Meet Our Architect, Ellen Weinstein
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
The Weinstein Friedlein Architects' (WFA) operations off of Pettigrew Street fit into one large open room: six desks for each member of the team -- no cubicles here -- shelves for books and reference materials, and a strategically placed bookshelf marking off "the conference room." The office's simple, effective design reflects the subtitle seen on every page of WFA's website: "places to LIVE. WORK. LEARN. GATHER."
"We kind of joke here that the best architect in our office is when all six of us sit down around the table," said Ellen Weinstein, senior partner. "We've always worked in one space so that we hear conversations, gossip, impromptu requests to look at a drawing. We need everybody looking at the work through different lenses. It's absolutely a team sport."
A native of Queens, NY, Ellen has lived in North Carolina for over 30 years. She has been a partner at Weinstein Friedlein since 1992. In 1999 she received the highest design honor for North Carolina architects, the Kamphoefner Prize. As well as running a busy architectural practice, she teaches design studios at NC State and is an active member of the American Institute of Architects. She has served on the City of Durham's Appearance Commission for four years.
The WFA web site contains a gorgeous photographic portfolio of their projects and an impressive listing of the awards and honors they're received recognizing the quality and innovative design of their work.
The business was based in Chapel Hill and Carrboro for many years; with the retirement of a senior partner, they realized they all lived in Durham and so moved the office there. "Three of us walk to work most days. It helps keep us in touch with what is happening downtown. We love being an architect in the city where we live," she said.
Earlier on the day of our interview, she had accompanied members of BCC's Development Oversight Circle to The Bartlett, another WFA project, to view the kitchen finishes and appliances. BCC is self-developed and few of our members have design or construction expertise. For that reason, we worked directly with WFA's guidance on our unit designs and layout of the common areas. We will also rely on WFA and our Project Manager Christine Westfall to partner with our builder when the time comes for construction.
Looking at the portfolio of your projects, what ties them all together?
What makes all of these projects interesting to us -- and what is a challenge -- is these are projects for people who are not in the business of building buildings. Some people may have the experience of building a house or an addition at some point, but they've not built anything at this scale, in this type of urban environment, and certainly not for a living. There are lots of requirements in building in a dense part of the city, a lot of code issues.
We like to think of projects as gloves more than mittens; we want the project to really suit the site, suit the client's needs, and suit the budget.
Your company designed the Durham Central Park Cohousing building. What were some of the unique challenges to that project?
The project we did that probably prepared us the most for Bull City Commons was the Durham Central Park Cohousing building, which continues to be a really important project for us.
Prior to DCPC, we had done a few small dormitories for the Penland School of Craft. So we began to think about not just how people who know each other -- and hopefully like each other! -- live, but also people who may not know each other or may have to live together for some reason. The DCPC project expanded that view to include people who form an intentional community and how to make a place for that type of community was a change in scale for us.
It all starts with a site plan or base map of the project, the street, the neighborhood, because we have to think at the levels of the street, the city, the county, the state and so on. It's all about the site and what are the opportunities and the constraints; every site has both.
With DCPC, for example, one of the very first drawings I did was a site analysis that talked about the sun. They have a long elevation facing the south; we talked about where the sun rises and sets, where natural light could come in, the prevailing winds from the southwest, and so on. That begins to determine where the stair towers went, for example. And there's a layer of regulations as well. The city ordinances and regulations kind of give us an envelope we have to work within.
We have to understand the project in its context; otherwise, it's an object that floats out disconnected from its surroundings. A lot of things that drove the DCPC project are a lot of things that drive the BCC project.
With Trent Drive ... We can't focus too much on what the landscape looks like because that changes over time. The building across the road or the trees over here may be gone in a few years. We have to be respectful of what is already present, in terms of density. Next door are two mill houses, a daycare, a coffee shop, and there's industrial on the next block. All that will change in five years and we can't imagine what it will look like.
But we can walk around the site, feel what it's like to be in that neighborhood and what the BCC site allows for, the massing, the size of how things will be. As you walk down the sidewalk, [the BCC building will look] first look like three stories because that's a requirement of the UDO (Unified Development Ordinance) but that works to keep the scale of the block. Then the building gets a little higher toward the back of the property. So the building won't look exactly like the structures that are there now, but it should be respectful of what's there.
Tell us about some of WFA's other projects.
We've been very fortunate to be selected as the architect for Carolina Friends School for over 30 years. We've done everything from little one-room additions to some buildings, including a gymnasium. We recently completed a new 350-seat Performing Arts Center for them.
And we also just completed building treehouses for the Camp Graham Girl Scouts camp in Henderson, NC.
So those are examples of very different types of projects at very different scales. Because we don't always know the rules for a project, we work with our clients to discover what's best for them. So, for the treehouses -- there's no real prototype for that other than the ones we may have had in our backyard when we were kids! But they took us to a certain piece of land and the slope down gave us the opportunity to think about a raised walkway that connected the treehouses and made them easily accessible.
We are currently working with the Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte to build a new community hall and to repurpose an underutilized education building into supportive housing for people who have no other alternatives.
We will also be part of the team the includes Duda|Paine Architects that was selected by the Durham City Council for the 505 West Chapel Hill site. People call it the old police station site; it was a police station for 20 years but it was an insurance company for 40 years before that. It will be a site with office space and mixed-income housing; we will work on the housing portion. Our team's proposal from day one was that everybody lives in one building, one front door, one exercise room -- whatever the amenities, everybody goes in the same elevator where you chat with your neighbors. [See this Durham Herald-Sun article for more information on the project.]
What are some of the skills you have had to develop for your work beyond design?
An architect's education is incredible but it probably only gives us 30 percent of what we need to know to survive, particularly if you work at the kind of scale we work in.
Of course, there are the skills in running a business and leading a team. But the major skill is communication, listening. Not just giving people what they ask for but figuring out what that implies for the entirety of the project. And then being willing to listen again and revise things.
How do you explain the explosion of growth in downtown Durham?
I've lived downtown since 2002. Back then, I would go for a Saturday walk and I would have to make my coffee in my apartment because there was no place to buy a cup of coffee. Now, I can walk out my door and find a place within a few blocks.
We're part of a national movement back to the city. Whether it's Seattle, Detroit, or Portland, people just want to be in town. People want to have a lighter footprint on the environment and avoid driving 45 minutes on the interstate to get to work. Durham hits a sweet spot for people.
I think another key downtown boost is Duke. For a long time now, any new project that came on board, Duke took a third or a half of the office space. They have space in One City Center and Innovation Center, so they are certainly one of the reasons for growth.
When I mentioned I was interviewing you, people asked "Will Andy be included?" He shares the work with you on the BCC project and we've met him at many of the unit design meetings.
Andy Goolsby is a really fine architect and he can bridge the folks who are more conceptual with those folks who want to get right down to the nuts and bolts. From the moment he starts to think about something, he's also thinking three steps ahead about building codes, what did the general contractor tell us the last time we asked about this. He has also served on the city's Historic Preservation Commission. He brings it all.