Those of us who have endured the years 2020 and 2021 will look back upon them as a turning point in our lives. No one will remain unchanged by their impact, whether the change was already in the works or came about suddenly through circumstance. For the stellar residential architecture firm Turnbull Griffin Haesloop in California’s Bay Area, changes were brewing before the pandemic took hold.
Partner Mary Griffin, FAIA, who had steered William Turnbull Associates following the death of founder and husband William Turnbull through its transition to Turnbull Griffin Haesloop, was ready to segue into emerita status. Partner Stefan Hastrup, AIA, was also on the cusp of pulling back from the firm to pursue his own interests. But partner Eric Haesloop, FAIA, was in his stride, doing some of the best work of his career with TGH. And then the pandemic hit.
Paralleling the precipitous drop in stock values back in March 2020, the bottom fell out of the 12-person firm’s project pipeline. Houses were put on hold or canceled and, most significantly, a $40 million hotel commission went dark. Back then, no architects or builders could predict whether the market and the work would come back. The time of reckoning for TGH had come.
With Mary and Stefan’s trajectory pointing toward the exit door, the task of reinvention fell to Eric Haesloop. Eric had worked with Mary since the mid-80s—first at Turnbull Associates and then, following Bill’s death in 1997, as a critical collaborator in Turnbull Griffin Haesloop. He was eager for the design challenges ahead, with a special passion for the custom residential work. It was a given that he would try to continue on in some fashion. The question was, what would the next chapter look like?
“When COVID hit, it happened to coincide with the lease renewal on our studio in San Francisco,” Eric recalls. “They had been great landlords, and they basically gave us an extension on the lease to get our act together. Over the years, we had accumulated a massive amount of stuff. So we had to go through that, and we took the last of Bill’s drawings to the UC Berkeley archives. COVID made us think about where we were as a firm, where we wanted to be, and what we wanted to be doing. It was a good time to reevaluate things.”
Would Eric, after all these years, go out on his own as a sole practitioner and practice under his name alone? Certainly, that was a viable possibility. But baked into his DNA, as it was with all the partners, is that Turnbull code: a tremendous respect for the landscape and a humble approach to synthesizing nature, climate, and program.
Bill’s work at Sea Ranch, a coastal community in Northern California, helped create the model for site-sensitive domestic architecture. The work was modern but steeped in the modest traditions of industrial and agricultural buildings—elemental and efficient. Eric, Mary, and Stefan never strayed from this path, and it sets them apart from many of their peers.
As Eric was pondering his own path, Mary suggested an alternative. “I’d been thinking about how to restructure, and she said, why not keep on with TGH?” he recalls. The market was returning, with a special vigor and appetite for just the kind of houses TGH excels in—rural retreats in beautiful places. And that hotel project was beginning to heat up again.
The stars aligned for a refreshed TGH venture, with Eric at the helm. He’s reassembled key members of the band—Jule Tsai, who’s worked for the firm for 15 years; Sarah Dewey, AIA, 8 years; and Matthew Waxman, Matt Au, and Yan Huang, who’s working as a consultant from his home in England. The San Francisco studio is gone, and everyone is working from home. It’s certainly a change from the bustle and buzz of a highly collaborative open office. Now there’s Slack, Zoom, and SketchUp, combined with cautious in-person site visits to Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Carmel.
“I’m of the age where I do miss the studio culture,” Eric says. “And we may look at space in the future. But I think what will happen is we’ll move to a hybrid model of working from home and the studio.
“It’s an interesting mix right now of the virtual and the physical. Our kind of work—small scale buildings—requires intense construction management to get it the way we and the clients want it. Those site visits keep the work grounded and keep it from getting too abstract.”
There’s that DNA kicking in again. TGH’s dedication to putting the site and clients first is matched by a remarkable amount of architectural restraint. Design is never celebrated for its own sake—it results from solving problems of place and program, while also implementing sound standards of sustainable design and construction. Their solutions are always beautiful and original—a seemingly inevitable marriage of house and landscape that allows their owners to fully inhabit both realms. Although thoroughly modern, the firm’s houses are never cold and hard-edged; they never lose their warm domesticity.
It’s this delicate touch that keeps clients returning, and it’s especially appropriate to this particular moment in time. “We are busier than ever,” says Eric. “In fact, we’re at the point where we’re trying to figure out if we need to hire another person.”
Part of the crunch is that $40 million hotel project, an extension of Long Meadow Ranch winery, which the firm designed a number of years back. And then there’s the renewed demand for those rural retreats. “As it was with the firm, the pandemic has caused a lot of people to reassess where they live and work,” he notes. “Sea Ranch added fiber-optic internet, so that’s enabled a lot of people to work remotely from there.” Even after all these years, TGH still does a brisk business in Sea Ranch houses.
Although the firm primarily designs second homes, their clients often ask for houses that could function as a retirement home “one day.” So they are more fully developed and programmed than simple weekend cottages.
Simple Little Buildings
The custom work is bread and butter for TGH, but it’s ever more time consuming to execute. There are Title 24 energy-efficiency standards to meet (or exceed), fire concerns along the Wildland Urban Interface, and earthquake codes. Not only do the complexities of permitting and code compliance tax a small firm’s production capacity, they call for coordinating multiple consultants.
TGH’s longevity gives them an advantage over younger firms because they have a deep bench of experts they can call upon when needed, and the expertise to know when it’s necessary to do so. “We have an amazing energy consultant,” Eric says. “Good things come out of this complexity—houses are much more sustainable. But we need a lot of production capability just to meet permit requirements. It’s a very cumbersome situation. On the architect’s side, it adds at least another 10% to the time involved.”
“Back when Bill was first practicing, those were simple little buildings,” he adds. “We know so much more now about what we need to do and how we need to build. And the great thing is, people are fully on board with it. Of the projects I have right now, one is completely off the grid and two houses are aiming at net-zero. Clients come in wanting this.”
The complexity and expense of today’s “simple buildings” is regrettable, indeed. But those infused with the TGH DNA will rest lightly, durably, and beautifully on the land.
See full previous coverage of Turnbull Griffin Haesloop projects here:
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