A line to design: David Day stresses attention to setting

Architect David Day stands in front of Broom Hollow outside of Charlottesville. Photo: Christian Hommel Architect David Day stands in front of Broom Hollow outside of Charlottesville. Photo: Christian Hommel

We asked the Charlottesville-based architect about his influences while at NC State College of Design, how his childhood informed his career, and what he’s working on now.

Why architecture?

For as much as I love visual arts and music, this profession can have that subjective, artistic life, but at its heart is shelter, a necessity. I like that tension, needing to balance both perspectives. Architecture clearly needs both to be whole. I love imagining a space, shaping its qualities, then watching as it becomes real. I like that architecture has an element of time—taking into account the way light changes and people move through their day, indoors and out, through seasons, through the year, weathering over decades. A downside to the time element is the long lag between early concepts for a project and move-in—sometimes years. Even if it is a love/hate relationship, it is a privileged place to be, in all senses of the word. Twenty-five years into practice, it seems I’ve barely begun. There is always room to grow, things to learn.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

Oddly enough, any move I’ve made has been for personal reasons, never because of work. My wife and I lived in Seattle throughout the ’90s, and truly loved it. But after having children, we wanted to be closer to our families. Virginia was close, but also a new place for us, one I had admired on trips to the mountains as a child. This is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country; we feel at home here. Being able to work in design most anywhere you choose has its benefits. 

What was your life like as a child and how did it lead you to design?

I grew up near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on land within my grandparents’ small family farm. So, there were untold hours roaming the fields and woods and creek, being around a place and people who, if something needed to be built, did it themselves. Clearly, that skill at building wasn’t inherited. There was obviously a part of the place that was all about practicality, but some of those farm buildings are just beautiful, pure forms, too. I didn’t dream of being in design, but being in that environment must have resonated at some level. I fell into design in college, and it just fit.

Tell us about your studio experience at NC State. Was there a stand-out teacher who had a lasting impact on you?

Can’t limit it to one. John Reuer was an amazing human first, brilliant teacher as well—one who broadened my horizons. Fatih Rifki was a great source of challenge, support, international perspective, fun. Vernon Shogren helped clarify how I think about the experiential qualities of a space. Chandra Cox was a painter, and taught me the rigors of having clear intent. Lastly, working many years at Olson Kundig in Seattle was a full education in itself.

On process: How does it begin?

I don’t have a set process. Ideally, it begins on a site with clients. Watching where they stand, what they look for, listening to any vision they have. Those first moments on the site are in some ways a tiny big bang—everything expands from there. Sometimes it feels I’m along for the ride. Often, exterior spaces are a starting point, where one would spend different hours of the day (or days of the year) outside; those things can really shape a building. That goes back to spending my youth around these collections of buildings that make up a farm, and the great outdoor spaces they form. Then, of course, taking into account solar paths, winds, views. Projects start in a free form way with loose sketches, then contract to a more logical grid, and hopefully expand back out from there. A kind of make the rule, break the rule cycle. While I usually work in my office solo, it is definitely not a solitary venture. So much time, so many resources and people go into making any building. Architects tend to be generalists, knowing a bit about a lot of things. So I think it’s important to trust in and collaborate with craftspeople on site, who often have a deeper insight into a particular aspect of building. If any of the participants (owner, design team, construction team) falters, it shows. I always hope the finished building reflects two things: the client and the site.

What inspires you?

I have to say buildings here, right? Sure, any place that makes me stop and take note. More often it is urban settings (the quirkier, unplanned places can be the best). Always I’m inspired being outside in a great landscape—patterns, scale, fore-, middle-, and backgrounds. But really, I draw most inspiration from a great song or painting, or great writing. Those things take me to imaginary places.

How does the site or sense of place inform architecture for you?

You can be familiar with a place on paper, through photos, surveys, models—but the way to know it is to spend time there. I’ve camped on sites, seen some sites in the ice at five degrees, and looking for shade at 105. Many answers to a design problem can be found from simply understanding the site. Having something you need to respond to is a great motivator. It might be a client’s wishes, or some site impediment, or even better, an opportunity such as a beautiful view to frame —usually all of those. I’ve been fortunate to work within cities, such as New York, New Orleans, and Denver, but also mountainsides and seascapes. 

What’s in the studio at the moment?

A straw bale house being constructed by Arterra at Bundoran Farm, a residence just beside Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine, a cast concrete home outside of Richmond, a renovation of an ’80s modern home west of town, and a few other smaller projects.