One of the great perks of writing this blog is that I am constantly meeting new people and catching up with old friends that I have not connected with in a long time.
I get to chat with a ton of creative folks and am always interested in hearing their stories and learning everyone’s tricks and secrets. The blog has been a great conduit for this type of dialogue.
Eddie Bello is an architect in Charleston who recently started the firm Bello Garris Architects with partner Eric Garris. This caught my attention because they located their new office in my neighborhood: Elliotborough/Cannonborough. I have known Eddie for a few years as we have crossed paths at various architectural functions. When I saw that his office was right across the street from my favorite bakery: Wild Flour Pastry, I figured it was a great excuse to grab a coffee and talk shop.
Eddie is a well-known and well-respected architect in Charleston. One of the reasons I wanted to interview Eddie was that he has had a very interesting career path. His most notable positions include his time as the City Architect for Charleston, his role as Director of the Charleston Office of McMillan Pazdan Smith and his most recent venture starting his own firm Bello Garris Architects.
So this guy has been in charge of the architecture of an entire city, has led the office of a large architecture firm, and is now venturing into entrepreneurship and starting his own small practice.
I figured that Eddie would have a lot of great advice and stories to share about practice. And I was right!
I am confident that you will enjoy this interview as it brings a ton of valuable lessons. Lessons for all different levels and types of Architects. Some of the great nuggets include:
- Tips on navigating the BAR
- Advice for architects who want to start their own practice
- Eddie's secret design trick
- Photos of a building at Boeing that no one gets to see
- The one lesson that all young architects and interns need
- And a little story about Tom Petty and Keith Richards
Without further adieu, My Coffee Interview with Eddie Bello:
S: Lets start at the beginning. When did you first know you wanted to be an architect?
E: That would probably be when I encountered the third year of the calculus and chemistry classes required for my pre-med major in college. I've always been very aware of the built environment; always loved to draw, loved art, graphics, design in general, etc. So it's not like there was one specific moment.
My father was an architectural illustrator (who eventually got registered the same year I did), but I think he wanted me to make my own decisions and intentionally tried not to push me into architecture, which is probably why I never really considered architecture and originally planned to be a doctor.
Once I realized that wasn't for me and changed majors, he was extremely supportive. And after I made the move it was like a light switch had been flipped on. I feel extremely lucky that I actually get to do what I love to do.
S: What is your favorite thing about being an architect?
E: It is very satisfying to see a design actually built that I conceptualized many months before...especially when it turns out well! Through most of the design process I like to think I have a pretty good idea of how much space, or building, or particular detail, will turn out, but until it's actually built you never really know.
I've been fortunate to have had several projects where a client has stood inside their building for the first time and has been so happy...surprised even with the result. That's a great feeling (even if I'm looking at all the things that I'd like to change).
For most of my projects I have had great relationships with my clients, and I think that comes from the client knowing I care as much as, or more than, the project's success as they do.
So enjoyment working with projects that have challenges, like a constricting site, diverse program, tight budget, etc. Solving functions of a building is not that hard, but creatively solving more difficult challenges while also hopefully creating something beautiful and/or meaningful is always the goal.
S: You were Charleston's City Architect from 2000 to 2009. What are some ways that the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) has changed since your time with the City?
E: I've been fortunate to have pretty good success with the BAR. I'm detail-oriented, but I have noticed that sometimes there seems to be a bit more micro-management than before. There also at times seems to be a bit of a defensiveness with the board members, like anything proposed at all is going to be a disappointment.
I think that comes from being overwhelmed with so many projects to review.
S: The BAR can be a frustrating process. What are 3 pieces of advice you have for architects and owners navigating the BAR process?
E: Architects: Do the work. I.e., the overwhelming issue with poor design (and a lengthy approvals process) is that the architect didn't take the time to actually study the context or existing structure, examine multiple approaches to the particular program, and then apply that information to the proposed building's design.
That doesn't mean a building must necessarily conform to its context, just that it should be taken into consideration. Designing a building is a big responsibility, especially in downtown Charleston. It seems like to many architects use excuses: a short schedule, a bad client, a low budget, etc. And just push out a mediocre design.
A lot of it is laziness and unfortunately we've got a lot of mediocre new buildings as a result. Especially the larger ones. That was a huge frustration when I worked at the city, and it continues when I see the same old stuff being built today. That's not the BAR's fault. The process is not really frustrating if you do the work.
Owners: Understand that one of the reasons your building or property is so valuable is because of the BAR. Your 1200 sf house that is 150 years old is worth $2 million because the BAR simply won't let you tear out the original windows and replace the siding with hardi-plank, and the same goes for all the other buildings around it. That should be respected.
For larger commercial properties, I'd like to hope that developers again understand that the end result of the BAR is what keeps their value high, and that an environment like downtown Charleston requires high quality in exchange.
S: What do you think about the BAR splitting into 2 meetings: one for small and one for large buildings?
E: It is a great change. It allows greater focus and more specific approaches to what are very different project types. I think the review process will be better, and hopefully so will the work.
S: In 2015, you decided to resign from your role as Director of the Charleston office with McMillan Pazdan Smith to open your own office Bello Garris Architects. That is a bold move. What was your motivation to make that leap?
E: I enjoyed my time with MPS, and it was a great experience with wonderful people. However, ever since I decided to become an architect, I've always wanted to have my own firm. Luckily, I found a like-minded partner in Eric Garris, who I worked with at MPS.
We have differing strengths and weaknesses, work together well, and have a lot of fun. It just seemed like if I was ever going to make the jump, now was the time.
S: What are some of your biggest challenges as a new company?
E: It's been difficult at time to overcome the impression that our firm is either too new or too small. Together, Eric and I have over 44 years of experience on a diverse group of very successful projects. I'm old!
Also, people forget that unless you're working on a really complex project like a huge hospital or airport, you don't need a team of 30 people to create good design. You just need the talent and the desire to put the work in.
S: What words of advice would you have for other architects interested in starting their own practice?
E: I would encourage it, but only if they are comfortable with the responsibility of owning a business. For me, it's very liberating knowing I am more or less in control of my own destiny. For others, that might not be the case. It's a cliche, but the business aspect takes a lot of time.
S: What is a memorable project that you have had in your career?
E: The cafeteria out at Boeing. This was right when I started at MPS. And we had an opportunity to design their cafeteria in the middle of their campus.
The is was right after I had left the city and I’m in charge of it and the project schedule was ridiculously short. We basically had 3 months to complete the drawings.
They didn’t ask for anything special, they just wanted a cafeteria. And so, I just said we are going to have a great building.
I thought about it. I used to work in a factory after school for a while. So I know what it's like to work in a place with no windows. You have no idea what time of the day it is. If it’s raining? If it’s hot or cold?
And that is how it is at Boeing. A bunch of metal buildings. So we wanted to create a place to get away from that.
The idea was to create a steel and glass box.
I was really proud of that because now if you go out there and talk to the Boeing folks it is their favorite building. It turned out nice. It’s just nice. It has trees and grass around it. If you go out to Boeing there is no grass except around the cafeteria.
When I went to photograph the building it was neat because the building was full of activity. It was glowing in the sun. It was the only building out there where you could see life. That felt good.
S: Let's talk about the design process. How do you start a design? Or better yet, what do you do when you are stuck on a design?
E: One thing that I’ve realized is that I like to let things percolate on my brain. And I read an article about this recently and it said a lot of people do that, so it made me feel better about myself.
I will start a project and I begin figuring things out. And I do it by hand. I start trying to figure out how things might work. Studying the site. And then I just leave it alone.
S: How long do you leave it alone?
E: It kind of depends on the deadline. (Laughs)
I will wake up and be thinking about it. It stays on your brain for a long time.
S: It works its way into your subconscious, right?
E: It does. It really does.
I’ll do some initial stuff, then I won’t do anything for days. Then I’ll sit back down and get to work.
I also like to see what other people will add to the design after I start the concept.
I also love traveling. We try to go to New York, my wife and I at least once a year. Any cities...and I always come back full of ideas.
S: Who is an architect that has been inspirational to you?
E: I was thinking about that this morning. I would say Ray Huff. I have known Ray Huff since I was in school. He is just someone who I respect on a lot of different levels. If you have ever been around Ray, or heard him speak, he is just very well spoken and articulate.
I always thought that he had the best of both worlds. He has a practice where they are doing really thoughtful work and he is also involved with academics. It was a good thing. It kept him fresh.
Ray's firm: Huff + Gooden Architects
He just seemed like a guy who could put it all together in a neat way. I have always liked his work.
Every year before I was registered, even after, I wrote a letter to Chris Schmitt, Ray Huff and Jim Thomas. “I know you are not hiring, but just in case I’d love to have an interview.” And every year they weren’t hiring.
Those are guys I just really admired.
S: What is 1 piece of advice you have for interns and young architects?
E: I say this about everything. Do the best you can to enjoy what you’re doing. Take everyday and enjoy it. Don’t get bogged down with this and that.
When you are an intern you do a lot of work you don’t like. You might be doing door schedules or you might be working on storage buildings. I worked on a lot of storage buildings.
You get a lot out of it. You don’t realize until later that you’re learning.
Try to enjoy what your doing. Don’t get bogged down. Go ahead and take some chances.
S: Last one....What’s a book you read recently or one you would recommend?
E: Aww man….I’m reading a book about Tom Petty.
S: You know you kind of sound like Tom Petty. He is one of my favorites!
I read another one about Keith Richards.
I read the New York Times every day. It sounds strange, but that influences a lot about the way I think about things.
S: So Petty and Keith Richards. I think I have a name for this blog: Eddie Bello the Rock Star Architect…….
E: Right..right….well I’m a long way from that.
Steve's Wrap Up
A big thanks to Eddie Bello for being generous with his time.
I really enjoyed our chat.
There is something about Eddie that you may not have picked up from the interview. Eddie is just a super chill dude. Extremely laid back and friendly. Very genuine and very easy to talk to.
He is no doubt a talented designer, but I suspect that it is his likable personality that has helped him the most along the way.
Perhaps that is the best lesson. Be nice!
Eddie Bello's Bio
A native Charlestonian, Eddie Bello has led projects ranging from commercial, institutional and residential uses, to comprehensive urban plans and historic preservation projects. Prior to forming Bello Garris Architects, Eddie was the Director of the Charleston Office of McMillan Pazdan Smith Architects. In that position, he led the design for several award-winning projects and managed an office of 18 employees.
Prior to that experience, for just under 10 years Eddie was the Director of the Urban Design and Preservation Department for the City of Charleston, SC. In the role of City Architect, he administered the Board of Architectural Review and Commercial Corridor Design Review Boards, and provided guidance for planning, urban design and aesthetic decisions guiding new construction and renovations throughout the city.
He places a strong emphasis on elegant, timeless design which responds to each client’s needs. His projects have received local, state and national awards.
I would love to hear some feedback about this interview and your general thoughts on more interviews. These posts are a little more cumbersome to write but they are a ton of fun and I get a lot out of them. So please let me know what you think. And if there is anyone in particular you think I should interview, let me know.
As always I appreciate your time and encourage you to tell a friend about Buildings Are Cool.
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