Home Construction Suite Talk: Peggy Rubens-Duhl, principal and owner, Fresh Architect

Suite Talk: Peggy Rubens-Duhl, principal and owner, Fresh Architect

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Peggy Rubens-Duhl. Photo by Phil Hall

One of the busiest architects in the region is Peggy Rubens-Duhl, whose work has covered the residential and commercial real estate markets. She has been a registered architect in Connecticut since 1991 and maintains offices in Westport and Woodbridge. Her most prominent projects involved the Jewish High School of Connecticut in Stamford, Aflac’s Connecticut headquarters and training center in Trumbull and the Casey Family Services headquarters and the new SGI-USA Buddhist Center, both in New Haven.

Rubens-Duhl has served on the board of directors and as secretary of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and on the board of the Connecticut Architecture Foundation, where she also served as an officer, secretary, treasurer and the chairwoman of the foundation’s scholarship committee.

In this edition of Suite Talk, Business Journal Senior Enterprise Editor Phil Hall speaks with Rubens-Duhl about her career and approach to her work.

When did you begin your own practice with Fresh Architect and why did you start it?
“I started in 2005. I had always wanted to be an architect since ninth grade. I went to architecture school and got my bachelor’s and master’s in architecture from Tulane University. In school, I said that I always wanted my own firm.”

Why did that career enchant you?
“I always enjoyed science, math and art. My dad used to build models, which was of interest to me, and I did an internship in an architecture firm when I was in high school. I applied to architecture school to combine all of those talents.”

How do you get your clients?
“It has mostly been referrals. I’ve done a very, very small amount of advertising, and only very recently.”

What percentage of your work is divided between commercial and residential projects?
“It definitely changes with the market. It could be 50-50, or 60 residential and 40 commercial. I do both, so I need to know all of the codes and the requirements to both.”

Which of the pursuits is more challenging?
“Residential. The commercial side is usually very streamlined, very focused and very definite about what they want. The process is very organized. The residential client is making a huge investment, typically and usually they take their time, so it takes longer to make decisions and come up with final plans.”

What have been among your most notable Fairfield County projects?
“I’ve done a lot of residential projects in Fairfield County, and I’ve also done medical offices and the Jewish high school for renovation in Stamford. I think the most interesting has been a residential project that I did in Westport. The client found me through an article in The Wall Street Journal that was focusing on aging in place as well as coastal designs, and they were looking for someone to design a house that would enable aging in place as well as FEMA compliance. I’ve done quite a few of those type of projects.”

What goes into the incorporating of aging in place needs within your designs?
“It depends on the client. In commercial design, there are very specific codes. I’ve designed medical offices, any kind of public accommodations. I am also the architect for the Children’s Museum in New Haven, so that involves the Americans with Disabilities Act for children.

“I’ve had clients with very specific disabilities, and I’ve also had clients that want to design for the future because their parents might want to move in with them or because they’ve had health issues. My designs include textured flooring, lower counter heights, handles that are easy to grab, lighter doors, wider clearances. I also include a lot of electronic communications in the home because sometimes they cannot open a window with their hands, so that can be done electronically.”

Is it safe to assume that FEMA compliance has become more stringent since Superstorm Sandy?
“FEMA is definitely very challenging. As an architect, you’ve got to know the coast design codes. There are flood zones: AE Zones and VE Zones, and as of last October there are Coastal A and V Zones. For me, it is about designing structures that will withstand wind and water.”

Do you include sustainable materials in your designs?
“Yes, I do. I have found that most vendors offer sustainable products, so it has made it very easy to include those. Every company wants to be sustainable, so you don’t have to look that hard to find these products.”

Do you feature renewable energy technologies in your work?
“I’ve not had much of that. I’ve had very few clients that were interested in solar. I work very hard to site the building so it takes full advantage of the sunlight and the windows I use are very efficient. I did one house that had geothermal energy. On something like that, I work very collaboratively with a mechanical contractor and an electrical engineer.”

What type of projects can be more challenging: new construction or renovation?
“Renovation can be more challenging because you are dealing with existing conditions. My approach is when I am renovating a building, especially an old building, I like to do selective demolition with a contractor. Typically, the beginning of my work is to see what conditions are, so I try to do investigative work to learn what is behind there.

“For example, I am working on the renovation of a house and we thought that there may be no insulation. And, sure enough, there is no insulation in the house. But we thought about that in advance and now we have to add it.”

Who inspires you as an architect?
“I tend to be inspired by artists and architects who are working a little bit toward the edge. The Sydney Opera House is one of my favorite buildings and the Yale Whale by Eero Saarinen. The Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright is sensational. All of his work is very inspiring, but that project is very special to me. I also do work as an artist and I like Kandinsky and Gaudi — that’s architecture and art.”

Is your artwork displayed for exhibition?
“Hopefully it will be. It is on my Instagram account and all over my home. I’m working toward that. But I am very busy in my architecture career and very passionate about that.”

What advice do you give to young and aspiring architects?
“One of my main goals is to mentor young people. I’ve been doing that for many years in elementary, middle and high schools. And I believe it is very important to get girls and young women interested in architecture and engineering. I do presentations and career fairs to enlighten them. I want young people to see it, feel it, touch and understand buildings when they work by them.”

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