Like many lifelong friends, Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake bonded over shared ideologies in college. They both attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and then worked for the iconic architecture firm Venturi Scott Brown and Associates. They began moonlighting together, and the pair soon developed a shared fervor for pushing their small freelance jobs beyond what they were hired to create.
In the summer of 1984, Kieran and Timberlake launched their own firm and became KieranTimberlake. Even as a fledgling practice, the architects pioneered the concept of supporting research and experimental design, while also completing numerous award-winning projects including commercial buildings, single-family custom homes, and housing solutions for developing countries.
The Philadelphia-based duo says their different skills and personalities challenge yet complement each other. “We round out each other’s views,” Kieran says. “We also share a lot of passion for architecture and basic instincts about how to go about it.”
Their shared passion primarily revolves around trying to improve construction systems, create new materials, and solve environmental issues. Cellophane House—designed and built for an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2008—shows off these goals. The four-story prefab dwelling featured the pair’s futuristic SmartWrap product, a lightweight building skin that provides protection, renewable energy, artificial lighting, and climate control. Residential projects like Cellophane House have allowed the pair to take risks, Kieran explains. “It’s why we like to do houses.”
The partners start from scratch every time they design a house and firmly believe that each dwelling should represent individual characteristics of the owners and the setting. “The alchemy of putting houses together with site, client, context, and environment creates serendipitous moments that end up with beauty,” Timberlake says.
All of their work—real and theorized—strives for maximum sustainability. “First, we look at what the natural world and site give us to minimize use of operational energy,” Kieran says. “Then, we look at how to close the remaining gap between passive systems and desired comfort in the most energy-effective way possible.”
After more than 30 years together, the pair approaches each project like it’s their first. “We created the kind of practice that operates in both the future and present,” Kieran says, “which is how we want to carry on.”