In Conversation with Jake Thiel
This episode, we discuss sustainability with Jake Thiel, founder, and CEO of Edifice Architectural. Jake collects timeworn arrowheads from the shores of the Potomac River. He appreciates their simplicity. He marvels in their history.
He applies this wonder to the building process. What would it look like for an architecture startup to approach its craft with a multi-generational timeline? What would it mean for a startup to think about adaptive, sustainable growth, not only for itself, but also based on the needs of our communities and our planet? We shed light on these themes today.
Music: Ben Tyree
Transcript, edited for length and clarity
Ioana: Jake Thiel, welcome.
Jake: Thank you, Ioana. It’s good to be here.
Ioana: Please tell our listeners about your architecture practice.
Jake: I’m a registered architect in Maryland and the District of Columbia. I opened up my practice seven years ago when I returned from a partnership in Rome, Italy.
I was there for almost four years. And that’s where I got my start in my initial inspiration. It was in the context of 2,500 years of architectural history and art history and creative historical lineage.
Ioana: Set the scene and talk about what that was like.
Jake: Sure. A lot of times, when we think of ancient Rome and the classical canon of architectural design, we like to think about how buildings were designed in a different era that feeds our romanticism.
But the one thing that interested me about looking at ancient buildings is to see what has become of them over time. After wars and invasions, occupations, new religions, new cultures superimposed themselves on top of others.
You see what nature values in architecture and what nature limits and edits and removes over time.
Ioana: What did you see?
Jake: I saw buildings brought from their glorious, superficial aspects, like ancient Roman imperial bath complexes revetted in precious polychromatic marbles reduced to grand arches and integral stone and brickwork.
They’ve been revisited many times. Different structures have been built into them. You see pudlocks or recesses where new beams were fitted in to make huts, barns, buildings in other eras.
You see, when Rome was an empire, at its peak, it had a population of close to a million people, and within the next century, the population dwindled to 50,000 when the empire moved from Rome to Constantinople.
So Rome survived on the wool guild through medieval times. Shepherds were grazing their flock in the middle of downtown Rome for hundreds of years. You never think about a capital city and how it implodes and deconstructs into a whole other way of life.
It’s interesting to see the bigger picture of that ancient historical context.
And that’s something I try to inform my work. These ancient bathhouses that are now in ruins, they were beautiful as they were designed and intended. They’re still beautiful in a different way because of the perpetual dialogue that man has with nature is incredible. Seeing what we build and what nature values over time.
You walk through the forum and see ancient columns poking up out of the middle of nowhere, or in the corner of a church, or a contemporary building. This is recycling. This is adaptive reuse. You know, you already have one wall built, so that’s 25% off of the four walls you have to build.
Ioana: So one of your four walls might be an ancient structure.
Jake: Exactly. And you might be building midway up that structure because all of the dust and infill over time has raised the ground level midway to what that ancient structure had been intended. That process is pretty amazing.
Ioana: It’s fascinating. How does that inform your work, practicing architecture in 2020?
Jake: I see that in the case of global warming and having to recycle more and care more for the environment, this dialogue that we have with mother nature is going to have to be a more intimate one. We’re going to have to recycle more and consider adaptive reuse.
We can’t just have this mentality of tear down and rebuild like I see all over the United States. You know, my grandmother’s neighborhood in Bethesda, Maryland, is beautiful old brick houses. Solid brick construction is being torn down for McMansions, and literally, it doesn’t make any sense to me. But financially, that’s what the market seems to respond to.
The one thing I see about old buildings is the quality of the lived experience, the human experience. I mean, I’ve walked down ancient Roman steps that have been carved and scalloped by the footsteps of millions over the years.
And it amazes me to think, here I walk into the Pantheon, a building that was built in 80 A.D. and it’s still under a roof, still preserved. Ancient Roman pagans have walked there. Atilla the Hun, when he conquered the city, opened those bronze doors, and all of the former empire laid at his feet.
To think of the characters that occupied that space, there’s a certain amount of historical magic to it.
What turns me on is this is not some fairy tale. This is not Game of Thrones. This happened. These people existed. The history we’ve lived is just as miraculous and fantastic as any fictional storybook.
Ioana: Probably even more so.
Jake: Even more so. That it was real and humans, just like us, lived those experiences firsthand.
Ioana: I want us to go deeper into sustainability because it’s a big part of your ethos.
Ioana: What’s your philosophy? How should humans build?
Jake: You know, there are a few initial things that you can do to design a more efficient home. Working with basic materials is one good thing. Each material has certain structural and weather resistance qualities.
First of all, you can use masonry, wood, and metal, in a pure way. You don’t have to stamp concrete to try to emulate stone or brick.
You don’t have to ship materials from far away. You can use locally sourced materials.
The orientation and proportion of your building for your climatic region also plays a big role. The United States has three zones. It has the sub-Arctic in the extreme North—Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota—the temperate forest in the central part of the country, and it has tropical in Southern Florida—where you see the coconut palms. Then there’s your desert in the Southwest. I can’t forget.
These are very different climatic regions with different qualities. Some can be hot and humid. Some are dry and cold. You need to design for each climatic region. There are ways of proportioning your home to optimize for each environment. You can also orient the structure so that you take in sunlight to offset climate control and maintain comfort without having to pay by fossil fuels.
Ioana: There are many decisions that affect your footprint.
Jake: Right. In the end, this simply means that if you live in the temperate forest of Maryland as I do, you want a house that’s roughly two to three to one in proportion, that faces approximately five degrees East of due South on the long side, and that’s a story or two.
So if you keep that in mind and, of course, allow for variations, this proportioning and positioning will save you a lot of money. And you’ll be saving the environment a lot of frustration in terms of mining and extracting fossil fuels.
Ioana: Let’s talk more about climate change in your area.
Jake: Yeah. Climate change is an emergency now. I’m noticing that in Maryland, which has more tidal coastline of any state in the lower 48, the sea level has seemed to rise 18 inches just this year.
It wasn’t noticeable, but we no longer have low tides on the Potomac. Our mean tide is now the low tide. And our high tides are extraordinary. We’re getting a lot of bank erosion and losing a lot of front yard. And in the port of Annapolis, I’ve seen flooding several times this year.
It’s alarming. I am assuming the polar ice cap is melting and raising the sea level. Some of us who live on the waterfront aren’t prepared for that.
Ioana: How can you use your architecture knowledge to fight this back and introduce some balance?
Jake: A lot of times, people looking to build a home don’t consider the environmental complexities involved at the start. I’m the professional hired to advise them through the process. Often, they’re idealistic and thinking this is going to be a breeze-through. “This is what I want; let’s do it.”
But it’s a process, and it’s about educating clients to potential benefits that they’ve never heard about and making decisions that upset their objectives, their plan, what they had in mind.
Ioana: Or how they view themselves.
Jake: And how they view themselves.
I recently consulted with a couple on a property they were considering buying on the waterfront in Southern Maryland. They were looking at this beautiful stone, single-story modern house. Very Prairie style, very Frank Lloyd Wright. But they identified as traditional people. Still, the husband’s gut attracted him to this home.
He saw a lot of potential there. You can’t get stonework anymore, let alone good brick or masonry work, in general. It was a beautiful house. It appealed to his gut reaction on some level, and she entertained the idea of adding to it more traditionally. But, of course, they didn’t want it to look like a hodgepodge of styles from different eras and ways of life.
So this was a crossover point for them. My responsibility was to not blow them away with what I can do, but to get them at least to the next level. Opening up and seeing what the potential is for reinventing themselves or re-identifying with a part of themselves that they probably hadn’t experimented with.
Ioana: It’s almost like a therapy session.
Jake: Absolutely. This beautiful house threw them a monkey wrench. And then they’re like, “We’re attracted to this. Why? What is it about me that responds to this? And now, what do I do with myself?” And so, this is the next step. And this is also the power of art.
When a house is designed well, it speaks on a primal human level, even if it’s not what you thought of as your style. That’s great art. You don’t have to think about it. It’s about what you feel. Communicating feelings through a physical medium. That’s the magic of art, when it comes down to it.
They were spellbound by this house and entertaining the possibility to reinvestigate their sense of awareness.
Ioana: That’s amazing.
Jake: And it is my responsibility to get them there. And I feel very responsible because I want them to be happy and to grow into a new progressive way of life.
And that’s always the challenge. A lot of times, clients come with a set idea of what the home will look like. Right then and there, I have to swim in constraints. Swim in boots.
I have to gauge them and figure out where is that next step, you know? How far can I get them without freaking them out, without them having a total identity crisis?
Ioana: How do you suss that out?
Jake: That’s something I’m working on, as I mature as a professional. It has to do with getting to know people and reading people.
I’ve found it challenging. I’ve never been a socialite. I’ve always been an oddball. That helps me see things differently and inspires me as an artist. But the tricky part is being able to lead people, and to connect with people, to follow my eccentric vision.
I also want to be more honest with my clients, in the beginning, preparing them for what I do and how to get the best out of me.
Ioana: And you’re doing that. You’re building a house.
Ioana: Let’s talk about that cutting edge house.
Jake: Thank you very much, Ioana. I broke ground in 2012. I bought the property in 2010, but it took me a year or two to get everything organized.
I’ve learned a lot about the process, acting as my general contractor, designer, and architect, which has been quite an experience. You know, I want some things as a designer, but as the person paying for it, I sympathize now with my clients. And I understand my builders because they’re the ones who have to put it together. And I’ve been in that role several times.
And so, talking about putting your money where your mouth is and practicing what you preach. That’s helped me grow as a designer and as a professional in general. And it’s been a real adventure of trial and error.
In the end, what we’re building here on the Potomac in Southern Maryland is a unique structure. I try to be as sustainable as possible. I can’t always afford to install all the geothermal wells, the solar panels, wind turbines, all the stuff that’s going to make a house get off the grid and stay off the grid. But I’m designing a building that can accept those features at a later time.
The biggest thing a lot of people don’t understand about sustainability when it comes to architecture is that it’s not about the machines. One time I a guy came to me, and he wanted to build a new sustainable dwelling in Virginia, and he was like, “This is my box, what kind of equipment do I need to stuff it with to make it sustainable?”
That’s the first mistake. Not realizing that the house, as Le Corbusier said in the 1920s, is a machine for living in. The house itself is the machine, not the machines inside the house. We like to have a mechanical closet and think that’s the heart and the lungs of the building.
But that’s not the truth. If you design the building properly, the windows take in your solar gain and a central thermal masonry wall, dark in color to absorb heat, is going to be your battery. It’s going to be energized with solar heat so that in the evening, when the room temperature drops, it will radiate out and balance the comfort level in your dwelling.
Passive systems are your most effective systems. And that’s why orienting your home, proportioning it properly, and putting thermal glass on the South side are easy things you can do to make the most impact when it comes to sustainability.
And then, of course, later on when you have the money, solar panels, wind turbines, a geothermal well. I’m in it for the long haul.
And I tried to build something from the American landscape, even though I learned a lot of these techniques while working in Italy. I drew inspiration from some of the temples and construction I saw in Mexico, as it draws from this landscape. Instead of superimposing the classical vocabulary of decoration, as we had in the colonial era.
It’s fascinating to see where the ancient Roman architects were getting the stuff from. They were living a much more primitive life tied to the landscape and building an architecture of that landscape. And it’s nothing you can just simply import to North America. This landscape is different. It has its own language. It has its own expression, and if we can tie into that and use that to our advantage, instead of fight it or block it, we work with nature to let it come to its fruition.
Ioana: I love that.
Jake: We’re part of nature. The Ice Age receded, and we came from caves, and we took stones and built our own caves. That was the beginning of architecture. We have to realize the basic approach to drawing materials from the landscape and sheltering ourselves with them in a way that’s intelligent and human.
Ioana: And sustainable.
Jake: Exactly, and that’s the nature of sustainability. Drawing the material from the landscape. That gesture of building it up and bring it over you to shelter you. It’s a really simple gesture on the emotional scale, but, of course, it involves labor and planning on the technical aspect. But I like to keep the design simple like that.
In my project, I just use a simple shed roof that raises, and I try to bring the walls to the ground. I like to think of it, not as windows or walls, but as formations growing out of the earth. If you don’t think of them as walls anymore, it’s not going to look like a house. It’s going to look like a beautiful piece of nature that you can use as a shelter.
Ioana: That’s like a poem.
Jake: It’s poetic. Architecture’s a very poetic craft. And there are so many beautiful things out there in nature: beautiful mountains, rock formations, natural bridges, and arches. And if we could inhabit those, we could capture some of that beauty for ourselves.
And so if we use those principles, then a wall is not a simple wall. And a window is not a simple window. You’re talking about in an aperture or a rupture, something more dynamic, more natural.
And that’s how I saw. There’s this is a great book my grandfather gave me when I was a kid, he was an architect.
He gave me this book called Architecture Without Architects. It’s about primitive buildings throughout the world and people living in villages in North Africa built on top of each other. And towns in Southern Italy where they’re living in caves dug out of ravines.
And there’s such a deeper sense of community in these places because you’re digging out your home until you dig into somebody else’s home and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, excuse me,” and you block it back up again. And you’re walking over their terrace to get to your front door. And so people are living more communal lives, more communal existences.
These places initiated hundreds, if not over a thousand years ago. A lot of people are still living like that. These places are still inhabited. And there’s a different sense of community, a distinct sense of self-awareness to each other and the earth. As earthlings, you know?
Ioana: Totally. I love that so much.
Jake: Yeah. We’re going to have to start dwelling again. Being a part of the village, the community. It’s something I think we’ve lost in the modern era.
In my experiences in Europe, I see these ancient villages dying. Only grandpa and grandma are left talking about the glory days when they used to produce 100,000 bottles of wine a year, or whatever it used to be.
Now, children are having to grow up and get economic security by moving into the big cities. So these ancient places are dwindling. There’s a lot of ghost towns in Italy. Beautiful places. And so very ironic to see the palace of the medieval Lord or Duke, and it’s in the worst shape of any of the buildings because nobody can maintain it to historical preservation standards.
If only we could manage to start our own business in our small town. Provide that service locally, instead of looking for a job in the big city. That’s a very challenging route. But I’d like to see more of that.
I think that could be a key to solving our problems in the long run. Instead of having a brain drain from the countryside have more people stay locally, or return home and introduce services.
That’s what I’m doing now, and it’s not easy. But I think it’s helpful to give back and show that this is the community that raised me, and this is what I’ve learned in the big city. I’m reintroducing that back to my community and hopefully showing them that there are different ways to build. And hopefully, we can do that the world around.
Ioana: How do you see a role in that?
Jake: I’m employing masons, carpenters, concrete fabricators, all local, and they’re seeing what it’s like to build a sustainable building, which is something they’ve never done before.
Ioana: So there’s unique thinking that goes into working on your structure?
Jake: Absolutely. It’s a custom building. It’s commercial-grade construction on a single-family residential unit. So single-family residential experience is not going to help you with this project. And commercial crews don’t have time for a small project like mine, so it’s hard to get the right level of expertise.
I’ve gone to a lot of retirees who’ve worked on commercial crews and have that experience but are starting their own business late in life and need a project like mine and can deliver.
Ioana: I think a lot of people are intimidated by sustainable building, just like they’re intimidated by the electric car.
Jake: It’s a new experience.
Ioana: Yes. We have an electric car. Some neighbors asked me, “Oh my God, did you have to convert your whole garage?” And it’s like, no, you just plug it in. But there’s this myth that converting to something that’s more sustainable is going to be super hard for a long time. But once we get over that hurdle, buildings like yours can exist for miles.
Jake: Yeah. And what you can do is, it’s all relative. If clients open up and shift their house, re-proportion it, put more glass on the South side, here we go—we’re making the situation better. That’s progress. The difficult thing is they usually come to me with a vision in their mind, you know?
Ioana: And that goes back to what you’re saying before about how people view themselves.
Ioana: How do we grow in that difference, and still have it be sustainable?
Jake: Everybody’s an individual. Everybody’s different. Everybody’s got their way of doing things. And you know, I want to bring that uniqueness out in the individual. Because it’s not just about building a sustainable building, but it’s making a sustainable building for someone specific. And getting to know that person and cultivate the potential for their creative vision in particular response to the environment.
Ioana: I love that. In your process, how do you walk through that piece of it?
Jake: It’s hard because you don’t have a lot of time to get to know a new client. To make friends with them, connect with them. I have to do it quickly because there’s value in the research that I do. When I design, I look at available materials, labor expertise, and the environment. I balance all those factors. It’s a massive balancing act, and I like to have all tools and all factors on the table to analyze at one time.
Sometimes, if a client’s not sure, or maybe I’m influencing them in a way, they’ll start to deviate from what they said initially, and then I respond and iterate. Eventually, all of this deviation will start dissipating, and we come to a final consensus.
A lot of times, it’s not what they expected. It’s not what I expected, either. That’s one huge thing I’m learning now. I want people to understand that it’s not going to be like either of us expect in the end.
That’s really what needs to be said, and it needs to be allowed for. Because I think most of the pain and frustration in the process comes from having to let go.
Ioana: In life in general. I should share with our listeners that you’ve worked on our former house.
Jake: Your apartment in Brooklyn.
Ioana: Yes. It was ten years ago or so.
Jake: Oh, how time flies.
Ioana: Yes! I thought that you were straightforward in the potential of the space because you came back with three or four options ranging from very conservative to avant-garde. There was a spectrum.
That was a graceful way of gauging our comfort level with how far we were going to push it. And to your point, we didn’t end up exactly in one spot. It was a blend of two options.
Jake: Yeah. Because we discussed it, and we wound up somewhere in between.
Ioana: It’s a dance.
Jake: Yeah. You have to have a little bit of faith and try new things, and you guys were willing to do that. It’s something I don’t come across very often. You guys have an art education, and so you’re in tune with the creative process.
Ioana: Let’s talk about creative literacy. It’s a big thing for you.
Jake: Yeah. Absolutely.
Ioana: What do you notice happening now in education and how can we foster more creative literacy?
Jake: Yeah, lack of creative literacy is a real problem. It’s not prioritized in our standard educational system.
I went to a public high school in Southern Maryland, and priority was always given to math and science. It failed to recognize the union of arts and sciences, which is something I believe in. Yes, science is based on facts, but unless you have that creative spark of questioning…
You know, without Jules Verne thinking about the atomic submarine in the 19th century, would it ever have come about? It’s obvious to me that even artists need to know the science behind what they’re creating, the materials they’re using, the methods, the thread of logic in storytelling. There are mathematical concepts in music.
Arts and sciences are naturally linked. They inherently inform each other. And we do not pay enough credit to that. Even educators aren’t aware enough about that. I enrolled in art classes, and I saw that priority was given to those who could copy a photograph accurately, which is no different than a copy machine. It takes a lot of skill and hand-eye coordination, but a lot of people are lost and thinking that handcraft is the limit of art.
They don’t realize that there’s an emotional aspect. I think we’re not enough in tune with our emotions and giving credit to that aspect of our education. If it weren’t for the music department and maybe the theater club at school, there would have been no creative presence in my training.
I, fortunately, was raised by two artists, so I had an education aside from what the local public school was offering.
I also feel that there should be more ways of educating people on the psychological aspect of self-awareness and emotional education. Psych Ed along with Phys Ed. It’s not just about the body and math and science, but about the soul as well.
It needn’t be a religious thing. We can separate church and state and still talk about the scientific aspects and the fundamental presence of how music affects the soul. You know, when music is so moving.
Ioana: Or how walking into a space can be so moving.
Jake: Precisely. I wish I had more experience in advocacy. I don’t have a way of connecting directly through my architecture practice. I have more leverage to promote the creative aspect of my profession by working with my father, Bruce Thiel, who is a lifelong printmaker on serigrapher, and is very involved with the museum community in Washington D.C.
By attracting creative people, people interested in fine arts specifically, I meet more crossovers. Because the problem with architecture, it cloaks itself as a human necessity. You need shelter, you need to stay warm in the winter. And so people are thinking from that perspective and not realizing, “Hey, if we’re going to put some walls and a roof together, let’s do it in a way that allows us to be emotionally enlightened.”
Ioana: That’s key. Allowing something practical also to fulfill the ecological responsibility that we have, fulfill who we are as individuals, construct community…architecture lies at the crux of all that.
Jake: Absolutely. It defines space and our life. What gives me the most pride is longevity. When I’m designing a home, it’s for these clients, but perhaps they’ll sell it someday, and a new family will come in. They will raise children here. Children will take their first steps in this house. What is it like for a child to grow up in this environment? Is it going to inspire them? Is it going to discourage and depress them? An architect has direct influence over these things.
Ioana: Do you think about that?
Jake: Absolutely. Positively.
Ioana: Not only do you take into account the people who are in front of you, but the generations that will come.
Jake: That’s what I’m talking about in terms of ancient Rome. Those buildings are still used today in one way or another, maybe not as designers intended them.
That’s what I design into my house on the Potomac in Southern Maryland. I think about how this building can be added to. I built masonry exterior walls with wood interior partitions so it could be flexible space. I also like to think in terms of modular design. If you design on a four-foot grid, a sheet of plywood adapts more easily, you can shift things around, and add to spaces.
Eventually, I’d love to design exoskeletal space frames. Start inserting prefabricated units within that. There’s a lot you can do if you plan for change and adaptation. It makes it a lot easier down the road.
Ioana: That’s the antithesis of disposable architecture, right?
Ioana: Do you market yourself as an ecologically conscious architect?
Jake: Absolutely. I don’t like that certain organizations claim green design for themselves. That’s not a new thing. Before fossil fuels, we had to design spaces that worked with thermodynamics, that brought streams and brooks through the basement to cool the Victorian house.
I’ve heard so many stories about discovering these things that were boarded up and patched up and filled in, which were essential parts of old houses. But now that we’ve got fossil fuels, cheap and easy and powerful, we can just put a machine in there and let the machine think for us. It’s a bad direction.
Architects have been designing sustainably for thousands of years. Green architecture is a marketing scheme used by organizations like LEED Design. You don’t need a LEED certification to be a good architectural designer and consider sustainable options.
Ioana: How can people living in an apartment or a finished home promote green living?
Jake: You can put more house plants to freshen the air. You can even paint a wall black or install a light shelf in your window to reflect light deeper into your space. There are amazing things you can do. Just watch how the light moves in your apartment throughout the year and take advantage of that light during the winter months and block it out in the summer months. Keep things nice and shaded.
Ioana: That’s cool. I never thought about painting a wall darker.
Jake: Yeah, for example. Just to absorb more light and not reflect it away. That’s going to help absorb heat. And, of course, you want to make sure that this is winter exposure where you’re painting black.
Windows have three functions: view, solar radiation, and ventilation. So, it’s not just a decorative element. It’s very important.
Ioana: It’s not just for a fire escape?
Jake: Yeah, fire escape too! There are times when there’s a fourth function. We don’t like to think about those, let the architect handle that.
Ioana: Thank you for coming on.
Jake: My pleasure. Thank you for having me, Ioana.