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Partners in creating people spaces

By on November 24, 2020 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
Ellyn Freed and Lenka Slapnicka work together with 10 other colleagues, most of them women, in this open, light space that’s designed for freedom of thought and easy collaboration. Photo by Mike Irwin

The first essential job is listening to how people live before designing where they will live

Editor’s note: This month’s At Home feature introduces two female architects with diverse backgrounds and compatible strengths. Their Wenatchee firm, Forte Architects, employs 12 people. Notably, currently 10 are women. 

By Susan Lagsdin

Architecture may be the perfect blend of art and science, but essentially it’s about people, not simply the buildings they inhabit. 

And ironically, though “people skills” rate high on descriptors of successful professional women, they are only 17 percent of the nation’s architects; most firms in north central Washington dip below that average.

Ellyn Freed and Lenka Slapnicka are not only in their firm’s gender majority; at age 30 and 60 respectively, they aptly bracket the deliberate generational mix. They are both principal partners in Forte Architects, and when they share ideas and laugh and puzzle out solutions together, they seem like sisters.

Their world of difference forms a bridge, not a barrier. 

Ellyn was hired by Lenka, who is the firm’s co-founder. Ellyn was raised here, attended Wenatchee High School and the University of Washington and enjoyed a six-year career spin in New York City; she’s a hometown girl who’s returned to her roots.

Lenka emigrated from the Czech Republic with a master’s degree from the Technical University in Brno and was a professional architect for decades before coming to work in Wenatchee, where she opened Forte in 2006 with business partner Tom Bassett.

Ellyn is age-appropriately tech savvy and said, “Everybody is when you leave school — after that it’s up to you to make something of it.” Lenka learned CAD drafting 30 years ago but continues to be a whiz with graph paper and pencil, a medium she prefers.

Ellyn said she was aimless in Seattle at the start of her college freshman year. She said she chanced upon an accelerated pre-architecture program, surprising even herself with a hasty portfolio and a lot of gumption, was accepted, worked like a demon and received her BA in architecture within three years. 

“I loved it immediately, designing built environments. I didn’t think much about houses growing up,” she said, “but I was always into visual patterns and creating imaginary scenes for games. And forts — I made the best backyard forts.” Ellyn headed to New York for six years to use all her new-minted skills from the UW.

Lenka was more career-oriented when she started college in her hometown. Not wanting to choose between her love of art and her aptitude for math, she picked and excelled at architecture. She worked up to PhD status, teaching classes at the university until emigrating to America. Her surgeon husband needed to study for licensing exams (twice, in Canada and the U.S.) and they had children, so she immediately found work in her field 

“I had to work, and architecture was what I did well. When I applied for my first job in Calgary, I only knew ‘Hello, how are you?’ in English,” Lenka said. Luckily for her, the firm was seeking a replacement for a European architect who had recently left. 

At first, hired for what she called her exotic perspective, Lenka soon brought late-state computer drafting skills and became a lead designer. After her husband’s U.S. residency in Pennsylvania, the couple moved to Wenatchee.

So why and how are these two women working together? 

Connections, somewhat delayed. At Confluence Health where Ellyn’s father and Lenka’s husband are colleagues, Ellyn had a post-college facilities job, and Lenka asked the bright young grad to come to work for her.

Nope, she was headed to The Big Apple. “She actually turned me down,” said Lenka. “And six years later when she moved back to Wenatchee, I asked her again. Finally, she said yes.” And Forte had its next new architect.

The firm’s many institutional and commercial projects can be seen around the valley, but about half of their business is residential. The clients generally want either a full-time family home or a vacation getaway place to call home in their later years. 

In each of those projects, no matter what the scope, the first essential job Ellyn, Lenka and the other architects take on is to ask questions and to really listen. 

“It’s a gentle back and forth when we start generating ideas with a client,” said Ellyn. “We ask, how do you live now? What’s important to you? How long do you expect to stay in this house?” The size of the dog, the age of the kids, their hobbies and must-haves are as important as siting on the lot and square footage.

Lenka said asking good questions at the start can also lead to smart decisions about future accessibility or resale value. “We help people navigate all the options with questions like, ‘Do you really want the laundry in the basement, with the bedrooms on the third floor?’ or ‘Would you prefer morning sunlight in the breakfast room?’ We don’t tell people what they should want.”

“Communication at every step is crucial,” said Ellyn. “So you want to make the growing design easy to visualize.” She applauds the firm’s use of three-dimensional and interactive Revit software.

Right now, after returning this fall to a building emptied by COVID-19, all the staff might be working in the office at once, and the airy no-wall work space — as well as their integrated software — makes them immediately accessible to each other.

The employees often focus on their areas of expertise from engineering to interiors, but Ellyn said she loves the way people casually collaborate. Any worry over details (“Did I forget something?” “Will this work?”) is alleviated when she can brainstorm ideas and early and easily ask for advice.

With construction booming and demographics shifting, here’s what Ellyn and Lenka see in Wenatchee’s home design future.

n “Away spaces”: The lately ubiquitous open plan probably isn’t going away, but they agree that COVID-19 has made people crave smaller spaces within their homes for work and study.

n Smaller homes: Perceptions of square footage have changed. Even for full-time family living, oversized homes and yards may not be optimum. “People are busy,” said Ellyn. “They don’t want a lot of extra rooms; they don’t want to mow the lawn on the weekend.”

n Larger retreats: Conversely, recreational homes aren’t necessarily cabins anymore; many people from the west side, for instance, boldly invest in larger residences, intending to entertain family and friends now and move in full time after retirement.

n Additional Dwelling Units: The ADU may take several forms. An older client may plan an apartment or “junior master” suite for a caregiver. Or, the main house may eventually go to adult children with the elders living in a smaller guest house. (Younger homeowners are making parallel decisions, planning spacious suites or multi-use guest cottages so their elderly parents can easily join the family in the future.)

Both Lenka and Ellyn think the plethora of HGTV shows can lead to misinformation about home design and construction process from first sketch to door key. 

“People come in thinking they know what amenities they want,” said Lenka, “But they generally misunderstand how complex and time-consuming designing a house is.”

A chef’s pantry, bonus room, gabled roof and three-car garage they can visualize; factors like zoning, foundation, R factor, amperage, septic and snowload? Not so much. 

She said, “Part of our responsibility is to educate people, to show them the decisions that need to be made at every step.”

In her four years working here, Ellyn says her pleasure in designing homes comes from creating personal relationships with clients, builders and workmates. Lenka, who says it’s time to step away from designing, said she especially loves meeting people at the very start of their home-owning journey, knowing she’ll help see them though to a happy outcome.

Who can say if those happy outcomes come directly from so many good women working together? 

Lasting architecture is genderless, as is a concern for people. Whether it’s a cottage, a mansion, a cabana or a lodge, any architect worth his (or her) license probably spends time, like Lenka and Ellyn do, pinning down personal needs and suggesting wonderful possibilities.

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