Jeffrey Dungan: Q&A


An insightful interview with Jeffrey Dungan.

Q – You’ve built projects in various locations ranging from Texas to Ireland. Where is your dream location to build a house?

People ask me sometimes how we do work all over the place and I always say “no matter where you travel to for work you end up standing on a piece of dirt.” There are always three things I ask the site when approaching design: 1. Where are your best views? 2. How does the sun travel across? 3. What is the shape of the topography? The answers to those questions will tell me how to lay out the house.

Q – What draws you to basing your firm in Alabama? Are there any particular reasons you love the South?

I was born here and studied at Auburn University which just so happened to be one of the top 5 schools of architecture in the country. I guess I grew where I was planted. I grew up on a small farm. I love the South because of it’s creative culture of food and music- and its varied rich landscape of rolling hills and mountains down to the coasts. I like real and authentic whether it’s materials we favor in design like wood and stone, or real people- and there are plenty of both in the South.

Q – Most of your projects seem to be very grounded, earthy, sturdy and substantial. Yet, there is an openness and almost, if you will, a “lightness”or “airiness” about them. Do you draw on any of the elements (air, water, earth, etc.) for inspiration? What inspires you to create structures and buildings in the way that you do?

This is a great question. I believe the answer is in many ways the key to a creative life. My desire is to BE inspired and therefore be able to inspire others. Inspiration is like the fuel for creativity. I want to get the highest and best in our work and without inspiration I find it impossible to do so. I am terrified of doing anything average or boring, and that is also a great motivator. So the question then becomes where to find the inspiration and for me there are endless sources. Certainly the earth and the beauty of it are inspiration, but also music and people are for me as well. Especially when I draw, people are huge and I have surrounded myself with some amazing ones who inspire me everyday. In the end, it’s personal and it’s spiritual. There is no recipe for it- it’s mysterious but worth seeking out.

Q – Can you give me a quick synopsis of your process from basic ideas to the final touches OR How would you describe your approach in sketching plans for a project?

Well at first it is about people. What we do is in the business of dreams and how to make the dream become real in a tactile way. So at the very beginning you are just talking about the dreams and you listen and hear what they say and what they don’t say is just as important. Lots of that is intuitive, but to me I want the thing we design to have the imprint of the people who live inside indelibly traced into it. After you get that figured out, you lay it over the land kind of like a gauze so it also fits with nature. That part involves the drawing, but you’ve come a long way already in your mind when that finally happens and it’s born.

Q – What are some of the most important things to keep in mind when you start a project? The landscape and environment? Client expectations?

That it’s not about you is a good thing to remember and not to draw it until it comes to you.

Q – Your work has been published in several books and online publications, including The Wall Street Journal and Southern Living. You’ve also won two Shutze awards, as well as built a prestigious reputation as one of the more modern architecture and design firms in the South. What has been one of your proudest accomplishments to date?

I think it is wonderful to be admired and I always appreciate that kind of encouragement that our work is meaningful and thoughtful, and that people appreciate the work. I’m very appreciative of and aware that my life has been very fortunate. I still pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming most days. Of course I still complain sometimes, but overall I am appreciative. I’m proud of my daughters, they are wonderful people and I look forward to seeing what they will do. I am proud of the people I work with and what we do together. I’m proud of the level we approach in our collaborations- where we each bring the best of ourselves to the work and it’s better than any one person could do alone. I’m proud that most of my clients are still my friends.

Q – What are some activities or hobbies that you love to do in your spare time?

Well honestly when you are an architect you don’t have hobbies- when you draw for a living what could be any better than that? I do like to play the guitar. I play not well but really loudly. We have some guitars and amps in the basement of the office and when no one is around (ok sometimes people are still around) I like to crank up the tube amp and pedals and kind of go away. Travel is a love and probably the best education that I continue to receive.

Q – If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring architects out there, what would it be?

I think architecture is a long road. Figure out how to learn what you can where you are on the journey and make the most of the opportunities you face remembering that most opportunities come disguised. I think the best advice I got was from an interview I read about 25 years ago of Frank Gehry where he said you’ll be more known for what you say no to than what you say yes to. I remember reading that like three times to understand what he meant, but I have found that to be the case.