Tom Kundig is a genius

We had a meeting with Tom and Todd from Olson Kundig and Jim from Schuchart/Dow at the Olson Kundig office to talk about some problems we were having with the design.

The problem: They had designed 4 big pivot doors and the company that might build them warned them that doors that big, especially pivot doors which have a paper-cutter action at one end, are not recommended for houses with children or small pets. They passed this warning on to us and asked what we wanted to do. One of these doors will be the most-used entry into the house from the garage, so we didn’t want to have the kids using a 350lb door constantly and we certainly didn’t want them playing with them, as kids like to do. We mentioned this to Schuchart/Dow and they were surprised we were just learning of this now given that it’s the #1 concern with people who they’ve installed these doors for. Hmm. We told the two architects who work under Tom that we wanted to find a different design for a door that was more safe for the kids. In classic designer “cool design trumps everything else, so live with it!” attitude, one of them ridiculed us as over-protective parents adding (and this is a direct quote) “Heavy swing doors – the world is full of ‘em…so if they’re scary, you better not leave the house!!”. We’d had a good relationship with him while designing the Vashon house so it was surprising he’d be such a jackass about this. And it’s hard to believe that a professional architect, and one that works for the one of the best firms in the country, believes that the world is full of 350lb doors that the general public is using. To his credit, he later apologized for the attitude.

We talked about this with Schuchart/Dow and they were much more willing to work with us to come up with an alternative door design. The other choices are sliding doors and accordion-like folding doors. Both of these have their problems as well. Sliding doors won’t let us open up the wall the full width because they have to be stored somewhere when open. Folding doors have a lot of hardware inside and have to be made of wood, so they’re higher-maintenance. They also have a less smooth opening/closing action and look ugly when opened. Both styles are hard to use for a frequently-used door. We decided we needed to get Tom’s opinion on all of this. He’s so busy it takes a week to get on his schedule, but we set up a meeting at for today at 9am. As luck would have it, the architect who we disagreed with about the doors was out of town in Asia this week for another project so he didn’t attend this meeting.

It was a good idea to involve Tom directly. We explained all of this to Tom, he agreed with us about the safety issue and immediately suggested a new design: Make a normal-sized swing door that would be used for entry/exit from the house, and make the rest of the space a large pivot door that would be used only to open up the wall and can only be unlocked by adults. It seemed like such an obvious idea once he said it that we were surprised none of us (Gay, me, Dan, Todd, Jim, Doug or Mark) thought of it in the last couple weeks. That’s why Tom is paid the big bucks. Tom and Jim spent a few minutes working out the details and we were happy.

The second issue we wanted Tom’s opinion on was the guard rails on the deck. We didn’t like any of the designs. Frankly, we didn’t want a guard rail at all because it ruins the visual effect of the deck as a flat plane. It turns out that Tom hates guard rails because he hasn’t seen a good design, so his first reaction was to get rid of them. Guard rails exist solely due to safety code laws, so people don’t fall off high things. Even the guard rails we were considering are going to be illegal next year (Canada has already banned them) when the code changes because, with horizontal bars or cables, kids can still climb them and fall over the other side. The limit is 30 inches. If the deck or staircase is 30 or more inches off the ground, you have to have a guard rail. So we can either lower the deck or raise the ground and not have to have a guard rail at all. We can’t lower the deck, but we can build a planter around the deck high enough to make a fall safe. Another good solution by Tom.

The third issue was one we didn’t think Tom would be able to help with, but we asked anyway. The interior designers were trying to design cabinetry for the family room wall. They were working on it for a few weeks but we didn’t like any of the drawings so far. In the kitchen, we’re trying to bridge the traditional Craftsman/”old-world” design with a more modern design and they did a great job with that. Because the family room and kitchen are one big room, the transition has to be subtle. The problem is that the family room wall will have a TV on it that we want to hide. For our current house, they designed a wall unit in our bedroom that completely hides the TV, yet in plain sight. We wanted that, but not as modern-looking. They did a cabinetry design that looks like woodwork you see in the rest of the house, but then the TV becomes an anachronism. As Gay says, it looks like we built “a tribute to a TV”. If it looks too modern, the entire room looks like we built an addition to the house. We needed something in-between. Tom thought about it for a few minutes, asked us how the kitchen will look and, after a few minutes, suggested building the cabinetry out of hot-rolled blackened steel. Steel looks both modern and old at the same time. It also will kind of match the (blackened) steel shelving we’re going to have along one wall in the kitchen. Perfect.

Tom helped us with some other minor things like the barn doors material (suggested reclaimed wood) in the kitchen and on our offices before our hour was up and he had to go. We spent some more time with Todd and Jim talking about other things and then it was time to go.

An hour of Tom’s time is expensive, but in the end, he saved us a ton of money (and time) so it’s money well-spent. It’s fun to watch someone like him work.

4 thoughts on “Tom Kundig is a genius”

  1. Pingback: Electrical meeting
  2. I stumbled upon this when searching for Tom Kundig quotes (he’s one of my favorite architects) and really enjoyed it.

    The way architects treat people acts as a lens with which people view the scope of the architect’s work — so you might tend to gravitate more toward Tom’s work because of a good experience. It’s frustrating to hear about the poor character of good designers.

    Thanks for sharing. Hope the project turns out well.

  3. Ran across your blog when doing a search on Kundig. Enjoyed reading your comments about working with their firm. Can’t wait to see how your project turns out. We are also going thru the process with them.
    ( Cheers! -Lou (follow project at Maxon House on

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