Raising the Roof: Stunning Homes Designed by Women

Hearst Castle (The Neptune pool at Hearst Castle, the legendary home built by publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst in San S
Dan Steinberg/The Associated Press

Though Frank Lloyd Wright famously called architecture "the mother art," it might be the one that's been least welcoming to women. When Wright apprentice Eleanor K. Pettersen received a Certificate in Architecture from the American Institute of Architects in 1941, she was a rarity. And nearly two decades later, little had changed. In 1958, women made up only 1 percent of the AIA's registered architects, and by 1988, only 4 percent.

But they've come a long way in the past 25 years, now comprising nearly a quarter of the AIA-recognized architects. Before women even had the right to vote in the U.S., though, they were already making an impact in architecture, despite being mostly unrecognized. At the turn of the 20th century, architect and radical feminist Alice Constance Austin was planning utopian socialist communities with "kitchenless" designs intended to reduce the domestic workload of women. At the other end of the social spectrum, Julia Morgan spent most of the first half of that century designing and overseeing the construction of one of the most magnificent private homes in America, the Hearst Castle (its Neptune Pool is pictured above) in San Simeon, Calif.

Along with their growing numbers, some see more acceptance of women in the past few decades. "I constantly had to be on guard with contractors (and to a much less extent -- clients) to make sure they took my office seriously and implemented all my directions," New York City residential architect Julie Kalberer told AOL Real Estate.

"As I have been in the business now for 28 years, and have raised a family in the meantime, these problems no longer exist for me," Kalberer, the co-owner of Turino Kalberer Architects, added. "Part of that is the confidence and credibility that long-term experience gives, and part of it is also the fact that the older contractors who were more typically in business when I was younger are now retired and have been replaced by a breed of contractors who have been brought up with educated, professional women."

In honor of International Day of the Girl Child, AOL Real Estate spoke with several American women architects across the country -- with an emphasis on those who design homes -- to see what inspires them, as well as what still challenges them. Some argue that when it comes to designing homes, women architects might even have an edge over their male colleagues. But that doesn't mean that girls aspiring to emulate them will necessarily have an easy time.

"Architecture is absolutely a male-dominated field," warns one of them, who adds, "If you know how to stand up for yourself, stand your ground, and not be pushed around by anyone, you'll do great." See the slideshow below for examples of their work and more of their insights.

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Raising the Roof: Stunning Homes Designed by Women

"Creating a home for a couple or family is an awesome responsibility," says Susan Harris Welker of Harris Welker Architects in Austin, Texas. "You are participating with the clients in a design solution that will combine the client’s time, life savings and emotional needs into a vessel for living. We understand this responsibility and determine the needs and goals early in the process so that our design for the client is unique to them and allows their home to be a safe harbor for their lives."

She says that many people today are looking for smaller, more efficient homes, like the 1,500-square-foot "Not So Big House" (pictured) that she designed for an East Austin client. 

This home reflects the party-throwing style of the owner, a high-tech worker by day and a stage manager by night, while incorporating the client's love of theater.

The guests arrive at the entrance of the home under the marquee (the covered porch), then enter a small vestibule to be received and shed their coats and other trappings (coat check area). A small niche in the foyer even mimics a ticket booth. Guests then pass through a double volume “lobby” with overlooking bridge and grand staircase to the seating area (living area).

"What makes my designs really unique is that they are designed to take advantage of as many of the opportunities presented by the site as possible, while addressing the needs of the specific client," says Kate Svoboda-Spanbock, owner of the small firm Los Angeles firm, Here Design and Architecture.

A two-term, past-president of the Association for Women in Architecture, she says, that in the 1960s it was nearly impossible for women to get a job in this field. "Now, there are thousands of women architects working in this country and about half of the students in architecture programs are women. You can open any architecture magazine and see the work of women being celebrated and built: Jeanne Gang, Elizabeth Diller, Julie Eizenberg, Kazuyo Sejima, Ming Fung, Billie Tsien, Zaha Hadid -- there are more of us every day."

She feels that "Anyone who has spent years responsible for cooking, cleaning and childcare tends to be more sensitive to the practical issues ... storage, accessibility, line of sight, ease of cleaning." 

In a remodel of a home in Ventura, Calif., (pictured) Svoboda-Spanbock kept the existing space and fenestration, but opened it up to the adjacent living room.

"Becoming a professional allows women financial independence and control of their lives. In my case, it allowed me to start a practice with flexibility to raise children," says the woman behind Patricia Motzkin Architecture in Berkeley, Calif.

"Residential architecture is a field where women in particular can build trust with clients and bring intuitive sensibilities to the design of clients domiciles."

In today's environment, there is more awareness of and concern for sustainability, she says.

"Clients are interested in light fixtures and appliances with better energy performance, and they're more willing to  consider energy saving mechanical systems too," says Motzkin. "They also are willing to consider using finishes with recycled content, locally sourced and environmentally friendly. There is growing awareness of the importance of preserving our environment."

A home (pictured) that Motzkin did in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood weds the traditional style of that area to a modern European look, as seen in this living room with its rift-sawn-oak firebox surround.

"I have found it both as a help and a challenge to be a female architect," says Cindy A. Terry, president of Westwork Architects. However, she adds, "It's rarely something I consciously think about until I'm in a meeting of  20 men and myself. 

At the first design meeting, the owners of the residence pictured here came to the architect with a shoebox of artifacts taken from the site: a few stones, seed pods, flowers and grasses. They requested that the house feel as if it were part of the land.

"The setting was very important in the design of the home," says Terry, whose firm is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "The home resembles a cliff formation that has slid down to the foothills. The owner wanted the colors and forms to speak to and evoke feelings of the site.

Colors were selected to resemble pieces from that box of artifacts that the owners collected, says Terry, who has been a registered architect for 25 years. The interiors are open and spacious. The public spaces and master bedroom open to the mountain range to the east and the city lights and views of Albuquerque to the west. The master also has a quiet and sequestered location, away from the secondary bedrooms and the more public areas of the home.

"About 15 years ago I was buying a new mattress," says architect Judy Coutts of her namesake firm, Judy Coutts, AIA Architect, in Altoona, Pa. "The salesperson was a woman in her mid-50s. It was like buying a mattress from your mom -- I would have bought anything from her, she was so trustworthy.

"A light bulb went off in my head, and I knew that my age would be an asset to my practice in the years ahead," she says. "I am now that woman.

"Designing with me is probably like designing with your mom. One client did tell me that he hired me because he believed a woman was more likely to LISTEN to him and his ideas than a man would. 

"Designing with a woman is less intimidating than designing with a man."

Much of what Coutts says she designs involves renovations and additions. In the bathroom remodel pictured here for a prior addition in Underhill Farm, Pa., her goal was to make it more functional.

The concept for the master bathroom was to make the new addition look like it had been a porch and had simply been enclosed. A glass-enclosed shower was selected to keep the room as open as possible. The marble vanity island, with ceiling-mounted double-sided mirror, is one-of-a-kind.

"Two trends that we are seeing on projects currently in the design phase are for baby boomers wanting to accommodate grandchildren or cats," says Jane Frederick, of Frederick + Frederick Architects in Beaufort, S.C. "For grandchildren we are designing bunk rooms with four to six built-in bunk beds.

"The cat rooms are designed for ease of cleaning litter boxes. The cat rooms have cat doors and access to the litter box from outside or the garage."

People love their pets, and the home in Bluffton, S.C., pictured here is one that Frederick designed to be dog-friendly.

A central outdoor space between two enclosed sections provides a naturally cooled outdoor space. The roof shades this space while the two structures funnel breezes -- creating a comfortable and functional outdoor space appropriate to a hot, humid climates.

The owners have the ability to close their dog-trot space in the cold or air-condition it in extreme heat. Folding doors give them the opportunity to open and close the house to fit any weather situation.

"We are pushing to design energy efficient and healthy homes, but the way we build is changing," says Valerie White of White Architects in Monroe, Conn.  From wireless speakers to iPads, implementing current technologies can change with every project, she says.

However, when it comes to designing for women: "They want millwork, built-ins and beautiful furnishings.  Large televisions are not especially important."

This yellow folk-Victorian poolhouse addition in Roxbury, Conn., was designed by White for Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell. 

When it comes to female architects, she says "Women have the reputation of being more organized, better listeners and having reduced egos. While this may not always be true; I do try very hard to listen to the clients wishes and budgets."

"Homeowners, both men and women are looking for flexible spaces ... and for design that incorporates the possibility of “aging in place,” says architect Amy Alper, who has been licensed since 1991 and opened her own practice in 2005. 

"An open plan with a strong connection to the outdoors, with a kitchen as the focal point of the home as well as the master suite on the main level, has been and remains the primary requests of my clients," she says. An example of that is the flex space she designed for the residence pictured here in Healdsburg, Calif.

"As I started my career, there were only a handful of women architects in senior positions. In fact, I was the first woman to be hired in other than a secretarial or bookkeeping position at my first job out of graduate school."


Having her own firm in Moorestown, N.J., means Kimberly Bunn of Bunn Architecture has the opportunity to take on a lot of projects involving historic homes. 

"[A] challenge has been and will continue to be merging today's modern lives with the character/charm of the historic homes which often have smaller compartmentalized spaces," she says.

For the historic home pictured here, she enlarged the family living space on the first floor to create an open plan that includes a living room, a children's play area and a computer nook.

"Families are so busy today with school, sports, work, community involvement and more that they want ways to have the home be organized and versatile," she says. "Popular components of recent designs have been second-floor laundry rooms, mud-room spaces and home-office spaces for working from home."

Verity Frizzell's designs don’t have a signature style, because every project is different, says the sole owner of Point Pleasant, N.J.-based Feltz & Frizzell Architects LLC

"Most of my recent work has been related to [Hurricane] Sandy rebuilding," she says. "The biggest concern is that people want their homes built to last.  They don’t want ever to go through that nightmare again.  I have been designing for hurricane resistance for 18 years.  Most of what that entails is never seen, except that the houses are higher off the ground.  Elevators are becoming more standard for that reason."

The summer home pictured here in Mantoloking, N.J., was designed for three families. As a result, the house required three master suites facing the water, each with a second 
bedroom for the grandchildren and a private bath. Sweeping views of Barnegat Bay and the Mantoloking Bridge were the focal point of the first-floor living areas, both inside and out.

"I find many of my clients appreciate my attention to detail," says Frizzell, "and how I can relate to their lives -- being a woman, wife, and mother myself."

When it comes to female architects and designers, Janet Tebbenkamp of Tebbenkamp Associates in Chicago, says: "We have been educated to know all the practical, technological and aesthetic issues of home design; but, also care about all the minuscule details that the homeowner cares about such as lifestyle conveniences; health and safety for family; sufficient storage; accessories; and artwork/decorations that make their house a wonderful home."

For this single-family residence in Chicago, Tebbenkamp created a contemporary style with a touch of traditional and modern. The kitchen is clean and sleek, so as to disappear into the background when viewed from the dining room. 

"I’m inspired by Marion Mahoney Griffen, Julia Morgan and all the women architects in past that helped pave the path for today’s women architects -- and presently inspired by Zaha Hadid on her works and how she pushes the envelope on her designs." (Hadid is the designer behind the 2020 Olympic stadium and the first woman to ever win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the field's equivalent to the Nobel Prize.)

Although the industry viewed women quite differently when Julie Kalberer first started in the business in 1985, "I would say the biggest advantage for me now is not so much about being female as it is about having the design knowledge that comes with the experience of raising a family," she tells AOL Real Estate. "The insight that that brings to our projects and how that informs our designs is invaluable to our clients and to the success of the final product."

Pictured here is the combined dining room-living room-kitchen of a 3,000-square-foot residential retreat in the Catskills, designed by her New York-based firm, the Turino Kalberer Architects. "This all-purpose room is meant to accommodate many weekend guests in a room that fosters a convivial atmosphere," says Kalberer, whose designs are influenced by the American Arts & Crafts movement.  

"I'm not in this to design magazine-cover photos," says architect Cinda Lester of the Downers Grove, Ill., based firm, 12/12 Architects. "I'm in this to design homes for people that they love to live in."

As for trends: "There is a huge surge in designing for Aging-in-Place, and multi-generational living.  So many clients want space for Grandma to move back in, separate but adjacent," says Lester.

"We have done that in my own home, with an entirely accessible lower level, with walk-out spaces to the yard.  Baby boomers, like my parents, don't want stairs, need barrier-free showers, but still want to live as independently as possible while still being able to see their grandchildren after school. That's the way American families used to be, and I really see a strong shift toward that kind of living again."

I am also particularly lucky that many of the building officials in my village are women. ... In a male-dominated world of contractors, inspectors and other architects, "the old girls' network" is alive and well here.

"Girls need to be ready to be part of the the Ol' Boys' Network, because architecture is absolutely a male-dominated field," she warns. "Not just in architecture school, and working as an architect, but with all the contractors, inspectors and other male-dominated professions, you'll be dealing with during the design and construction of projects.  If you know how to stand up for yourself, stand your ground, and not be pushed around by anyone, you'll do great."

Chris Chu, who was an architect on "This Old House" in 2010, recently won a Historic Preservation award from Historic Newton -- for a renovation that respects the architecture of a Queen Anne Victorian while creating spaces for modern living, both inside and outside.

The home (pictured here) was designed for a single mom with three children. "They were living in a house with a cramped kitchen that was dark and uninviting," Chu told AOL Real Estate. "By adding on only 4 feet, I created a beautiful light-filled kitchen/breakfast area that has a window seat, a computer/homework station and breakfast bar with a deck outside that flows down to the backyard.

"The family basically lives in this space."

"What makes my designs 'unique,' " Chu says, "is that I create lines of sight throughout the house by strategically locating and sizing openings, doorway and windows so that you never feel you are in a dead-end space. I am especially attuned to creating a symbiotic relationship between the indoors and outdoors.

"My architectural designs extend into the site and grounds.  How does one get into the house with groceries?  Can you easily see and get to your children in the backyard?  Yet I never design a bigger space than is required to achieve these goals.  I do believe in the 'not so big' house."

Chu says, "I feel that as a woman, I really know how a house should function, being the mother of two, household manager, family event planner, chauffeur, cook, gardener, bill payer, IT person (by default), etc."


In sharing this story and others we hope you are inspired to Raise Your Hand for girls' education, helping us spread the word on this crucial effort.

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