In Between with Clovis Heimsath, FAIA
Keeping up with him has never been easy. Clovis Heimsath, FAIA, is a testament to architecture being a calling and not a profession — his practice and his lifestyle are seamless.
Keeping up with Clovis Heimsath, FAIA, has never been easy — given the high levels of energy he focuses on many different areas of interest. These days — along with Maryann, his wife, business partner, and near-constant companion — he can be found one day a week in Austin working at Heimsath Architects, the current-day manifestation of the firm he founded in Houston in 1959. Otherwise, he’s likely to be in or near the small town of Fayetteville. Find him on the farm they call home near the outskirts of town (check the vegetable garden). Or find him looking in on the Country Place Hotel that he and Maryann own and operate on the square. Or perhaps he’ll be oil-painting in his studio and gallery behind the hotel.
Currently in his early eighties, Clovis established his now-second-generation practice with Maryann, an interior designer and liturgical consultant, in the carriage house behind their Houston residence where they lived with their five children. In the late ’60s the family began going to Fayetteville for weekend getaways. They could be seen driving around the countryside with all the children in a station wagon looking for old buildings for Maryann to photograph. (These images would become illustrations for Clovis’ 1968 book, Pioneer Texas Buildings, which was expanded upon in 2002 as Geometry in Architecture.)
It finally became clear that rural Texas was calling, so in 1974 the Heimsaths became full-time residents on the farm outside of Fayetteville. And they moved the architecture firm to the mercantile building that is now their Country Place Hotel on the square. As a family, they discovered the joy of Fayetteville’s rural and small-town lifestyle, the setting in which Clovis conceived his second book, Behavioral Architecture, published in 1977. The subject of how people use space remains for Clovis a subject of intense fascination.
He applied this building psychology to Fayetteville, a town that he says is “behaviorally, a dream.” The Heimsaths were instrumental in making the town a National Historic District and enacting ordinances to preserve the square downtown — measures that set a foundation for Fayetteville to grow while still keeping it an art center. These initiatives are responsible for the historic community’s current image as a magnet for the arts and a good example to Clovis of how “you can develop behavior by assuming behavior.”
In their five decades of operation, the firm has relocated twice to towns located progressively west of Houston. The 100-mile move to Fayetteville took place when their son Ben — now an owner and manager in the firm — was in middle school. They moved again twenty years later another 80 miles to Austin where they now practice out of an adaptive re-use of a former rental car office south of the old Mueller Airport that was honored with an Austin AIA design award in 2003.
Heimsath Architects has achieved national acclaim for their churches and they balance that specialty with a diverse portfolio of community buildings and houses. Since they first opened the doors, Clovis and Maryann have enthusiastically embraced the many changes and challenges to the architectural profession. And this legacy has been passed to the next generation. Son Ben Heimsath, AIA, whose focus is group dynamics, joined the family business right out of Harvard; Eric MacInerary, AIA, another Harvard alum who also joined the firm right out of school, was initially trained as an engineer and enjoys exploring technology issues; and Sandy Stone, AIA, a graduate of UT Austin, has an expertise in historic preservation and interior design. Although the staff has expanded and contracted with the economy over the years, the practice is still sized so the principals can continue being involved daily with each project.
Clovis recalls a major turning point in the firm’s history. During the recession of 1984, when there were few opportunities for architectural work, Heimsath Architects had an inner-office summit meeting to be proactive in the crisis. Discussions focused on why they were in business. The brain trust determined they should concentrate on churches — a natural building type specialty since Clovis’ father had been a minister. This decision ended up being the silver lining to the economic hard times as documented by an article Ben wrote for AIA Memo (February, 1991) in which he described the adversity’s consolation being responsible for the firm’s new-found liturgical building-type focus.
From decades of experience with churches, the firm has developed an effective approach to designing with a group for a client. A day-long workshop is the first part of Heimsath Architects’ standard design process. It grew out of frustration with a congregation’s stakeholders who stalled the design process because they couldn’t agree amongst themselves what they should do. Patterned after churches’ “retreats” held away from their place of worship and without distractions, the workshops offered a way to reach consensus through needs assessments and programming exercises. Ben shepherds this process drawing on his political skills from his days as a young page in Washington for legendary Congressman J.J. Pickle. This day-long inclusive exercise produces a building program that has the collective buy-in from all the stakeholders. The resulting program and design concept is turned over to one of the architects to continue to refine the design with ongoing input from the entire team.
Though technology has become a barrier for many older architects, it has actually resulted in fuller participation for Clovis. The young octogenarian has made the transition, as he describes it, from sequential logic — from plan to elevations to perspectives (as he was trained at Yale) — to simultaneous logic as he constructs a model on his computer. He says the increased knowledge and the fewer surprises in three-dimensional imaging are the payoff for CAD programs, particularly BIM programs such as Archi-CAD used by the office. It’s an unusual attitude for someone who spends his free time as an oil painter in his studio in Fayetteville, and who still produces watercolor and pen-and-ink presentation drawings for the office.
To explain his appreciation of today’s three-dimensional modeling, Clovis tells the story of a client who, years ago — having received a watercolor perspective of their house, which they loved — requested a different view. Being the agreeable service professional, he was happy to respond to their request, but they would have to wait a week to get it, for it would require a hand-drawn three-point perspective and a complete new rendering. Today, he points out, you can change or modify the image of a three-dimensional model in seconds, or use the computer model for a real-time walk through of the design. Clovis now makes a wire-frame print-out of the computer image and transfers this onto watercolor paper allowing the new watercolor to begin immediately. Looking back on the many pen-and-ink sketches Clovis made during his Fulbright in Rome, he feels that while they were great sketches and watercolors, they did not do what a computer model today can do — see the building from more than one vantage point. Clovis uses CAD to participate in making early studies, and contribute to a collaborative office approach. Heimsath Architects applies the collective creativity from their client workshop to their own inner-office design development process — clearly practicing what they preach.
One day a week, Clovis and Maryann know they’ll be making the Fayetteville/Austin round-trip drive to work where they eagerly participate in the firm they started in 1959. When Clovis wakes up the other four days of the work week, he doesn’t know if he’s going to be an architect or a painter. In that sense, Clovis Heimsath, FAIA, is a testament to architecture being a calling and not a profession; his practice and his lifestyle are seamless.
Published in Texas Architect, January/February 2013