The Spirit of Place
This is the second posting in our three-part series of interviews with Northern Virginia area residential architects on the subject of landscape architecture. This installment features the voice of Lorena Checa, Principal at Checa Architects in Washington DC.
It says on my construction signs “beautiful, conscious design”. And some friends have said to me, “Conscious? In DC? People are going to think you are weird!” I have say, sorry but people who think that’s weird would not be my clients. Lorena Checa, Checa Architects
You won’t get far into a conversation about home design and landscape architecture with Ms. Checa before the word “spirit” or “spiritual” comes up. You will also experience a lively mind that takes you down conversational paths with unexpected turns and moments of reflection. So, in the end, you aren’t sure how you got where you were going, but the process of getting there was thoroughly delightful. Though Checa has a strict managerial side, she says that her artistic side is off the leash. Logical? Yes. Linear? No. Here are Lorena’s answers to some of the questions we asked about landscape architecture and the importance of the home site.
Architects provide the stage upon which life occurs. It’s a responsibility. Basically, all environments are either natural or man-made. I use my craft to design environments where people can be their best selves. That is my core mission
Designing a home can be a highly emotional process–emotion mixed with commerce. How do you put a value on such an investment?
There is value in being in a space that reflects who you are, allows you to grow as a human being, and enriches your family life. The joy quotient–that’s how you measure that value. If a potential client can’t see that value, if they are focused only on a dollar sign, I can’t work with them.
What role does the building site play in the evolution of your home design? Does it provide inspiration?
It’s totally an inspiration. When you hire me as your architect, I am taking on your whole property. With all my projects, I always work with a landscape architect. I ask the clients to engage them at the beginning because outdoor rooms enhance the experience of indoor rooms. For example, if we choose compatible materials for a patio and the room that opens directly to it, your sense of spaciousness is enhanced by “borrowing”. That’s one of our strengths in design. We borrow the power of nature to enhance the interior experience. So you get a lot more—if you do it right.
Do you view the landscape (or lot) as living space—or is it more like a setting for the structure?
Building and landscape are inseparable. I grew up with deep respect for nature and was also lucky enough to grow up in homes that totally integrated and respected landscape and design. Every interior space related to something whether it’s man-made or natural. There’s an example on my website. The Cole residence was built around a huge oak tree. Totally inspired by nature.
I remember at the end, the client was standing on the upper deck. She put her hand on the tree and she started to tear up. She said, “This house is my spiritual garden.” That is my goal really—making the house be as one with nature.
Green and sustainable design is just good design. It’s ancient. Our ancestors understood designing with nature. It’s not something we add. It’s a way of being. That’s what sustainability is.
What’s the difference between landscape architecture and residential architecture in terms of making a complete home?
That’s a strange question. I would never have thought of that. They’re the same, in terms of making a complete home. In Latin America you can’t get a degree in architecture without studying landscape architecture.
One thing that is frequently missing in American design thought is buffer zones. So you go from a wild area, to a semi-manicured area to an interior space. It’s the same as when you go from the street where you leave your car and then proceed through a transition in your front garden. That starts putting you in a different space by the time you arrive inside your front door… So many people here enter their homes through their garages!
The landscape architects I work with have similar sensibilities and can align with my motives. For me there is an embedded poetic and ritual aspect to the experience, a dance between indoor and outdoor.
How do you interact with a landscape architect in the planning or ideation process?
I have a natural landscape design sensitivity and expect my clients to have some kind of landscape person involved. When I present schematics I’ll show them where the opportunities are—just in broad strokes. But I talk about including the outside in the process. So, I have them bring in the landscape architect right away. I am a big collaborator. I love to see what they bring to it. I love the surprises where they totally enhance the vision I had. My mission in life—it’s an ulterior motive that I have—is about deepening people’s experience of their own life.
The Joy Quotient
Lorena Checa reminds us that reverence for nature pays big dividends in personal contentment. Her work isn’t about “the stuff”. The methods, the materials, the square footage, the artistic achievement. It’s all about creating an ideal living space by design that doesn’t impose itself on the landscape but resonates with it in spirit.
As landscape architects, we can relate to that reverence and the goal of designing spaces where people can live and thrive. If you’d like to delve deeper into the relationships between place and living space, read the first interview in our series Inspired By Place featuring architect Mark McInturff.
And finally, if you’d like to have a conversation about how to make your home more complete indoors and out, feel free to contact one of our landscape architects to schedule a meeting. We’ll take a walk with you around your property and we’ll talk about what could be.
If you’ve been thinking about investing in a landscape design project, our eBook: Expert Guide to Planning the Landscape Design of Your Dreams, is full of valuable information to help you get started.