The Creationists

Creating a house with Gisela Schmoll

September 16, 2020 Steve Waxman Season 2 Episode 6
The Creationists
Creating a house with Gisela Schmoll
Chapters
The Creationists
Creating a house with Gisela Schmoll
Sep 16, 2020 Season 2 Episode 6
Steve Waxman

Photos and video of the project discussed in this episode can be found at The Creationists podcast on Facebook and Instagram.

When Canadian-born-San Francisco-based Gisela Schmoll shifted career paths from industrial design to architecture she knew that there would be challenges but she never anticipated that finding a contractor to bring her unique designs to life would be one of them.

Do you remember the Palm Pilot? That often copied piece of tech was designed at Gisela’s drafting table. After several years as a junior designer she shifted lanes and started studying architecture and has been building a strong portfolio and reputation ever since.  For the past few years she’s been working with home owner Ed Stellar to design an L-shaped home that incorporates the landscape of his property in the California Hills.

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Steve Waxman: Alright,  I want to start with talking about the Stellar house by asking what was the brief that you got from the client to start this whole process?

Gisela Schmoll: Basically, I got a list of spaces that he wanted. And then we also discussed the relationships of all the spaces to each other and how he planned to use the house. This client was pretty green. He didn't really understand architecture at all. So I had to, I had to kind of tease things out of him.

You know, the things that were most important to him. One of the other things he talked about is capitalizing on the view, cause it's perched up on a little hill and it has a fantastic view. So he wanted views from every single room in the house. And he also wanted to be able to go outside from every single room of this house.

But essentially that was the brief.

Read the entire transcript at imstevewaxman.com

Show Notes Transcript

Photos and video of the project discussed in this episode can be found at The Creationists podcast on Facebook and Instagram.

When Canadian-born-San Francisco-based Gisela Schmoll shifted career paths from industrial design to architecture she knew that there would be challenges but she never anticipated that finding a contractor to bring her unique designs to life would be one of them.

Do you remember the Palm Pilot? That often copied piece of tech was designed at Gisela’s drafting table. After several years as a junior designer she shifted lanes and started studying architecture and has been building a strong portfolio and reputation ever since.  For the past few years she’s been working with home owner Ed Stellar to design an L-shaped home that incorporates the landscape of his property in the California Hills.

***

Steve Waxman: Alright,  I want to start with talking about the Stellar house by asking what was the brief that you got from the client to start this whole process?

Gisela Schmoll: Basically, I got a list of spaces that he wanted. And then we also discussed the relationships of all the spaces to each other and how he planned to use the house. This client was pretty green. He didn't really understand architecture at all. So I had to, I had to kind of tease things out of him.

You know, the things that were most important to him. One of the other things he talked about is capitalizing on the view, cause it's perched up on a little hill and it has a fantastic view. So he wanted views from every single room in the house. And he also wanted to be able to go outside from every single room of this house.

But essentially that was the brief.

Read the entire transcript at imstevewaxman.com

There are things we pass in our everyday lives that we take for granted.  What were they thinking when they designed that car?  How did they come up with that drug.  Or, in this case, what goes into designing a house?

When Canadian-born-San Francisco-based Gisela Schmoll shifted career paths from industrial design to architecture she knew that there would be challenges but she never anticipated that finding a contractor to bring her unique designs to life would be one of them.

Do you remember the Palm Pilot? That often copied piece of tech was designed at Gisela’s drafting table. After several years as a junior designer she shifted lanes and started studying architecture and has been building a strong portfolio and reputation ever since.  For the past few years she’s been working with home owner Ed Stellar to design an L-shaped home that incorporates the landscape of his property in the California Hills.

* * *

Steve Waxman: Alright,  I want to start with talking about the Stellar house by asking what was the brief that you got from the client to start this whole process?

Gisela Schmoll: Basically, I got a list of spaces that he wanted. And then we also discussed the relationships of all the spaces to each other and how he planned to use the house. This client was pretty green. He didn't really understand architecture at all. So I had to, I had to kind of tease things out of him.

You know, the things that were most important to him. One of the other things he talked about is capitalizing on the view, cause it's perched up on a little hill and it has a fantastic view. So he wanted views from every single room in the house. And he also wanted to be able to go outside from every single room of this house.

But essentially that was the brief.

Steve Waxman: So you said that he had specific rooms that he wanted built?

Gisela Schmoll: Yeah.  So, he said, he wanted a master bedroom with an adjoining master bath. He wanted a study and he wanted a spare bedroom for guests. And then, of course, he wanted the kitchen and the living room and a dining room so that was important to him. He also wanted a garage and some sort of mud room.

So those are the things that were the beginning of the brief. And then, the second part of the brief, and this was never done actually in any formal way with Ed, it was more us talking at length. We started talking about the relationships of these various spaces to each other. So, one of the things that came out of these discussions was that he really wanted the bedroom area to be very separate from the living room / dining area which drove the layout of the space.  And then the other thing we talked about at my length is he really didn't like the open kitchen living room dining plans that you see in modern houses nowadays. He's like, ‘The kitchen gets messy.  It's noisy.’ It's why I opened that up to the living room / dining room space. So, the thing is he likes to cook and so the kitchen still needed to be a space that was appealing. He'll have friends over and people want to hang out in the kitchen while he's cooking. So we had to create a space that tied in with the living room / dining room, but still keep it separate.  So, the kind of the messy portion is him.

Steve Waxman: So this was a parcel of land that he already owned? Was there anything on it?

Gisela Schmoll: Oh, there was, there was a 1930s house that literally was tumbling  about his ears. The woodpeckers had poked holes through all the siding. The siding is dry rot. There's no insulation in the walls. Literally. I think the only insulation the walls had was 90 years of acorns in there because they keep poking holes in the walls and they toss the acorns in. So, when we finally open up those walls and take a look at that house, I'm sure it will be half full of acorns. I mean, literally you can see from inside to out, cause there's wood siding on the inside of the living room and there's cracks everywhere. It's pretty grim.

Steve Waxman: Was that where he was living or is that  where he is living? 

Gisela Schmoll:  That is where he is living. So in the winter time, it's cold and in the summertime it's hot because it's California and there's, you know, summer heat, winter cold. It's got dry rot. It's got mold. It's just a mess. So eventually we will remodel that house and he'll rent it out. But, that's after this big project is done.

Steve Waxman: Okay, so let's, let's go back. So after you got you and he had had the conversation, you sort of pulled out of him exactly what he wants with regards to inside the house. What's the next step for you in the design?

Gisela Schmoll: Well, the other thing we did too, in terms of teasing out what he wanted, we spent a lot of time onsite talking about views and the relationship of the house to the landscape. One of the other things he said that he didn't want something very big that was an eyesore on the landscape. That kind of dominated the landscape.

So it was all about keeping it kind of low and more like Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie houses. So that was another thing that drove the design. And then, after we had all these discussions of what he wanted, we spent a lot of time looking at architectural books and other architects' work, and I was trying to tease out what he wanted - design-wise. I now knew what he wanted for the spaces and the relationships of one space to the other, but aesthetically, what were we going for? I mean, if left to my own devices, we would have done a completely modern building but he wanted something contemporary. But if left to my own devices, we would have never had any eaves. We would never have had roof overhangs. It would have been like a very clean building, but he pushed. He was insistent. He wanted roof overhangs to protect the sides of the building. And so we spent a lot of time looking at other architects' work and what he liked, and I think it was a really fruitful collaboration because it pushed me beyond where I would have gone naturally. And I think it resulted in a better project in the end.

Steve Waxman: How did you guys come up with the L shape?

Gisela Schmoll: Well, that was interesting because I had a site survey and we kept talking about taking the bedroom area of the building and keeping it separate from the public portion of the building. And so what wound up happening is that you wind up situating the bedroom portion of the building, the private areas along the topo line of the hill, facing the view. And then the living room / dining room area projects off of the hill. The initial design literally projected off the hill. And so it was cantilevered. Not truly cantilevered. We had a few posts, but so that the living room / dining room was more exposed and was open to the whole view. We had glass on three sides of the living room, so it was very open. And then the bedroom was more - even though he had a view in each room - it was more enclosed, protected, anchored to the hillside.

So that's what drove the original layout. We had to make some compromises down the road to get costs down, but that's how they all came about.

Steve Waxman: One of the things I wanted to actually ask you was if there were any practical decisions that had to be made, that that affected some of the creative choices.

Gisela Schmoll: Oh, yeah, there were a lot of practical decisions. So in the very early design, literally the living room / dining room was glass all the way around and the glass went up eight feet. And so under that circumstance, you know glass can't hold up a roof, so we had to put in what are called steel moment frames.

So the steel was doing the work to hold up the roof. And there were three of these and we did some preliminary pricing of both the glass and the steel. And the windows came in at around $150,000 and my client just had a conniption. And then, the steel was around $80,000 alone and there we go, half his budget gone to glass and steel.

And I said, “Well, Ed, you know, we can get rid of the steel moment frames and then put in shear walls instead.” It's a standard wall built slightly differently. But it's much more cost effective and we reduced the amount of glazing everywhere. So we cut the cost in half just by doing that. But I still feel like the intent of the project remained the same.

It would have been great if it had been like this pavilion of glass, but part of me also thinks in some ways it got better because now we're starting to frame the views with the windows instead of just having glass everywhere. This allowed me to frame certain views more than others and prioritize view and how you see the landscape as you move through the house. So in many ways, I think it was an improvement, even though it wasn't the client's original intent.

Steve Waxman: So, when you're doing the basic design of the house, I presume there's a certain amount of creativity that is involved with that. Once you have the basic house designed and you start to build, are there still creative elements that you can add in as you go along?

Gisela Schmoll: Yes, we did do some of that again for cost cutting measures. And then also in the construction, you know, I can't anticipate everything that's going to happen in construction cause I am not a contractor. The contractor on several occasions said, “Hey, we have a conflict here between, you know, some framing and the electrical, like how you want, how do you want to resolve this situation?”

Or actually, what was a good example? Oh, the breezeway. That's one thing that happened on the fly. In the breezeway between the garage and the house proper, we had a beam that went in that was unanticipated. And so we had a lengthy discussion about how we were going to handle the wall below. It was supposed to be a polycarbonate wall that glowed at night, when the lights were on. It was supposed to be a translucent. And, in the end, once the beam was in place we were like, ‘Oh, that's going to look really weird.’ You'd see the beam up above behind the polycarbonate wall. And then below we'd see a glow. It was going to create a bizarre look. So in the end we decided, okay, forget it. That's the design change that happened on the fly. I think we basically took a wall and we made it all stucco  like the rest of the house and I think it looked better.

Steve Waxman Okay. How, how, how early on do you bring the contractor in?

Gisela Schmoll:  Usually the contractor comes in after most of the construction drawings and structural engineering is in place. In this case we actually had difficulty finding a contractor because it's a rural area and most of the contractors there are used to doing kind of standard ranch houses or McMansions.

Nobody wanted to tackle this job. I think it was too unusual. Every single stud had to be custom cut because of the butterfly roof line. So, it was a lot of work and it takes a smart contractor to do this job. We looked for years actually to find this contractor and we found a great one who's really interested in architecture and modern design. So he came in very late. Later than I would've liked. I would've loved to have him in earlier because then we could have had conversations about cost cutting and budget earlier.

Steve Waxman: What, what do you mean by butterfly?

Gisela Schmoll: So the roof - wow, how did I describe it verbally? It's instead of a standard Gable roof, like the traditional child drawing of a house, you know, you have the peak in the middle. The peak is the highest point and then on the perimeter, the roof goes down, right? So it's an A shape. Now, imagine if you flip that A upside down so that the lowest point is in the middle and the higher points are on the perimeter. So you're a V. But of course, in this case, the V is not as steep that steep as a V. Imagine a flatten V.

Steve Waxman: Now, you said you say that it took years to find a contractor. So when did this whole process with this guy start.

Gisela Schmoll: 2012. Yes, 2012 I started this project. And we had the permit, I think about three years ago. And it took us two years to find the contractor. This contractor was super busy, so it took a year before he could get started. So, finally, last fall he started construction.

Steve Waxman: And when do you think you're going to be able to finish?

Gisela Schmoll: Well, we were supposed to be done in June in the next few weeks, but because of shelter in place, we're going to be pushed out another few months. But like I said, as soon as the windows are in, we're going to be putting up drywall and doing the finished work. So it's going to move very fast now. So, hopefully by the end of the summer.

Steve Waxman:  So let let's go back. Can you talk a little bit about your past? How you got to the point of where you are in California, doing architecture from doing industrial design and what got you interested in industrial design, I guess, to begin with.

Gieslea Schmoll: Oh, I knew I was going to be a designer, even as a teen. But I had a boyfriend in my late teens who got into industrial design and I thought that was interesting. And so I just fell into industrial design as a young person. In retrospect, I think I should have gone into architecture sooner. I wound up going to school in Southern California in industrial design and then, when I was done school, all the work was up here in the Bay area. And so I was working in the Bay area, basically working in tech, doing computers. And when I went into industrial design, I was thinking about working on housewares, you know, something I understood better than computers.

And after working for about 10, 15 years doing computers, I just had enough. And also the other thing about being in tech is that technology changes so rapidly that you’re designing one computer and then in a year or two it's obsolete and it becomes landfill. So I didn't like the idea that I was contributing to landfill - to making these ephemeral products.

So I was attracted also to architecture because of the permanence involved in architecture. And by my mid thirties, I was so tired of industrial design and I found it extremely limiting and uncreative that I decided to go back to grad school and switched to architecture. Little did I know that being an architect you were contributing to landfill just as much as industrial design - especially when you work on remodels in San Francisco. I mean, there's so much waste in construction. It's really, really bad. 

Steve Waxman: Can we go back? Talk about where'd you grow up?

Gisela Schmoll: I grew up in Canada in the Toronto / Golden Horseshoe area. You know, from Toronto all the way down to Niagara Falls / St. Catherines, that area.

Steve Waxman: And you say that you knew from an early age that you wanted to be a designer. How - what happened? What, what got you interested in design?

Gisela Schmoll: Oh, I was the kid who was always in the art studio from the age of about 10. When I was in school at that point, you know, art classes started being separate from, you know, kind of the regular elementary school curriculum. You know, when you're in elementary school, you have one teacher teaching all of the subjects.

So I think it was around grade five that you had different teachers teaching. One teaches math, one teaches English and it was Mrs. Gossage who taught art. And at lunchtime, I was always up in the art studio. And from that point on, I was always in the art studio. And then in high school, I was able to take ceramics. And so I, instead of taking drawing classes - I was never interested in painting and drawing - I was always interested in three dimensions so I was in the ceramic studio all the time in high school. You know, at lunchtime, after school. I just liked building and working with my hands and creating three dimensional objects.

I mean what's so exciting about architecture, is the building part of it. Because you're sitting on the computer, drawing something in plan, drawing something two dimensionally, and you're having to visualize what is this going to be like in 3D space? And then once it gets built - like the first time I walked into Ed's project, when the framing was done, cause it's two and a half hour drive away from where I live. So I get up there once a month.  

And so they had poured the slab and then they started the framing. And the first time I walked in and the framing was done - the roof framing wasn't in but the wall framing was done and I walked in and I'm like, ‘Oh my God, that's exactly how I imagined it, this is great, I know what I'm doing.’

Well, the other thing is, you know, I'm working again, mostly on remodels and additions, and those are much more limited in terms of working three-dimensionally and spatially. You know, it winds up becoming more of a graphic design and interior design exercise when you're doing a remodel and addition. There's more opportunity there, but it's not the same as ground up construction where you're really working in three dimensions. It's so exciting. It's really exciting. It makes me happy. Every time I go up there.

Steve Waxman: That's awesome. Can you, can you talk a little bit about your involvement in the design of the Palm pilot?

Giesla Schmoll:  Oh. (laughing) So when Palm Computing approached the firm I was working for, which was Palo Alto Design Group at the time, Palm Computing was a startup. They had pretty little money. And my understanding was that they did not pay my bosses in cash. They gave my bosses some stock in the company. And so, you know, given that my bosses were getting no cash for this job, they gave the assignment to their cheapest employee, their most junior employee, which was me at the time.

I was like, I think a year out of undergrad and the most junior industrial designer on staff. So they gave it to me and that's how I ended up doing it.

Steve Waxman:  Wow.

Gisela Schmoll:  Well, the thing about the whole Palm Pilot was who would have known it was going to be such a huge success. I really wish I had gotten royalties because they sold over a million of the first generation. And if I had gotten royalties, I would be a rich woman now.

Oh, I was going to say, you know, what's fascinating about the whole Palm Pilot is that it was widely copied - for ten years afterwards, the whole button layout at the bottom. I did, I can tell you, hundreds of iterations of button layouts and I don't even remember why we wound up having two circular buttons with arrow keys in the middle, but literally for ten years afterwards, everyone started copying that button layer layout as if it was sacrosanct.

It was interesting to see how that worked out. I think corporations are just inherently risk averse. So when one formula works, they wind up copying it endlessly instead of taking a risk and doing something new.

Steve Waxman:I think the same could be said for pretty much every industry. 

Gisela Schmoll: Yeah, you’re probably right.

Steve Waxman: So with regards to designing in general, where do you get your inspiration?

Gisela Schmoll:  There's no simple answer to that. I mean, I spent a lot of time looking at other architects I admire, but at the same time, I feel like what drives a project is often the constraints that are imposed either by the client, what they want, by the site, especially if you're doing remodels and additions, it's very much constrained by site and neighbors and what they want. So I really feel like I'm often responding to constraints around me and that's not necessarily a bad thing because I think constraints often push me out of my comfort zone.

And if there's a constraint I really dislike it forces me to think creatively and think outside the box to come up with something that is more creative and looks better. Or works better functions better, you know?

Steve Waxman: Yeah, that's fair, but it, but it makes me wonder if, in between these projects, are you designing dream homes or dream structures, dream buildings, just as an exercise of creative outlet. 

Gisela Schmoll:  No, actually. For one thing, I'm too busy. I keep talking about doing competitive work and some of my own projects, but I don't have time and I actually find my work creatively fulfilling. And I think the other thing that industrial design has helped me as an architect because architecture requires you to be able to operate at different scales. So in the big picture scale you're laying out a floor plan, you're thinking about the overall spatial relationships of one room to the next, a house to in the environment or the building in the environment. But the other thing that a really good architect has to do is think about details. And I really enjoy working on the details too. Like I will noodle quarter inch, you know, eighth inch  level of details. And a lot of architects don't like to get into that. You know, especially when I was in grad school, it was all big picture work is like work on floor plans, do pretty renderings. And I think a lot of my classmates, once they started working and realized what architecture really entailed spending a lot of time drafting out details, but the details are so much design happens in the detail, the end result.

You know, it just doesn't matter how great the space is if the details aren't beautifully thought through. It's just not going to look anywhere near as good. I'm trying to think of a good example. Well, maybe if you go to a fancy restaurant and the presentation of the food is part of what you're experiencing. You could have the same food at home, but you probably don't put that little sprig of rosemary on the side and artfully arrange the pieces of the food. You know, it tastes just as good, but it doesn't look as beautiful. And that's what the details do in terms of architecture. 

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Note: This conversation took place at the beginning of the Covid lockdown and the house we talk about is now nearing completion.

If you’d like to find out more about Gisela Scmoll and her work, please visit www.schmolldesign.com