Architect Crush: John Lum


1. How did you get your start in architecture?

I knew I wanted to be an architect when I was six or seven.  I really enjoyed playing with blocks and when I found out there was a job that would allow me to play with blocks all day long, I thought, this is good.  Also, as my parents were avid collectors of all things clutter, and with 6 kids in a 1,200 square foot house, that equated to a lot of chaos, so the need to have order in my own physical as well as psychological space, was paramount. I was really into building models. In the fourth and fifth grades I built models of my elementary school, and throughout Junior and Senior High, was taking drafting classes. I would furtively look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie house under the covers at night because I thought it was one of the most beautiful buildings I’d had ever seen.  I still do, and I still love what I do.

2. How do you describe JLA and what distinguishes it from other architecture firms?

John Lum Architecture is a highly collaborative, deeply personal design practice committed to sustainable development and creating projects with soul. We combine artistry with practical design, paying attention to specifics of place, materiality, and natural light. We design for the client, devising efficient solutions to meet their varying tastes and demands.

What sets us apart is that we find perfection in the imperfect, never imposing a signature style or particular aesthetic. For many of our projects, the imperfect afforded us the imagination to come up with a design that truly engages our clients and celebrates their individuality. For example, we selected an unusual color for a metal window, a gray-blue shade reminiscent of the Blue Gum Eucalyptus, which harkens back to the client’s Australian roots.

Approaching projects with this mindset has allowed us to infuse a project with an element of play and harmony, resulting in custom spaces that are as functional as they are expressive.   Joy and delight are not part of the design dialogue today…. It seems like the trend right now is about everything being ponderously bespoke and the exclusion of color.

3. How does JLA incorporate green technology and sustainability into projects and why is this important to you?

With all of our projects, we take a sustainable approach. When possible, our designs focus on natural systems — fresh air, daylighting, and natural materials —  which we supplement with active design strategies such as photovoltaics, rainwater/ graywater usage system, and radiant floor heating.

As occupants of this planet, we have a duty to preserve and conserve the world we live in. In California, which faces drought and a growing population, adopting conservation habits is a necessity. Practicing good architecture is about finding functional solutions that positively impact the environment and its inhabitants.  Limiting our consumption is part of being green, so we encourage our clients to build small, versus big, something that is fairly novel in this world of excess.

4. What’s your process for getting to know each client?

I like to meet them in their current home and see their surroundings and personal effect, as it gives us a great clue on how they live.  I like to find out what they value and what they are hoping to achieve. There is a very personal intimacy in hiring an architect, and ultimately, this leads to long term friendships.  I would hate to design a house and not get it right. Our role is to be a decoder, a good listener, and someone who can bring an “out of the box” thinking to realization.

I also like to have clients find images that resonate with them as a picture is worth a thousand words and it helps me to understand their design aesthetic. I want to figure out what spaces delight them and what comfort means to them.  

5. Tell us about the first residence in San Francisco to have a permitted rainwater/graywater usage system that you designed.

Our client is a public health doctor and she was prescient enough to think that water and the lack of water would become more of a concern due to climate change.  So she wanted to incorporate a system of rainwater collection that could be used for potable water (most systems are only used for garden watering). This involved finding a system (from Australia) that could be permitted by SF’s Department of Health as well as Department of Building Inspection. Needless to say, it was a very long slog to get this approved and the current status of the project is that it is still being monitored before the water can be used for drinking.   

6. Are there additional ways, besides sustainable practices, in which architecture can be used to better society?

Architecture is an excellent tool for building communities. Affordable housing is a hot topic in the Bay Area. As an architect, I grapple with this, especially since we design many high-end projects. While we strive to adapt to the changing world with sustainable solutions, we also want to democratize housing so we can sustain the community.

We recently started working with a Bolinas-based nonprofit on affordable housing solutions for middle income residents who are being forced out of the community due to skyrocketing real estate prices. We are using architecture to find pragmatic and creative solutions to keep these neighbors in town. Without them, the community will lose its true connection to its past and future. And like many other neighborhoods where people are being priced out, the idealism that they represent also gets lost.

I recently was on a panel in Sacramento representing the AIA California Council regarding the housing crisis we are experiencing in California and how to address the problem.  I would say that the disconnect between policy makers and makers (us architects) is vast.

7. Describe your ideal vacation.

Diving in Indonesia with manta rays and whale sharks.

Lightning round!

8. Netflix or night out?

Netflix, especially if Game of Thrones is on.

9. Chocolate chip or mocha crunch?

Hmmm, neither. I would say I am a salted caramel person. Bitter over sweet.

10. Early bird or night owl?

In bed by 11:00 p.m. but that is after finishing water polo at 9:00 p.m.

11. Outdoor adventure or cozy day at home?  

In Bolinas, it’s out in the landscape and my on-again, off-again relationship with poison oak.  

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