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Can Architecture Be Ethical? Apparently, It Can

By Anthony F. Hall

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Lake George High Graduate Mike Phinney Builds a Practice Adapted to the Lake’s Natural and Social History

To be a good architect, it may not be enough to know how to use space intelligently, still less to be so idiosyncratic that every project bears the same, identifiable brand.

For Michael Phinney, the founder of Phinney Design Group and a graduate of Lake George High School, the good architect is an ethical architect.

To be sure, Phinney never described his work as “ethical” during an hour-long conversation with him in his Saratoga Springs office last week, but ethics have informed his work ever since he was a graduate student at RPI, where he wrote his thesis on “environmental awareness in architecture.”

But an ethical architecture could mean something more than one that limits the carbon footprint of a building.

“For me, architecture is also the response to what the site and what the context say,” said Phinney. “It requires you to defer to the Adirondack topography and, of course, to the clients’ needs.”

Phinney also uses local materials as much as possible, “not because a client insists upon it, but because it’s important.”

While Phinney insists that there is no single “Phinney Design,” almost all his work reflects the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, which held that better buildings make for better lives.

And the architect himself “should not be ego-driven; he should meet schedules and be responsive,” said Phinney.

Michael Phinney

Those attributes helped Phinney to become the Sagamore hotel’s architect of choice in the years since Ocean Properties purchased the resort in 2008.

He has been involved with almost every renovation project undertaken by the hotel since then, in the course of which he has incorporated green technologies.

Phinney made his reputation as a designer of green buildings. Not long after graduating from RPI, Phinney was hired to design the new headquarters for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation in downtown Albany. It was the first certified “green building” in New York State.

Phinney opened his own firm in 2003, and a few years later he was chosen to design a green building for Lake George Village’s volunteer fire department.

Once the budget was reduced by $1 million, many of the features Phinney had proposed, such as a vegetated roof, proved impractical, but the project helped launch him as a Lake George architect.

The timing was propitious. The days when a contractor could slap together a log home, place it on boulders and call it an Adirondack camp, were numbered.

“There’s very little buildable, vacant land on the lake, so anyone building a new house is likely to have bought a tear-down. Those people are now turning to architects. Given the level of investment, the costs of a good design are a small percentage of the total budget,” said Phinney.

Phinney’s work on the lake has included the restoration and modernization of historic Bolton Landing homes as well as the construction of new homes. He’s currently designing a house to replace a 19th century cottage on Northwest Bay and another one in Basin Bay that will sit on the footprint of a house built eight feet from the water.

For Silver Bay, he designed Oak Cottage, a year-round structure that replaced three seasonal cottages.

It’s a good example of what Phinney means when he says that an architect must respond “to what the context says.”

“We developed a design that was in keeping with the diverse structures and vernacular architectural styles on the property. Exposed rafter tails, timber brackets, natural granite, painted clapboard siding, and white Victorian porch details all refer to details commonly used throughout Silver Bay and respect the Arts and Crafts, Victorian and Cottage styles found in the adjacent structures,” one of his designers stated.

Phinney Design Group now includes nine designers.

“We have a philosophy that the best ideas rise to the surface,” said Phinney. “My role, increasingly, is to shape a project and to keep it heading in the right direction.”

The firm has also expanded to include a construction management team that provides a client with a seamless route from the conceptual stage to the completion of the project.

Phinney will need all those resources when he tackles one of his biggest projects yet. Silver Bay is in the midst of a capital campaign that will, in all likelihood, lead to the first significant addition to the Inn since the 1920s. It will be large enough to accommodate as many as 40 new guest rooms and bathrooms, a new dining hall, kitchens and conference rooms. Phinney’s firm has been selected to design the addition.

Phinney is also contemplating his most personal project yet: a house in Hague for himself and his young family.

It will, he said, incorporate the most advanced green technologies employed in any residence anywhere. It will be “an experiment in living” that he will document and use to explore and refine sustainable building techniques.

In all likelihood, though, it will look less like a machine than a traditional lakefront home. That’s not only because Phinney believes that sustainable homes should also be beautiful, but because traditional architecture often relied upon practices that have withstood the test of time.

“I’m not technology driven.  I believe that things should be done as simply as possible, and with simple things, such as overhangs, geometry, the location of windows, you can accomplish many of the goals of sustainability. There’s no reason to fight the basics of good architecture,” he said.

He hopes his own house will be used by his children, now four and two years old, when they’re adults with families of their own.

He’s building for the future, and building for the future is, perhaps, as good a definition of ethical architecture as any.

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