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How an Architect Designs Your Home: An Interview with Kip Kelly, AIA of Nest Architecture Inc

By Kip Kelly

Tell us a little bit about your firm and the services you offer.

Nest Architecture is a design-oriented, full-service architectural firm established in 1995 and licensed in the state of Pennsylvania. We have been involved with all types of projects but seem to gravitate towards work on private residences.

When I graduated from Cal Berkeley in 1981, I took the advice of a professor of mine who suggested the best way to become a great architect is to spend time in the field doing construction. I got a job out of school with a general contractor and we built a Lindall Cedar Prefab home from the ground up. I learned how to tie rebar cages, form concrete, build stairs, hang drywall and even install roof shingles. Building off someone else's Construction Documents was an eye-opener. It was a great experience and cemented my love for designing homes.

The firm has continued to grow even through the recent recession. One of our projects was featured on the cover of the book, Dream Homes Los Angeles, and last year we were selected to represent the state of California in the book, 50 US Architects, Residential + Planning. A sustainable home designed by the firm was awarded "2014 Green Home of the Year" by the Central Pennsylvania chapter of the Green Building Council.

Nest Architecture is a broad-based firm that acquires a lot of work in the design of custom homes and remodel projects of all shapes and sizes. We have worked in all styles, the constants being efficient circulation, the introduction of natural daylight and connection to the outdoors.

What are some of the first steps you take when you're starting a new project for a client's home?

On a typical project, the first thing we do is meet with the client and develop a full understanding of their needs. I always ask what they love about their existing home and what drives them nuts. We spend a lot of time walking room by room through their existing house to get a feel for how they live imagining together how a well-designed house might make their day-to-day life more productive and fulfilling. I encourage clients to go to Houzz or Pinterest and tag images of things they like or help to describe what they are looking for. Before we can begin design we develop a very specific program with room descriptions and sizes to make sure we know what the puzzle pieces look like before we start putting the house together.

How do you come up with a home design that matches what the client wants and improves on it at the same time?

We meet frequently with our clients to make sure we understand their needs and their lifestyles. Building a home is an opportunity to transform the way we live our lives. Being that we are here on earth for maybe 4,600 weeks and the clock only speeds up as we get older, a custom tailored home can make a big difference with our attitude as we awaken into each precious day. At Cal Berkeley we were taught to thoroughly understand our clients' behavior and not settle on a solution until we were confident the design not only accommodates their needs, but enhances their lifestyle. We imagine specific day-to-day interactions from waking up and making coffee to enjoying a peaceful dinner outside on a cool night, to shutting down the lights when their head hits the pillow, and create an efficient, inspiring environment to add a sense of wonder to the experience. We go through the same visualization to understand how and how often they entertain and make sure the house will accommodate relatives, guests and business needs. The way the house looks is secondary to meeting the functional requirements. Over the last 30 years we've gotten very good at translating our clients' needs into houses that function efficiently and provide daily inspiration.

Is there something that most people don't know about working with an architect that they should know?

Designing a home with an architect is a very personal experience. A good architect cares first about how the home serves the needs of the client. We spend a lot of time understanding a site and its relationship to the sun to take full advantage of natural daylighting. To an architect, the spaces around the house are as important as the spaces within. By connecting the interiors to "outside rooms", a small house lives like a much larger home. Locating both the inside and outside rooms in coordination with the seasonal arc of the sun can make a huge difference with how a house is experienced.

A good architect also understands how to design a highly-customized home that still meets the clients' budgetary requirements. We are problem solvers and are constantly looking for cost-effective solutions to stretch our clients' budget. Most people think the 10% fee the Architect charges to design the house makes the house 10% more expensive. On the contrary, Architect-designed homes typically sell for a higher price and sell more quickly. Bringing in an architect early in a project to help with site selection is a wise move considering the magnitude of the investment.

What are some of the biggest challenges that architects face when it comes to implementing their design during the construction phase?

A good set of detailed Construction Documents (CDs) is critical to a project's success. But even with a quality set of CD's, it is important to maintain the architect's involvement during the Construction Phase. Thirty years of construction and construction observation experience has given me the ability to envision the finished building during the framing stage. If the framing is not right, the finishes are not necessarily going to line up. Discovering issues before the finishes are applied saves time and money. Having the architect on site at least every 2 weeks keeps the project on track. Since we charge hourly for time during construction, we're sometimes asked to limit our time, and this can lead to the client accepting less than quality work to keep the project on schedule. Without the Architect's keen eye and strong advocacy for fixing mistakes during the rough stages, the design can easily be compromised.

What advice do you have for people who have a strong vision for their home, but with some unrealistic expectations given what they're working with?

The unrealistic expectations usually centers on the budget. Construction can be expensive. If you are considering a remodel, focus on the most important areas of the project. If there are rooms you can live with, lock the door and don't let the contractor in that area. Once the contractor gets started in a room, he "owns" it. Even a simple task like installing new down-lights can turn into a full-blown gut and remodel.

On all projects, I recommend three things to our clients:

  1. Set aside 10% of the cost of the project as a contingency to cover unexpected issues that may come up; and don't tell the contractor that the funds exist.
  2. Expect the project will take 2 months longer than the contractor says. Building a new home can be stressful. Scrambling to get an extension on your rent at the end is the last thing one needs at what should be an exciting time. Including a "liquidated damages" clause to get the contractor to meet a deadline usually leads to corners being cut during the critical finish stage. You don't pay more if the carpenters take extra time to get the trim right, so it's make sense to be patient.
  3. Avoid changes that aren't absolutely critical. A minor change or two will not dramatically affect a project. But if time and money are important, trust your architect and avoid last-minute adjustments. The rooms will always feel bigger after the furniture goes in.

What's the best way for people to contact you and your firm?

Nest Architecture has offices in Lebanon, PA and Culver City, CA. Please visit our website at for more information. You can also email me directly at:

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About The Author

Kip Kelly, AIA, founded Nest Architecture, Inc. in 1995. Prior to starting his own...

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