One of the new things I have been doing this year on Buildings Are Cool is interviewing other architects. The goal is to highlight the exceptional design happening in the low-country and to uncover some of the secrets and lessons that these all-stars have to offer.
I thought it would be clever to conduct these interviews in a cafe over coffee, which was a nod to Jerry Seinfeld's show Comedians in a Car Getting Coffee.
The problem is that when I ask architects to join me for a coffee they usually say, "I'd rather have a beer!" Go figure.
This one was even more off format. In this interview with April Magill, we drank PBR. And it is not in a cafe, but in a new rammed earth house that is under construction. There was a lot of meat in this interview so I decided to break it up into two blogs. I have created a separate blog that focuses on Rammed Earth Architecture. To read that one check out:
In this blog, we will focus on April's architecture practice Root Down Designs.
So who is April Magill?
- April K. Magill is a mother of two, an architect and owner of Root Down Designs in Charleston, South Carolina.
- Root Down Designs is a progressive and forward-thinking small business dedicated to responsible architecture and building.
- April received her architecture degree from Virginia Tech and has over 11 years of experience in Architectural Design and Production as well as Project Management
- April has a strong passion for sustainable and organic architecture. April cites her inspiration from a variety of places including the works of Antoni Gaudi as well as her childhood of playing in the woods and building forts in rural Virginia.
I had the privilege of working with April at LS3P back in the day. We both started around the same time as young budding intern architects. I remember studying for the A.R.E. exam around the same time as April and we became pals while working on projects with Architecture for Humanity Charleston.
Without further adieu....Architects in a Cafe Getting Beer: April Magill
1. When did you know you first wanted to be an architect?
AM: I do not have a profound answer here. I went to college at Virginia Tech with not a clue what I was going to do. I was walking through the oldest part of campus one day, admiring the old stone buildings, and I thought, 'how cool it would be to design buildings,' and BAM! The light bulb went off and from that instant I knew that would be my path; I was also marveled by the fact that I had not thought of that before.
2. What is your favorite thing about being an architect?
AM: For me, I love the cross over between the left and right brain. I am a libra, so I tend to teeter between polarized worlds a lot. I love that we have the opportunity to be super creative and artistic, but then have to jump over to the technical numbers, budgets, codes, project management tasks. This almost allows me to work in the moment on what I'm feeling at that time: if I'm feeling creative, then I may try and solve a design problem or do a hand rendering, if I'm not then I can sit and work on a contract or a code analysis.
Seeing in person, one of your built designs is also a highlight of being an architect, that's pretty cool!
3. If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring architects what would it be?
AM: Work for as many different firms as you can while you are interning. I worked for 3 different firms in 9 years. From the super tiny firm to a large corporate firm. I experienced very diverse project types: high-end custom residential, downtown renovations, massive government complexes, commercial buildings, low-income housing, etc. I believe I am better at what I do having had such a vast background.
I have found that having both residential and commercial experience has benefited me. It also allowed me to learn where my interests were; what I wanted to do and didn't want to do.....how I would operate a business and not operate a business.
I would also urge them to get on site as much as possible. I was always very vocal about wanting to take site visits and would try and go on site as much as I could. So much learning takes place on the job site. It's very helpful to see in person some detail that you drew.
4. If you could go back to the time when you just graduated architecture school, what would you tell your younger self?
AM: Go forth and build!
I have always had a strong interest in building and using my hands, but I was a bit intimidated by this being a predominately male-dominated industry, and I really just had no idea of how to do it. I wanted to work on a framing crew during my summers off instead of learning CAD, but didn't know any avenues existed. Now I know, there are countless organizations and builders seeking apprentices around the world.
The time I have spent building, here in the US and abroad, has made me a better Architect. I have always said, 'how can I be an Architect if I am not a Builder as well?' To me, these go hand-in-hand. Having building knowledge will help you as a designer as well as help you to communicate with the builders, as well as develop empathy for the builders and GC so that you do not arrive onsite as the 'egotistical Architect.'
Additionally, building abroad, specifically in developing or 3rd wold countries, brings a whole new set of challenges and questions and allows you to break out of the mold a bit and think through alternative ways to build things when there's not a Lowes down the road.
5. What should people know about Root Down Designs?
AM: Many folks think Root Down Designs is a firm which only focuses on Natural Building/Alternative Building projects. I often have people contact me and apologize because they want to build with a conventional method and want to know if I am still interested.
Alternative Building is just ONE focus of RDD, just as I believe Rammed Earth is ONE building solution; not THE solution for every situation.
Every situation is custom and different and should be thoroughly dissected and analyzed before determining a construction method. RDD's work varies all the way from residential Rammed Earth to conventional commercial construction.
Regardless of the wall system chosen, RDD will always design with the same guiding principles: efficient/functional design, passive solar/cooling strategies, maximize thermal and energy performance, lowering the overall carbon footprint.....and lastly, affordability. (I laugh at this word because I've yet to see a project which the client labeled it 'affordable.')
I work with a lot of 'common folks' with modest budgets; RDD strives to find affordability in each project. I always begin with asking 'what is your budget?' and then design to meet the budget (or try to) vs. designing without budget in mind and then discussing budget last. The budget always rules.
6. What made you so interested in natural building and sustainable design?
AM: I always struggled with the office environment. Sitting inside in front of a computer for countless hours a day was really difficult for me. I have always had a strong interest in working outside and working with the earth in some fashion. So when I learned about natural building, or traditional building methods (Adobe, rammed earth, Cob, bamboo etc.) I saw that this was the perfect crossover between architectural design and working with the earth.
I also felt that there was a lot of discussions happening in the building world about 'green building,' Yet I felt that the surface was just being scratched and I wanted to take it a step further than what I was seeing in the industry.
There is a rapid, growing interest from folks who are wishing to build in a different way. Developing testing and codes to address these methods is happening around the world and in other states and I am working to pioneer this effort here in South Carolina.
7. What is a memorable project that you have had in your career?
A memorable project for me is the Sharp residence on Pawleys Island.
This was the first full design that I did completely on my own after starting my business.
The project presented many challenges including a very constricted ocean front sight, handicap accessibility from the parking to every room in the house, and a client who desired a contemporary design yet wanted it to still fit into a traditional setting.
The house is a mix of contemporary and rustic elements, incorporates passive solar and cooling strategies, is broken into three separate HVAC zones, and incorporates a living roof system.
We had many challenges during construction with the contractor and ended up having to switch builders. I learned a lot on this project and feel that all in all the project turned out to be very successful, but of course we are always our worst critics and it's difficult to not see the things you would do differently if you were to do it again.
8. Care to share any other projects?
AM: A project which has been my labor of love for the past two years is the Dragonfly Wellness Center in Berkeley County and is currently under permit review.
I served as architect and project manager on this commercial project which consists of three buildings, on 22 acres, and well over a dozen consultants and engineers.
This is a highly sustainable project which will strive to hit net zero solar power, it will incorporate an alternative septic system using plant Filtration technology, recaptured and reused rainwater, urine diverting toilets (we will save this topic for another discussion), vegetated Roofs, rammed earth as well as conventional wall systems, earthen floors, and natural finishes such as clay paints and plaster's.
Much of the construction will be in collaboration with artisans and craftsman, specifically the American College of the Building Arts. The project has been designed holistically so that the whole system works with low environmental impact and much of the water and waste systems will support the acres of gardens and orchards on site. We also have a forestry management plan and undisturbed wetlands.
The main pavilion's floor plan was based on the curves delineated by the golden spiral and the building wraps itself around a massive live oak tree. This will be the first permitted commercial project in South Carolina utilizing Rammed Earth construction as well as an alternate septic waste / storm water system (engineered by Tetra Tech based out of Chapel Hill, NC). The project is currently under permit review and the general contractor has been selected.
Steve's Wrap Up
One of the benefits of pursuing a career in architecture is the wide array of directions you can go. April had her taste of office life and decided that her aspirations would be best suited as an entrepreneur where she could focus on sustainable and natural building. She is doing amazing work and I am happy to see her thrive.
This blog is just one part to my interview with April. Since we were on the construction site of the Walters Residence I have created a separate post dedicated to rammed earth architecture. For that post check out:
Give April a shout:
April can be reached at email@example.com or you can check her out at:
As always I appreciate your time and hope you'll consider sharing this blog with a bud.