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February 26, 2021

Celebrating 35 Years of Whitten Architects


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In 1986, Rob Whitten founded Whitten Architects in Portland, Maine, with four core values in mind: listening and serving clients, site-specific design, connectivity between indoors and outdoors, and sustainability. What's happened in the 35 years since then? Growth — countless advancements in technology, improved building performance, a wider range of clients, and an expanding team, without whom we wouldn't exist today.

What hasn't changed is the longevity of our designs. We design a home, not a house. Our collaborative process with each client meticulously accounts for what lies ahead, whether it be a large yard for children or a private patio that faces the lake. We think about the golden hour and the chill of February. We consider the big picture, and then we sketch it into a reality that will last a lifetime.

"The things I'm most proud of are: 35 years of beautiful homes and happy clients, the young designers at Whitten Architects who have become successful architects, and earning the respect of the building community," says Rob Whitten.

Over the course of nearly four decades, our designs have been driven by the spatial needs of the client and the attributes of the site. We consider how a place will change over time and aim to create a space that will remain timeless. The landscape of New England is unquestionably beautiful and undoubtedly challenging given the harsh winters. We believe a home should protect those inside it while complementing its natural surroundings — it should be able to thrive in frost and warmth alike. We're passionate about the strong connection between the inside and outside of a home and how when done thoughtfully, the two can meld together allowing our clients to live without barriers.

"I like to tell this story: when we finished our beautiful oceanfront home in Scarborough, I asked the architect what his favorite room of the house was. And he pointed out the window and replied, "the outside." That was funny. He was standing in a masterpiece, by all accounts. It would go on to earn the cover story of Maine Home+Design's Architecture Issue. But he was right. The house, designed by Russ Tyson, fits our land perfectly. A lesser architect would have plopped their prototypical house in the middle of our yard, facing straight out into the ocean. But not Russ or Rob. Every detail of our house was an answer to a question nature asked. Where is the wind in the summer? Or the winter? How does the shape of the house shape the wind? How far will the shade fall, at, say, 7am in July? How will that island look to a kid, from that window? How do we incorporate this ledge, and that boulder? By the time the construction began, Russ had answered every last question. The house itself felt like one perfect answer." -Chris Coyne

"We naively thought the goal of building a modestly sized home in a historic section of Freeport with all the modern conveniences was going to be easy. Our first architect candidate flatly refused. ("Too small.") During a site tour, our second candidate told us that "we wouldn't be happy" with our plan even though she hadn't read a single word of our wish list. We met Rob Whitten the next day. He arrived at the site with a long list of questions and suggestions from his pre-reading. When we drove to work the next morning at 7:00am, we saw him back in the field, taking note of how the light flowed across the building site. And that's when we knew we found the right person to design our home. Seven years later, we couldn't be happier with that decision. Rob's thoughtfulness, patience and willingness to try something different gave us a home better than we could have ever imagined." -Steve & Debbie Fuller

"We lived in London during the project so the relationship between the builder and Whitten was critical. We worked primarily with architect Jessie Carroll and she handled all the communications with them but kept us in the loop. That was very important to us as we could not be on site regularly and we know absolutely nothing about construction. When we were on site and were able to meet with the builder, his team, and the architect, they appeared to have a good rapport. Jessie was meticulous with the details and was not afraid to push them--she did it in a way that produced results and didn't seem to offend anyone. Even though we worked primarily with Jessie Carroll, we also had some interaction with Rob Whitten and met members of the whole firm. We appreciated the team approach at Whitten and one of the reasons we selected them for our project was their deep bench and the practice of consulting with each other on projects." - Kellee Joost

A huge part of our success is due to our team approach. We foster a collaborative spirit, not only with our clients, but within our studio as well, from summer interns to principals. The combination of fluid feedback and open thinking creates a space where ideas aren't precious and instead are living, breathing opportunities that can evolve in real-time with a fresh set of eyes. This philosophy extends outside of the firm too, to the talented professionals we're fortunate enough to call our partners. Englishman Bay's 2019 AIA Award, for example, would not have been possible without our clients' insightful input, Albert Putnam's structural engineering, Krista Stokes's interior furnishings, Atlantic Landscape's installation, and Nate Holyoke Builders, who literally built the idea into a reality. Each role was crucial and each person brought a unique point of view.

"The depth and breadth of the work of Whitten Architects is impressive. Their 35-year history of residential architecture has influenced the quality of life for so many families who call Maine home. Their work creates memorable and meaningful living spaces. Of particular note is how the homes of Whitten Architects not only reflect the people for whom they have been designed, but the places in which they are located. The site-specific nature of the firm's architecture results in distinctive buildings - rooted in their locations with a confident sense of belonging." -Todd Richardson, Landscape Architect, Richardson & Associates

"Having started our business a short time before theirs, I have known of Rob and his firm's fine reputation since the beginning. Over the years we have had the good fortune to collaborate with Whitten Architects on many residential projects throughout southern Maine. Without exception, their work has been characterized by thoughtful and creative design focused on meeting the client's needs coupled with an emphasis on practical details that work. For these reasons Whitten is always at the top of our list of recommended architects for our discerning residential clients." -John Ryan, President, Wright-Ryan Construction

"We enjoyed working with a true team and we felt like all the members — Rob, Russ, Jesse, and Tom — all worked very well together and brought genuinely different skills and perspectives that Tom helped us to synthesize into specific decisions and choices. What we noticed most about working with Tom is that he seems to be a great listener. And, perhaps because of that, he really helped us explore in depth the design implications of what we articulated as our joys and preferences. So, not just going with a surface level conversation about wabi sabi… but really looking hard at what that meant and how it might translate to choices about materials and layout. Tom's obvious care for details and his professionalism served us so well in keeping the project on track (budget and timing) and, importantly, in helping us to communicate effectively with our builder (Ken Hood). We've experienced what happens when there's a bit of a breakdown between the architect and the builder… and it's not great for the owners! So, to have that collaboration work so smoothly was also a huge benefit." -Charlie Watts & Holly Haynes

"We're often asked, 'Ooh, a house designed by an architect, how stressful was that?' Our response is along the lines of, the process went really well with Rob, but also with the team he had working with him. Working with a happy office made a real difference. Rob threaded the needle between listening to our ideas, but also gently dissuaded us here and there. Having been here for 25 years, we still appreciate how the house was fitted to and designed around our difficult site, and especially how we are encouraged to follow the sun around the house during the day, ending up on a screen porch." -Peter Quesada

As time moves forward, we will continue to listen. We'll listen to our clients, to each other, and to the ever-changing landscape of the sites we are lucky enough to work on. We look forward to embracing what the future holds — like advancements and technologies that keep us warm, dry, and comfortable in a glass house in Maine — and can't wait to celebrate another 35 years with you and yours.

"We couldn't be happier with the design and work that Will Fellis of Whitten Architects completed at our forever home at Higgins Beach. Will's ability to problem-solve and at the same time communicate productively with all parties involved in the design-build process is exceptional. Certainly, Rob Whitten's leadership and experience combined with Will's outstanding knowledge, creativity, and flexibility are what made our project a success!" -Molly Oehrlein

"When we purchased our old house on the Maine coast, it had many of the features we were looking for, but we knew it needed a lot of work. Based on seeing some of his published work, we contacted Rob Whitten to see if he might be interested in working with us. Rob already knew the property and met us at the house to assess the situation. We ran into him later when we stopped for lunch on our way back into Portland, and he had already begun sketching his ideas on a napkin! That was the beginning of a great partnership. Rob absolutely knew the historic coastal architecture look we were after and was able to present that in a modern way. He helped us rethink the entire property in a way that has served our family well. We have enjoyed the property for many years now and are excited to use Rob and his team again on a current project." -Nancy & Wade Judge

"In my experience of building homes throughout Southern Maine, I have been fortunate enough to work with several great architects to construct homes in the woods, in the fields, and on the shoreline. Architects have an immense challenge. They create volumes out of the ether but usually have little to guide their creation--a dense wooded lot, a few clippings out of a magazine, a second cousin's casual off-hand observation, or maybe a chat with a client about family gatherings in the summer. It's a challenging proposition, creating a space. When it works, it can be truly special--the ability to create an enduring finished product and the memories it creates for a family. When my growing family knew it was time to expand our home and build on a special piece of land tucked back in the woods but within earshot of crashing waves, we turned to Jessie Carroll and Whitten Architects to thoughtfully examine how our home could be placed on the landscape. After watching the Whitten team assess homes for past customers, we knew that the effort and energy placed into our design would result in a special refuge for our family. We awake every day in our home lucky to have worked with such a great team. We've since welcomed the opportunity to build several more Whitten Architect designed homes and share that same experience with other families." -Geoff Bowley, Bowley Builders

"Rob and I have known each other for more than twenty years; he is a friend, mentor and client. Any relationship works best when all parties know what to expect. Rob does a great job interviewing homeowners, so they can anticipate next steps: the iterative nature of the design process, contractor selection, fees and schedules, and it makes for a smooth process for all involved. It's a natural process since he grew up in the construction industry. He saw how his contractor-father communicated with clients and heard firsthand the good and the bad from the contractor's perspective, and it has clearly informed his style today; he is respectful and respectable. Rob assembles a comfortable, livable plan. His life experiences inform his designs: as a kid, running across the porch in a dripping bathing suit and looking for a place to towel off; trudging up the path after a long day on the water and knowing he needed a clear spot to drop his boat bag in the mudroom, or looking for a comfortable perch to enjoy morning coffee with family. You can feel it in his designs; they are rational and refined. We enjoy the collaboration with his office; it's a bit of a marriage." -Al Putnam, Structural Engineer, Albert Putnam Associates

Here's to 35 more years of thoughtfully designed homes in New England.


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