“I didn’t know what my future would hold, but I wanted to spend my time in college drawing and making things.” That’s Dan Zimmerman on his visit to Virginia Tech, the school from where he’d later graduate with a degree in architecture. A constant sketcher growing up, Zimmerman was interested in art but wasn’t sure how that interest could lead to a career. Once he settled on Tech, he was hooked. “Many nights I’d end up sleeping under my desk after pulling an all-nighter in the studio,” he says.
After college, he moved to Winchester, where he worked for a small residential architecture firm before moving to New York City to be with his then-girlfriend (now his wife and colleague), Serena Gruia. A few years later, they set up shop in Charlottesville and, in 2007, partnered with Zach Snider’s Irons Construction to form Alloy Workshop, a design-build firm that specializes in modern structures for everything from aging in place to LEED-conscious homeowners. We asked him to tell us a little about his path to architecture, what he’s working on now and the state of the industry in our region.
Architecture is an extremely broad profession which has allowed me to find and develop a career tailored to my natural and learned skills and strengths. For me, it is creative problem solving, design, entrepreneurship and community development. Other architects out there have a true love for building codes and zoning. It is said that architects are generalists. I have also heard it said that architects are a mile wide and a foot deep, while other professions can be a foot wide and a mile deep. I love that architecture allows me to explore so many varied paths within the profession.
Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?
I grew up in Winchester, so I am a Valley boy. I went to Virginia Tech and after college worked in Winchester, where I became licensed. Shortly after that I met my wife, Serena, who was living in New York City, so I moved there to be with her. After a few years, we decided to move out of the city so I could start my own practice. We chose Charlottesville because it was in Virginia; like Winchester, it is a small community where you can see a friend almost anywhere you go; like New York, there is something going on every night.
What was your life like as a child and how did it lead you to design?
Unlike my extroverted father, I was sort of shy as a child, so I would often hang back and observe. At age 4, I wasn’t drawing building sections or creating LEGO towers to the moon, but as I grew up, I drew and sketched daily. I was definitely interested in art, but I didn’t know how it could lead to a career. My father led me to architecture. We visited Virginia Tech when I was a sophomore in high school. I didn’t know the difference between engineering and architecture, so he thought it would be a good idea to find out. I don’t remember the answer they gave at the engineering school, but when I walked into the architecture building, I saw a cool, modern, light-filled building. It was also filled with desks surrounded by drawings and stacked high with models. At that moment I decided that architecture was what I wanted to do.
Tell us about your college studio experience. Was there a stand-out teacher who had a lasting impact on you?
It took me a semester to get my bearings, but after that I jumped into architecture and the studio experience with both feet. I was there all the time. I worked in the architecture school library and many nights I’d end up sleeping under my desk after pulling an all-nighter in the studio. I had several great professors who influenced me, but Jay Stoeckel stands out. Importantly, he was a practicing architect. He was constantly challenging me to think through the work. His critiques were brutally honest, sometimes insisting that we go back to the drawing board. Everyone should have a harsh critic (just ask my wife); it is ingrained in me the importance of making deliberate choices and being able to share the rationale behind them.
On process: How does it begin?
For me, it begins with talking to our clients, learning as much as we can about their daily lives; how they live and work or how their business is run. It also begins by establishing the parameters of the project: Are there zoning, regulatory, budgetary or schedule restrictions? The idea is to cast a very wide net of wants, desires and needs in the beginning, so as the project develops, design solutions and concepts can address more than one need. The hope is to improve, as much as we can, the daily lives of our clients.
What inspires you?
The challenge. I love to creatively problem solve. I love to help people. Architecture allows me to do both every day. It allows me to help others create.
How does the site or sense of place inform architecture for you?
That really depends a lot on the client and the project. It is always a major factor in the design, but I don’t have a single formula for my approach. My personal preference is to find a balance between the existing site and the new project. But there are times when it is appropriate to find beauty in creating opposition to the existing conditions.
What’s in the studio at the moment?
Right now, we have a really nice balance of commercial and residential projects. We are working on exterior renovations for two different local restaurants, an office renovation for a growing national company that is based in Charlottesville, a two-story addition to a house downtown and an addition and renovation of a house on Pantops for some returning clients. Our office has been really blessed to work with some great clients since we started. There is a lot of trust needed and we work really hard to earn the trust of our clients.
How would you assess the state of architecture in our region?
Overall, I would say that it is positive. I work primarily in the Charlottesville community, but as president of our local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), I can say that the architects that live and work in our region are extremely talented and are making great contributions to their communities. Charlottesville is a progressive community that is rooted in the past; it supports and appreciates a broad range of architectural styles. We have some of the best examples of architecture, both old and new, right here in our community. That being said, there are always going to be buildings that get realized which make you wonder, why did they do that? Or, how did they miss that opportunity?