Company History

More Than Construction was founded in 2003 as an evolution of Donald Wardlaw's architectural practice which was established in 1990.  This transition coincided with state licensure as a general contractor which was envisioned as a way to add construction related capabilities beyond those normally found in architectural offices.

Our construction efforts, principally the Wardlaw/Gaytan Residence have taken on the form of a construction laboratory.  This project is a foundation to roof rebuild.  It involved all the trades normally employed in a residential remodel, and the work was done by Donald. 

In his words:

"In my view it adds valuable depth to an architect's knowledge to have laid out foundations, dug trenches, built forms, placed reinforcing and concrete, framed walls, installed windows siding and trim, set tile, installed cabinets, installed new plumbing and wiring systems, built a roof that doesn't leak, installed skylights, built a deck and trellis, made concrete counters, and seen the regulatory process as a homeowner would."

Coincident with this "lab work", More Than Construction provides traditional architectural services and consulting to other design professionals.  We have done the follow types of projects:

  • Residential Additions and Alterations
  • New Residential Design
  • Multifamily Residential
  • Commercial Historic Renovation
  • Commercial and Industrial Site Planning
  • Commercial and Industrial Tenant Improvements
  • Graphic Services
  • Alterations for Access Compliance

Bio:  Donald Wardlaw AIA

A California native, Donald Wardlaw graduated B.Arch from California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo in 1976.  The fifth year of that five year program was spent at the California State University studio in Florence.

Between 1976 and 1989 he worked in a few small and medium size architectural offices in the Bay Area.  This period saw employment in a wide range of project types including commercial, single and multi-family residential, mixed use, office, and institutional (hospitals and public safety).

He has been in private practice in Oakland since 1990.  He lives with his one and only love, Yolanda, in the aforementioned lab.  He enjoys making things, cooking, gardening, motorcycle traveling, music, reading, and spending time with friends and family.

He asks a lot of questions.  It seems only fair to put him in the spot of answering a few.  You can visit the ongoing interview here.

Business Philosophy

All businesses produce some kind of product.  A business must be viable and to attain that, its product must be worthy.  For a business to have a worthy product, it must understand its product, and the people for whom the product is made.  The two must fit together like they were meant to be together.

A product might be a thing, a porch for example.  Builders make and sell things of that kind.  A product might also be an idea or a complex set of ideas that enable a key decision to be made, or a needed thing to be made.  

We understand our product to be a combination of a good understanding of what our client needs to have done, and a clear and specific set of instructions on how to effect what needs to be done.  That set of instructions, sometimes in the form of plans, is a tool we make.  But what distinguishes those plans?  It is the particular solution to a particular set of problems which we have solved.  What we are selling, the essence of our product, is not a set of drawings, it is the time and expertise needed to understand the needs of our customers, and create a solution to those problems which in the judgement of our customers, truly solves their problems.

For us a worthy product is going to be measured in two ways.  First we make our own assessment.  For this we criticize  our work in a detailed way.  This manner is known to nearly every architect because it is a fundamental aspect of an architectural education.  What we emphasize, however, is the need to constantly question our results and not to fall in love with the first thought that comes to mind.  Around here that is known as "getting to the bottom of things."  This examination works at all stages of our work, from the most general ideas to the most specific details.

Things created by human beings, at least the humans we know and love, are never perfect.  But they can usually be less imperfect, though time demands will usually limit perfectibility.  

We need to feel and believe that we got to the bottom of things, that our work shows a high level of care and competence, and that we did the best we could with the opportunity we had.

The second measurement is made by our clients or customers.  Our work is a serious and typically intense effort.  We can think of nothing more devastating than a client who found our effort inadequate or disappointing.  We give our all because life is too short for those kinds of disappointments.  Our viability also is directly linked to being highly valued by our clients for the work we do.  We are potentially vulnerable to difficult clients, but we try to avoid clients who are not a good fit for the work we do.  Once in a while we miss this target.  Over the last 25 years that has been rare, an occasion every 4 or 5 years.

Our concern for the adequacy of our work leads to a need to be able to spend the time necessary to do the work.  Yet a worthy product must also be an affordable product.  How do we balance the need for compensated time to do the work properly against our clients need to manage their costs?  The question is complicated by the fact that each client has different problems to solve, often not fully understandable at the outset, some of which solve easily and some of which require a larger effort.

There are two common ways to charge for architectural services:  an hourly rate; and, a fixed fee, sometimes based on a percentage of the construction cost.  Some clients may prefer a fixed fee because it eliminates uncertainty.  Our view is that it is sometimes too much to a client's advantage (if we underestimate costs in the beginning) or other times too much to our advantage (if we overestimate our costs).

Our philosophy on compensation is that our clients should pay for the work we do, no more, no less, no windfalls.  For this to work, our clients must be trusting and we must be trustworthy.  We have not found that to be a problem.

As a demonstration of good will and concern for our client's resources, we choose to keep our hourly rates modest.  We find this allows us to spend the time necessary while keeping our overall costs at a moderate level.  Comparing our costs to construction costs bears this out.

Design Philosophy

There are a couple basic elements in our design philosophy:  the role of client goals; and, the architectural vocabulary that is natural for us.

For us, clients are not patrons.  They have problems or goals they are very concerned about.  We are too.  Good design is good problem solving.  There are a variety of tools at the disposal of a good designer.

The first tool of a good designer is a good set of ears.  That means all the receptive senses.  The designer must get as close to the client's perception of their problem as possible, to see the problem as they see it, from the inside.  It's not always easy.  Couples, for example, may sometimes be saying quite different things, but think they are saying the same thing.  An outsider with ears may notice what they do not.  People may sometimes think they have identified the problem and the solution only to conclude after further cooperative effort that the problem is a bit different than they originally thought, and so the solution is no longer valid.  An architect without a good set of ears will probably end up solving the wrong problems.

The second tool of a good designer is the ability to synthesize, to assemble the facts and confirm the nature of the problem.  If it is done correctly, the client will agree.  If the client does not agree, something was missed, and a better understanding will emerge.

Once the problem is known, a solution must be found if one exists.  Typically, solutions have compromises so consideration is normally given to alternative solutions.  Here the designer needs language ability, both graphic and verbal, and imagination.  The ability to conjure is always a plus!  At this stage of the process the goal is to find the best solution, the one with the most acceptable compromises and most desirable virtues.  Our view of our role at this stage is to find out what works best for the client, such that they would agree completely.  Ears are key here too.

The fourth major tool of the designer is technical knowledge and skill.  Much of our work requires knowledge of regulatory issues such as zoning and building codes, construction materials and methods, and the world of construction itself.  A designer also needs to be able to read what is happening with existing buildings---what holds them up, where they are weak or failing, where they are an asset, where visually there is special character or sometimes historically important elements.  This knowledge is vital to taking design ideas into buildable ideas and then seeing them built.

It is, therefore, fundamental to our design philosophy, that we must provide for our clients, real ears, the ability to synthesize and understand project objectives, language skill and imagination, and technical knowledge, the overall success of which is measured by client concurrence.

Ok, but what does it all look like?  What is the emphasis on appearance and what tendencies will we bring to appearances?

Assuming that we have followed closely where our client needed to go, as described above, and we found ourselves in a project where visual design aspects were key concerns, we do have some tendencies.  In the most general sense, we like to create interest, function and delight out of the elements which are basic to the type of project we are working on.

If we have a roof to hold up, we might ask whether there is a fun way to do that.  If there must be an eave somewhere, we will ask how that element might have a strength of character and be integral to the overall character of the building.  If we need windows we might ask where we need the light, where we have the view, where privacy is needed.  A similar line of questioning is applied to all the elements we manage.

Considered in this way, design is a series of relationships, not a thingy here, another there.  We work to tie the elements together in an honest way, to integrate them into a collection of parts that feels that they belong together in the best arrangement.  The human body is a similar arrangement---all the necessary pieces in the best locations.

Our tendency with materials is to use conventional materials in functional but fresh ways.  We are not inclined to venture out with new and untried materials.  We will never run out of imaginative ideas for using materials whose performance we understand.  Thirteen different notes on a piano can unleash a world of music, with new ideas constantly coming forth.  We take a similar view toward materials.  We are not inclined to have materials stand out as a "thingy", we want them to be a part of the larger composition.

There are a couple overarching rules here for what is envisioned:  it must build well; and, it must fit the particulars of the particular client and project.  Particular clients may also have particular visual preferences.  We will lead the project in a visually pleasing direction, but if we ask:  is this our project or our client's project?  Our answer is always "client's project."

At the end of the day, our philosophy is to have a broad set of capability to bring to a project, and apply that capability smartly.  We can do beautiful when needed. 

© More Than Construction, Inc., 2014