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Profile: Bradford C. Walker AIA

Name: Bradford C. Walker AIA
Job title and company: Principal, Ruhl Walker Architects
Professional affiliations: Member, AIA National Ethics Council (2010–2016); Director, Boston Society of Architects (2014–2016)
Degree(s): BS, Architecture, University of Virginia; MArch, Harvard University

Professional interests: We are a small, design-oriented firm focused on houses and a little bit of institutional work. I do best as a generalist—I like to design the big picture and the construction details. I also work hard to “design” our practice as a place where our employees can grow and learn, and find their own successes.

What are you working on now?
We have about 10 projects going at once, somewhere between programming and punch list. All of that interests me. Three of the current projects are designed to be net zero in terms of annual energy consumption. I find that to be really exciting, and it’s relatively easy to achieve. We’re also going further into interiors than we have in the past, and I’m really enjoying that. Outside the office, I’m starting my fourth year on the AIA National Ethics Council, which isn’t as dry or procedural as it probably sounds. On a good day, we work to understand what values we hold in common as architects and how we can best safeguard and advance the public’s interest in the built environment. 

ATRIUM HOUSE – stair and stone wall
A three-story atrium with a glass bridge brings light deep into this Back Bay renovation. © Michael Lee Photography

How do you explain what you do for a living?
Well, everyone thinks they understand residential design. But I find that for lots of people, the only path they see toward improving the spaces they live in is “shopping.” It’s often, “Where can I buy that?” or “Where can I see that?” The idea that there is another path called “designing” is frightening to people because it’s something they have never done and they don’t know how to do it themselves. I do my best to explain the process, but I’m not shy about saying that it involves a little bit of a leap of faith.

What inspired you today?
I had a conversation with a woman who did not hire us, but in the process she became a friend. In a conversation over dinner last week, she said her father told her the difference between success and failure is in the last 2 percent of effort. He told her lots of people can get 98 percent of the thing done—it’s your willingness to get the last 2 percent that really matters. I’ve been kind of obsessing over that.

ATRIUM HOUSE -  view of living room
Interiors with modern, comfortable furniture with crisp detailing make this room fresh and inviting. © Michael Lee Photography

What industry buzzword would you kill?
Can we kill some business buzzwords that tread too close to architecture? I’d get rid of “space,” where one means a realm of operations or influence (e.g., “We’re in the network redundancy space.”). And “architect,” anytime it’s used as a verb!

When you’re working, do you discuss or exchange ideas with your colleagues?
We sit at one big table in my office—eight of us. The idea when we started was to exchange ideas as fluidly as possible. In reality, we often send emails to one another, four feet across the table. I think having a certain amount of quiet is necessary to get much done, so we’re always working on the right balance.

XXL LOFT – view of stair at entry
A mesh-screened stair interlocked with a curved plaster wall lead the way into this double-height residential loft. © John Horner Photography

What are you reading?
I read The New York Times every day, and I miss terribly the once glorious Boston Globe. I’m reading The Rational Animal by Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius. It’s a fascinating look at how and why we make decisions that are seemingly irrational.

Do you sketch by hand or digitally?
I actually spent at least the first half of my career being afraid to sketch. I could never convey my ideas very satisfactorily, and, as a result, I relied heavily on writing. I think that taught me to think very clearly, so I don’t regret it at all. Now I can sketch by hand well enough to develop ideas and convey them to clients and colleagues, but digital modeling is where I really can see things in a way that makes sense to me. I sometimes wonder what my work would be like today if digital modeling had been available to me when I was a student.

XXL LOFT – wine cellar
A custom, back lit residential wine cellar is crafted from custom and stock components. © John Horner Photography

Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?
Well, Boston, for one. I’ve always lived on the East Coast, but Boston seemed like the far frontier. But now it’s home, for sure.

Where is the field of architecture headed?
The profession of architecture is, I think, on the cusp of something pretty radical. I feel confident that in the next 50 years, the connection between designing buildings and producing buildings will be wholly re-worked, with the intermediate step of producing a two-dimensional set of “construction documents” being eliminated or at least radically redefined. Architects or people who work collaboratively with architects to design and produce buildings will write code that drives the machinery of production directly. At least I hope it’s architects who will be doing that.

CHILMARK HOUSE – south elevation
A modern, rural house is designed with a low impact site design and net-zero energy use. Ruhl Walker Architects rendering.

Can design save the world?
Absolutely! I often remind my clients that everything in the man-made world is designed. The question is only by whom and under what circumstances.

What do you hope to contribute from your work?
I think all architects want to make the world a better place. Designing houses is intensely rewarding in that regard because our work can make such a strong and direct connection to the lives of our clients. 

Who or what deserves credit for your success?
I’m not afraid to question things, and that quality makes me feel most successful. It has been instilled in me throughout my life—by my parents who encouraged it; by an education that showed me how to focus it; and by my significant other, who always says that interesting people are those who have the courage to consider things that may be outside their comfort zone.

CHILMARK HOUSE – north elevation
This simple, linear house is designed with naturally weathering materials and is tucked between a small pond and a row of glacial rock “erratics.” Ruhl Walker Architects rendering.

If you could give the you-of-10-years-ago advice, what would it be? 
Well, it was more like 20 years ago, but my business partner and I were stressing about whether or not we could afford a $500 copy machine, or if we should keep walking 10 minutes up the street to the Kinkos twice a day. I’d tell my younger self to buy the damn copier!

Your favorite Boston-area structure?
Once a month or so, I see the Hancock tower —that simplest of forms—in a fresh light, and I say to myself (and sotto voce to the architect Henry Cobb), “Wow, Harry—just wow!”

Who would you like the BSA to interview next?
Mark Pasnik AIA, principal at “over,under”

If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?
I’d borrow one from Leonardo da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  I’m guessing Leonardo’s “bumper sticker” would, at a minimum, be a programmable LED display, though.