Making Waves

by Kim O'Brien

Santa Barbara Food & Home Magazine, Spring 2003

Somewhere between lectures about washing our hands before we eat and differentiating between acids and bases, we were taught that ‘reinventing the wheel' is a bad thing. Real progress is made when a solution found for one problem is later applied to every other similar problem. Evidently this lesson didn't stick with Santa Barbara architect Andy Neumann, who has made reinventing the wheel one of his primary design philosophies – and one that has helped earn the architect and his studio the esteem of numerous clients, architectural professionals, and design connoisseurs from around the world.

The grandson of an architect, Andy's interest in art and design began at an early age. Yet, when he graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1964, fate seemed to be pointing him away from the drawing board and toward his surfboard instead. An avid surfer since 1958, Andy attended Berkeley on the first scholarship awarded by the United States Surfing Association, and later won third place in one of the first professional surfing contests. As he recalls, "the prize for third place was $100. That's when I realized that I had better not quit my day job just yet." When Andy wasn't out catching waves, he was hitting the books, and in 1970 graduated from Berkeley with honors and a Bachelor of Science in Architecture.

Andy worked with a local architectural firm for three years, then in 1973 moved to Aspen with his wife and two children, to work construction and to get some more practical work experience under his tool belt. Two years later, the family moved back to Santa Barbara, and Andy went into business for himself. In 1976, he co-founded Seaside Union Architects with architect Scott Rowland, and served as a principle partner until April of 1993, when he established his present firm, Andy Neumann, Architect.

Throughout the years, Andy has developed a core set of guidelines for running his studio and approaching architectural challenges. For one, the studio views each new project as entirely unique from any other. They have worked on over 50 custom beach homes, yet the nest that they design will evolve from the same amount of research, creativity and exploration as the first – if not more. "We're fortunate to have such beautiful and diverse sites to work with," Andy explains, "so a house we design for a high fire area will look very different from a house on the beach. It isn't necessarily the most efficient method since you have to, in effect, reinvent the wheel with every new job. You can't just mix and match pieces from other projects. With this process, however, the end result is certainly the most satisfying."

Whether they are working on a Tuscan/California-style home in Rome, the QAD building in Summerland, the Discovery Center at the Santa Barbara Zoo, or the beautification of Linden Avenue in Carpinteria, the design and construction process begins with a clean slate, without any preconceptions as to how the finished product will take shape. As Dave Mendro, partner and senior designer, describes, "We might start a project by designing a window that will look out on an oak tree that's been growing on the property for 30 years. From there, the house starts to feel like it's growing out of the ground too It's very exciting." This open approach allows the team to venture off into new and unexpected design directions, with an end result that often holds pleasant surprises for the architects themselves. "Every time we finish a project, we get the feeling that we're moving forward, and getting better," Andy says. "It's what keep us from getting stale." And what has earned them an impressive list of clientele, along with numerous awards and write-ups in several magazines and books including Beach Houses, The Kid Space Idea Book, The New Family Home and Coastal Living.

Another of Andy's founding principles, is that the client is the most important aspect of any project. As Andy states, "One of our key values is we have our clients' best interests in mind. We're problem solvers – even when the solution to their problem isn't architectural." Client involvement is welcomed heartily and often leads the team to fresh insights and opportunities as projects progress. For instance, the studio recently began working with a family that wants their custom home to be as environmentally sustainable as possible. "Sustainable architecture is an area we are really getting excited about now," Andy says, "So this will be a fantastic project to do research for and work on."

Andy has begun to ensure the sustainability of his studio by joining forces and forming a partnership with his two head associate architects, Dave Mendro and Mary Andrulaitis. "Dave and Mary have been an integral part of the design process for fifteen years," Andy explains. "It's just a natural evolution." So, as of early this year, the sign outside the studio's door on Linden Avenue will read Neumann Mendro Andrulaitis Architects. "We've been working together so long, the new partnership is just a natural continuation of things. Not much will change," Mary admits, "although we do sleep a little less now."

"And I'm starting to sleep a little more," Andy pipes in with a smile.