Design professionals do what we do because we love design. The hours are long and the pay famously low, so our profession attracts passionately creative people. We love that about us! It’s our opening line for party talk. Maintaining that passion can be a challenge when the market is strong, workload is nuts, and we can’t remember the last time we picked up a sketchbook.  

A mid-career design residency, masterclass, or fellowship will light your fire. Whether attending or teaching one of these extraordinary programs, you will never look at architecture the same way again. You will never design the same way again.  

I recently had the absolute pleasure of participating in a teaching residency at Fallingwater Institute in Mill Run, Pennsylvania… yes, THAT Fallingwater. Immersing myself in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson for a week with 15 college students reintroduced my design soul to planar forms, structural forces, design with nature, contextual furniture, simplicity and dematerialization, art collection, textile design, compressive and expansive spatial design, and the human stories behind the architecture. Working with students means we also guide discussions and verbalize the experience, lending an additional narrative nature to the residency. This is not your typical unplugged vacation and often involves real divergence from our comfort zones. These opportunities challenge everything we’ve become comfortable with in the practice of architecture – the workflow, the compromises, and the type of services we offer or don’t offer. These experiences make us better, more thoughtful, designers. 

A week immersed at Fallingwater has me rethinking color, something I had moved away from since college. The power of color, what the color means, and even the dyes used to create the tones…. all are significant and beautiful aspects of architecture and design, yet we pay very little attention to integrated color. Is it fear? Lack of commitment? Existential questions for sure, and Wright was nothing if not a deep thinker. But his ubiquitous Cherokee Red was inspired by a piece of pottery he loved, the color coming from the red clay of Oklahoma. This red was purely pleasure to him. I personally live and design with a mantra that everything should have a purpose, even if the purpose is to make us happy. Color makes us happy. 

The spatial takeaway from Fallingwater is one of compression and release. He designed hallways and entrances as physically limiting, with low ceilings and narrow widths. We are compelled to minimize ourselves in order to move about. But those compressed circulation routes open into larger spaces with floor to ceiling glass looking directly into the trees and sometimes only a few feet from flowing water. Wow! We are in the trees and one with nature and site. The ceilings remain low, but the space is large. Why are the ceilings low? This was my personal epiphany during the week. The ceilings are low, because when we design high ceilings, people enter and look up instead of out. Think of the high ceiling spaces with great views and interior treatments we design to wow our audience, but the ceiling height steals the show. What’s up there? Who are we really designing the space for? I think of all the useless cathedral ceiling family rooms built in the 1980s and 90s. What was that about? We feel small in those spaces. Of course in the spirit of integrated design, where every design feature serves multiple purposes, a low ceiling space is easier to heat, and Fallingwater is in a cold climate and colder microclimate. 

The economics of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s High Meadow structure is brilliant. It taught me that creativity does not come with a price tag. Innovative beautiful buildings do not cost more to design or build. Economical design is a creativity driver in itself. At High Meadow, stained plywood is a stunning design element, as always serving a purpose, and it’s fun. Modular construction for dormitory spaces is simple and lovely. Renovating a split-level ranch was an exercise in mid-century playfulness. This year’s winners of the AIA COTE Competition share stories of achieving innovation through tenacity. When construction estimates came in high, they asked why and dug into supply chain issues and a perceived cost penalty for innovation. When we work with our contractors to innovate design using common materials and familiar techniques in new ways, and sometimes explore new materials and methods together to overcome the unknown, we achieve real innovation and creativity. 

So when you’re feeling a bit stuck or burned out, light your fire with a residency, a masterclass, or professional fellowship. Look for opportunities through design foundations, AIA, museums, your favorite architect’s webpages, conservancies, universities, and more. I wish there were a good single resource, but you must simply search for them. 



About Elaine

As LS3P’s Sustainability Leader, Elaine Gallagher Adams brings invaluable multidisciplinary expertise to the design of high-performance buildings. As a skilled charette facilitator, Elaine works closely with owners and designers to drive innovation and explore sustainable design strategies focused on the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. This holistic approach yields healthier buildings, minimizes environmental impacts, and reduces operational expenses over the life of the building.

Elaine was part of the team at Rocky Mountain Institute who invented the term Deep Energy Retrofits while working on the Empire State Building. As a senior manager, Elaine and her team launched a two-year initiative called RetroFIT. She subsequently because a national spokesperson for deep energy retrofits, facilitating day-long workshops at industry conferences and contributing to multiple Department of Energy Advanced Energy Retrofit Guides. Elaine’s deep retrofit work includes leading the team creating a roadmap for Arizona State University to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025.

Her professional experience as a senior consultant, architect, and senior project manager at LS3P and Rocky Mountain Institute has helped Elaine build substantial knowledge of the optimal sustainable design strategies for diverse project types at all scales. She understands that smart early-stage decisions can provide low- to no-cost strategies for significant energy savings, and uses best-in-class technology tools to help owners make the best investments for their project using energy modeling and life cycle cost analysis.

Elaine is well-versed in the complexities of working with governmental projects, with experience in high performance designs for courthouses, federal buildings, park facilities, water labs, and cultural institutions. She is a nationally recognized advisor and speaker, and currently serves on the AIA’s Committee On The Environment (COTE) National Advisory Board.