Pushing the Envelope of Innovation

Bill Kaufman

What if learning architecture means forgetting what you know about architecture? That’s the question William Kaufman, president and founder of New Jersey-based WESKetch Architecture, has repeatedly posed throughout his career. The designer’s incurable itch to pursue new possibilities in his field made him New Jersey’s first LEED AP in 2000, and it earned him the AIA’s Young Architect of the Year Award the year after that. It has landed him on the cover of Architectural Record; it has gotten him featured in Architectural Digest and on HGTV, NBC, and PBS; and it even resulted in the publishing of his own monograph. Most recently, the itch also led him to found Wattlots, an innovative solar-design and media-communications company. Here, Kaufman details the moments that helped shape his guiding philosophy.

When I got to architectural school, the first thing I recall my first-year professor saying was, “Take everything you think you know about design, construction, and building and forget it. For the next five years, you have to relearn how to think.” It was really worthwhile because it’s easy to get pigeonholed into this idea of a home as four walls and a gabled-end roof. All of a sudden I was at a place where there were no boundaries or borders. If you’re growing up in an environment like America, where the dollar drives everything, you will miss all of that creativity. My imagination started to work differently.

Bill Kaufman: Career Highlights

1982: Designs his parents’ home at age 16, then starts working as a carpenter’s apprentice to help build it
1988: Wins an international design competition at the New Jersey Institute of Technology; travels to the Soviet Union to study at the University of Moscow
1990-1995: Graduates from NJIT, joins a small private practice, and becomes partner at the firm by age 26
1997-1998: Founds WESKetch Architecture, begins growing firm, and also begins writing regular content for This Old House, New York Spaces, and Record
2000-2007: Becomes New Jersey’s first LEED AP architect in 2000; is named a “40 under 40” entrepreneur by NJBIZ as his firm’s services expand beyond luxury homes
2008: Publishes The Grand American Home, a monograph of his selected residential works
2009-2012: Begins exploring solar installation and construction following the market collapse; founds Wattlots in 2009 and starts work on five patents
2013-present: The installation of Kaufman’s Power Arbor system at a New Jersey hospital paves the way for major utility-scale deals for Wattlots on future projects

After school, I eventually settled in at a firm where we ended up working in a very affluent residential-design market that could afford to take chances and risks with projects. I had started my own firm in 1997 doing this same kind of thing, and it was sometime around 2000 that I sat my staff down at one of our weekly meetings and asked everyone to describe, in one sentence, what it is they thought we were doing. Architects can get philosophical, so a lot of them were trying to reach for quote of the year, but one of the architects said, “That’s easy: we build big houses for rich people.”

It was like a dagger through my heart. I realized that’s what we were doing. I asked if that’s really what I wanted to be known for. I could make a living doing that, but so could every other Tom, Dick, or Harry who hangs a shingle. So, instead, we started to dig deeper into pioneering a movement that we thought was worthwhile. I was working with the people who were at the forefront of developing the USGBC and developing LEED standards for buildings, so I became the first LEED AP in New Jersey. We threw away all of the specs we were using, and we revamped the entire practice so that we could be as environmentally sensitive as possible.

We built on this model for nearly 10 years, and during that time I published a book and had a whole lot of different exposures in different areas. For architectural firms, we had reached the top one percent: we were one of the largest in New Jersey. We were voted as one of the top firms to work for in the country. But by the end of 2008, the entire market collapsed. It happened in just a few months, too. We went from 40-something architects to four. We couldn’t outrun it.

We were also managing a construction company at the time, so I started to push my guys to learn how to install solar panels because solar in [New Jersey] was starting to blossom. That got me looking at the solar market, and I noticed how everything solar looked the same. There was no way for us to really integrate it into our built environment. I started poking around, and there was a product that just came out: Solyndra. It was the first company that I saw that took a different approach to the market. I looked at the form factor—very rhythmic and three-dimensional, as opposed to flat, reflective glass—and saw that it had something architects everywhere might be able to use.

Before the end of the very first presentation by that manufacturer’s rep, I realized that I could put these modules over ordinary sun-backed parking lots, providing a pleasant sun-dappled environment. I spent several months developing that structure, and Solyndra ultimately rejected the idea. I keep a Wallace Stevens quote above my desk that reads, “After the last no, there comes a yes, and on that yes the future of the world depends.” As architects, it is our duty to push the envelope of innovation; otherwise we would all still be living in caves. I found a former Bell Labs scientist with a PhD from Brown and an MA in photovoltaic science, and we decided to develop a new product ourselves. We brought our concept to the state, received a grant, and Wattlots was founded.

We have a lot of very exciting things happening now, and I’m asking how can we enhance the experience of people in drab, ordinary quasiurban spaces by creating a new environment and altering the behavior of people in parking lots. We’ve had 75 years of an asphalt wasteland; why not convert valuable parking lots into more pleasant income-producing spaces? I’ve reinvented myself as an architect by forgetting everything I thought I already knew. ABQ

Wattlots’ Power Arbor solar canopies feature sun-tracking technology and also passively provide shade for cars and drivers. (Photo: Wattlots)
Wattlots’ Power Arbor solar canopies feature sun-tracking technology and also passively provide shade for cars and drivers. (Photo: Wattlots)