Benicia architect Steve McKee has put his drafter back to work after an 18-month hiatus.
“I’m the first guy in the chain of command who gets to see when things pick up,” says Steve, who specializes in designing home additions and remodeling projects. “I’m the right amount of busy these days. Three years ago, I was too busy and a year and a-half ago, I wasn’t busy enough.”
While residential work was slow, Steve did some architectural layout work on commercial businesses, including the Rellik Tavern and Lucca restaurant downtown. But he’s best-known for his work in homes around town and for his architecture-themed column that appears monthly in the Benicia Herald. He is launching a blog—www.smckee.com/blog—in part to learn more about what people want to know about his profession. After more than 20 years in business, he knows some projects never make it past the planning phase. His first design as an architect was not built.
“It was a multi-family senior housing project—34 units, three stories—that was never built. It was going to be on Military. I still know it by heart. I would have loved to have seen it built,” he says.
That project brought Steve, 52, and his wife to Benicia at the end of a year-long trip around the U.S. and Mexico. They moved here in 1989 and started remodeling their own home as he built his business. They have two children, a daughter in college and a son at Benicia High School.
You earned your bachelor’s degree in economics and ended up in architecture. How did that change come about?
There was no love of economics on my part. … I was pretty far along with it when I rediscovered architecture, which was a path I’d been on since boyhood. I got sidetracked in high school by several things, like an oafish drafting teacher.
I applied to the master’s program in architecture at UCLA and I didn’t really have any projects. I had a simple portfolio that I submitted and it wasn’t good enough. But a professor I’d had (as an undergrad there) pressed them on my behalf and I got on the wait list. I’m not sure what my life would be like without that.
Did you always plan to specialize in home architecture?
I gravitated to houses. You can never quite master them. There’s a human layer of living that goes into each one in different ways. People know how they want to live, I know how to give it shape.
What trends have you seen in home design over the years?
In the 20 years I’ve been in town, if there is a trend, it’s that people like being in historic-type housing but want to live with convenience, openness. There’s a need for just enough enclosure to give an area some style, to define it. They like to work with the kitchen, to open it up to the life of the house. …You can set the dining room off with a little half wall and a Craftsman column so you can have a dining room table with a light fixture centered over it and not have it just floating in space.
How are people incorporating green building ideas and materials into their homes?
People are very into calling for stuff that makes sense— more insulation, tighter-fitting windows—but not this obscure stuff you see in all the magazines. There’s a level of green building that’s not always easy to do.
Then there’s stuff that makes sense, things like putting a radiant barrier in roof sheeting. It keeps heat out of the attic. That’s an easy one to embrace. I’m also a fan of thermostat-activated attic fans.
California is pretty far out ahead on this stuff. Before we single-handedly live with only fluorescent lights, I’d like to see the 49 other states embrace some of these things.
Do you have any design signatures?
I hope not. I like to adopt the wishes of the people I work for. This is their home.
But I am known for doing my own structural drawings and calculations. Normally an architect passes off that work to engineers; very few architects do the structural engineering.…It streamlines the process for the clients. You can think about the structural elements while you design, and you’re not waiting for drawings to come back from the engineer.
Do you have any favorite projects?
Yeah, a few. There’s one on the corner of El-Ane and Cove Way with shingles that makes a strong Craftsman statement. There’s my house—we’re about to do some more work here. It was built in 1885 and I got it about 85 percent right 22 years ago, and we redesigned it eight years later and got to 97 percent. Now we’re about to start on the kitchen. We’ll redo it and then this house will be a humdinger.
I’m in the process of having a T-shirt made with five houses on it: those two plus a neo-classical Queen Anne in the 100 block of West I Street on a rare vacant lot downtown, there’s a Mediterranean on West K Street, and a cottage on West J Street that had some fire damage.
You also worked as a builder early in your career. How does that affect your work now?
For about 10 years, I spent more time as a builder than as an architect. Working as a builder was an invaluable education. I learned to think like a builder, to understand the reality of building a project.
What did you learn?
That there are some really smart builders out there, framers who are really keen of mind. I learned to respect that, and that makes it easy to go on job sites and have rapport with the crew. I also respect that there’s real money here. People are putting their life savings into this.
How do you start the design process with new clients?
I get a phone call and we talk for about 5 minutes and figure out if it will work for both of us—the timing, the work to be done.
We take three, maybe four, meetings. … The first meeting is wish-list making. The final meeting is lighting. It typically takes two and a half months.
How do you encourage good design decisions?
I let everyone talk at the meeting. Sometimes there’s a weird dynamic between a husband and wife. Sometimes it’s important to state possibilities so everyone sees the big picture.
Sometimes they don’t know if they want an addition out back or to add a second floor. They don’t know what they can do that structurally. I’ll get a call because they’re tired of spinning their wheels and need to know what’s possible. That’s usually a most productive meeting.
What would you tell your 25-year-old self?
There’s not a whole lot I’d change—well, maybe buy this stock or that. That’s half a lifetime at my age. Life’s worked out pretty well for me. I’ve reconnected with some old friends on Facebook and not everyone has that experience. Happily, I don’t have many regrets, though I wish I’d redesigned my kitchen earlier. I only wish I had known then what I know now.