookie cutter home, maybe some ideas that everyone else shares, but a lot of homeowners whether they can’t voice it or they don’t know how, I have the capability of showing clients 3D perspectives that actually use current materials. Russ will tell me which windows, what brand doors, what flooring, what paint colors. And I’ll actually use those particular materials, show the client a quick 3D just like HGTV would. And it helps them, that client, understand what they’re going to have.
Russ Doucette: I think a lot of clients have a pretty good idea what they want. The biggest thing is they can’t visualize it, and I get that all the time. So by being in the business as long as I have, and having so many houses to go by and pictures, et cetera, and dealing with so many clients in the past as well, you have a pretty good sense of what they’re really looking at. Especially when a new client comes to me, is interested in having a project done or built, it takes a while to get to know the individual. You go to their house, you talk to them, you listen, you listen to what … they like craftsman style, traditional, modern, et cetera. So by listening to them more, you get a better idea really what they’re looking for. So when they come to you say, “I know what I want but I can’t visualize it. Can you…” So at that point you get to know them. You have a better idea of what they’re really looking for. So you either sketch it out, or you do a prototype and they see it, they like it or don’t. It goes really well that way.
Teresa Simpson: I tend to find that we both tend to hold client’s hands throughout the entire process. And a lot of clients who can’t necessarily vision something or can, don’t always know what to spend on a budget. And having us collaborate from the very beginning of design right through the construction, we can sort of guide the clients as to what their budget or that their project can afford them, rather than just designing beautiful pictures and pouring a foundation that may be something that they don’t want.
Russ Doucette: And their budget is not a HGTV budget.
Teresa Simpson: Right.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well that must be an interesting conundrum. Because you have people who want beautiful things and they have a sense for maybe how much it might cost. But then it may not be that much here, you know things are going to be different than what they see on HGTV for example.
Russ Doucette: Correct. What I like to do is, if somebody’s interested in a house, what I try to do again is, I try to get some information on that house, what style of house, what size of house, what they like inside the house. So at that point I can put all that information together, go back to the office and look at projects that I’ve done, or just by 40 years of experience. I can put a budget together and come back to them and say, “Listen, the size of the house, the style of the house you’re looking for, I feel that a budget of this is what you should really start with. Anything less is …” It basically goes through the interior as well. Somebody’s interested in having a built-in, a custom entertainment center or some kind of cathedral ceiling, barn beams, et cetera. If they tell me in advance, I can tell them what the budget should … what you should allow for a budget before you move forward. So you’re not telling me to do it and then I give you a $5000 bill where you thought it was going to be $2000, you don’t want to do that.
Teresa Simpson: We like to be able to show the client the story of their house, and have them show us the book cover. So we’ll create the inside and then present the entire book to them before any logistics start to happen. That’s why I say we usually do best from the design from the very beginning, which is … it doesn’t always get a chance to have that happen between a contractor and an architect. Usually the architect will give the project to a contractor after it’s designed. But we always like to do it from the beginning.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Do you ever run into problems where you’ve designed something, you’ve build something, you’ve listened to people all the way along, and then they come and look at it and they say, “Oh now, that’s really not what I was thinking about,” has that ever happened?
Teresa Simpson: Yes, it has. I’ve actually had homes that looked completely different on the rear as it does on the front. Usually an oceanside home has two fronts, one on the ocean, one on the driveway side. When you show, I like to be able to show the clients exactly what they portrayed to me and also offer my ideas. So that way we’re not kind of bursting their bubble, but we actually get to show them, “Maybe your idea wasn’t really what we were trying to get or trying to foresee.” And I know that we’ve kind of collaborated on one like that before.
Russ Doucette: Yeah, I mean it’s a common thing, well I say common, not necessarily. I remember when I was actually doing the physical trim work inside of houses. In some cases I had the client sit down while I was doing the built-in. Especially when they didn’t know. So we would try to avoid what you just said, build the whole thing and then it’s not quite what we wanted. Yes that has happened, no question. I think it would happen to any builder having 40 years in the business. It’s not something that’s fun, but it’s something that we thought we were on the right track et cetera. The client thought halfway through it it’s what they wanted as well, but the end product wasn’t what quite what it was. So basically what you do is just basically start all over again and try to avoid it.
Teresa Simpson: That’s related to 3D pictures.
Russ Doucette: In our business it does happen, no question. I plan on being in business for a while and I’m sure it’ll happen again.
Teresa Simpson: Yeah.
Dr Lisa Belisle: When I think about our culture and where we’ve come, we’ve really become very visual. But we’re still sort of two dimensionally visual, which does lead to our ability to say, oh it is a nice picture of something. But thinking in a three dimensional way is a really different thing that I’m not sure most people have the capabilities for.
Teresa Simpson: I’ve come across a majority of my clientele who can’t envision in, as you’re saying in 3D fashion being all 2D. So to be able to show a client size relevance, or even roof pitch wise, a lot of people can’t envision what a second floor over first floor will look like, or the size of how large a family living room is. I usually try to encourage clients to do what a I call the paper doll effect. Which they measure their furniture, they cut it out on a piece of paper to a scale I’ve given them, and actually place it on a floor plan. And Russ and I always start with floor plans, and that’s it. We provide that initially rather than the whole kit and caboodle, rather than all the elevations in 3Ds, not to overwhelm a homeowner. Because sometimes if they can’t envision something, too much information can be a burden. So we just start small to be able to show them what we’re in sense we’re going to be showing them and giving them. I think you probably, you’ve taught me one of those-
Russ Doucette: Oh now, that’s very true, although today with what Teresa said earlier about Howse and Pinterest, there are a million pictures of just about everything that’s been built already out there. And it’s just a matter of just scrolling through it and finding something. And as I said earlier, if you can get me something that’s close to what you’re looking for but not quite there, that’s when we can come together and collaborate and design something that the individual is really looking for.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Those-
Teresa Simpson: I was just going to day, there’s been a few times where we’ve had mutual clients that have shown us the same pictures. So we can tell what’s trendy out there without looking at the websites, because everybody keeps bringing similar pictures.
Dr Lisa Belisle: So there are some advantages of all of these things then.
Teresa Simpson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Russ Doucette: Oh, all the information that’s out there today is always an advantage, no question. If you know how to use it and how to find it, no question.
Teresa Simpson: I still like to have all the resources of the professionals around this area [inaudible 00:48:38] place to like to be able to use the locals who, like Russ, have the experience.
Russ Doucette: Forty years ago I don’t think computers were around, so I don’t … so we went on visuals, and what we had done et cetera. I mean it was completely different than it was today. Just like everything else I suppose.
Teresa Simpson: We used to build our models rather than creating them on the computer.
Russ Doucette: Yes we did that a few times.
Dr Lisa Belisle: When I think about the younger, I’ll call it the younger generation which is going to make me sound like I’m ancient, but you know, I’ll watch HGTV with my 16 year old, she’s a junior in high school. I don’t think she’s going to go into … she’s not probably going to become an architect, I don’t think she’s going to be a contractor, it’s just not where here interests lie. But for some reason, she and I can find this common ground and watch these shows like Flip or Flop, or, you know. And it’s interesting to me that this has become intriguing and has become a place of commonality. I would not have foreseen that when I was 16, that I would someday be interested in watching a show about home renovation.
Teresa Simpson: That’s funny you say that. When I was in high school, I know a lot of my friends would be watching MTV, but I was watching This Old House, so I tend to find … because I like to see something created. One thing that I found, a lot of … that pleases me, is to be able to see a house that I’ve designed from the beginning up, and then see it in Maine Home and Design, or go through, walk through the house. To me that’s like This Old House and watching the show, watching the TV shows, and seeing Chip and Joanna on TV being able to see what they’ve created. I think it’s always neat to be able to walk into a house that you’ve designed and see it for real.
Russ Doucette: I think with those shows on TV, HGTV, and again I watch those as well, not on a regular basis but I watch them, like Flip or Flop or Love It or List It. What I like about them is one sense I think they’re teaching America something. Number one is that if you’re buying an existing home and you’re interested in renovating it, that it’s not cut and dry. There’s many, many unknowns. So when you’re looking for a price from a contractor to design what you want, I think they understand that there are going to be a lot of unknowns that most of the time are going to increase the price. Or if you don’t want the price increased, you’re going to have to cut back on something. And you get that a lot on Love It or List It. Okay, they’re going in with $100,000 budget, and they’re going to do a master bedroom, and they’re going to do this or whatever. And then they get into it, they find a big problem, I don’t know how expensive it’s going to be, but she come back and says, “You know that laundry room that you wanted, it’s not going to happen because we got to do this and it’s structural, so we have to fix it.” So I think in one sense if people are really listening or looking, I think they’re understanding that when they want a remodel job done.
Teresa Simpson: Because remodeling tends to be more expensive, more than building new.
Russ Doucette: Oh no question, no question, it is.
Teresa Simpson: And the home is nice. So yeah the Love It or List It teaches us that.
Russ Doucette: Right. And then Joanna Gaines, she’s in that area where she likes to re-use old stuff. She doesn’t like to throw anything away. She’s always looking at rummage sales or things of that nature. Which looks good when she puts it all together, no question. I think in those senses, the only thing about that is it’s not really price, you know…
Teresa Simpson: It’s not for the New England area.
Russ Doucette: Well now, it isn’t. Because I look at some of those things and I said, there’s no way that they can do what they’re doing for that money.
Teresa Simpson: We have something similar to that, but we tend to show our clients for the trendy ideas, where it might be less expensive where we could find them, rather than just going to the local flea markets or going to Boston per se to do it.
Russ Doucette: Right, so. Again I think we all look at HGTV and know in that respect.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well Maine Home and Design I know has featured your work before, and quite a lot actually. So tell me about a project that you’ve particularly enjoyed collaborating on that has had some maybe challenges that have ended up, you’ve been able to overcome them and turn them into benefits.
Teresa Simpson: Yeah, I think one that will be featured soon is the latest Crispin job that we worked on which we had a client that was downsizing to a beautiful home, it’s about 10,000 square feet. And there was roof line challenges, where the homeowners knew what they wanted, they knew they wanted to downsize. And it was up to Russ and I to really be able to make the framing affordable without scaling back on too much of the design aspects. So from street level, it still looks nice, but roof lines and interior two story cathedral ceilings, balconies, that happened on the Crispin job that-
Russ Doucette: Yes, that was a great job I think, it was a collaboration not just between Teresa and I but the homeowner was quite involved. And they had a designer of their own that was involved in it as well. So it was one of those projects that we all had to come together and put it all together. At this point the client is very happy, it was a great project. It was probably a year and a half in the making. They just … well the house is just finally done probably a couple three weeks ago. And we are working on another one right now in Cape Elizabeth that was a challenge. And it’s that same issue about the roof rafters in the back and how everything comes together. As I mentioned earlier, you can draw it on paper but you have to be in the field to figure out how to put it together. And that’s the only way you’re going to do it. So we’re doing that right now. And actually after this segment, we’re both going to go down there and look at the job together and …
Teresa Simpson: It’s like, for that cathedral ceiling issue.
Russ Doucette: Yeah.
Dr Lisa Belisle: So there’s a lot of kind of ongoing conversation it sounds like. There’s a lot of pulling it apart, seeing what works, getting back together. It’s not really, there’s not one straight path, you’re not always sure that you’re going to start at A and get to B.
Teresa Simpson: Right, there’s always the Jenga piece puzzle. We always … I think that’s the challenge and the fun part that I get to learn from Russ is, as I’m designing I’m framing it in my head, but I’m constantly on the phone with him saying, “What if I move this one dormer back a little bit farther, what are we going to do the roof collar ties,” and what not?. And he will literally start verbally framing it on the phone with me, which is actually a good thing right?
Russ Doucette: No it is. There are people out there that don’t want to build the bigger projects. They find them not affordable or not a money maker, or it’s just too difficult and they don’t want to go that route. They want to stay with the cookie cutters. Well, I’m not that way. The bigger the challenge, the better it is. And that’s where Teresa comes in hand, because you need each other. You know sometimes on a bigger job, even though you drew it, well I’ll go back to Teresa, let’s redraw this this way and see what happens and see how it looks and so on and so forth. So it really … when you start a project depending on the size and the difficulty of it, it’s not always cut and dry as you just mentioned. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes that takes place to get it done.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well I appreciate your taking the time to come in here and have this conversation with me. I have been speaking with Russ Doucette who is the owner of Russ Doucette Custom Home Builders in Scarborough, and Teresa Simpson who is the owner of Midcoast Home Designs in Wiscasset. Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today.
Russ Doucette: Well, thank you for having us.
Teresa Simpson: Thanks, it was fun.
Dr Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 327. Our guests have included Rob Whitten, Todd Richardson, Russ Doucette and Teresa Simpson. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Main Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show sign up for our E-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as doctorlisa, and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. Please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are pleased that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick, our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com.