Courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Studio Lotus
Michelle Kaufmann
Courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Studio Michelle Kaufmann

The career arc of Michelle Kaufmann, AIA, LEED AP, already has the makings of a potential Hollywood treatment—success, near ruin, and rebirth.

She launched her prefab company, Michelle Kaufmann Designs, less than 10 years ago and her career took off. She became the de facto face of the green design movement for the decade, extolling the virtues of well-designed sustainable homes and frequently appearing in multiple media outlets and museum exhibits. Despite Kaufmann’s success, the economy tanked and she was forced to shutter her company.

Now Kaufmann is back with a new firm, but her message and her goals remain the same: “To make thoughtful, sustainable design accessible for everyone,” the architect says. “The ideas we had with Michelle Kaufmann Designs were definitely the right goals,” she told us earlier this year.

Kaufmann will continue to focus on crisp modern prefab projects that are speced with recycled-content materials, water-efficient products, and power-producing features. She may have lost one battle, but the war on wasteful housing wages on.

What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?

It is such personal work, and the design and the relationships become so intertwined. My favorite moments are when the home is completed, and spending time with the clients (who by that time are usually like family) in their home and seeing them enjoy it. I especially love staying in the home for a few days with the clients and seeing how they use the spaces and learning from them. On every project, clients have taught me things about their home and the design that help make the next project better. It feels like a community.

What is the most frustrating aspect?

I want every project to take less time and cost less than they do. We are certainly helping to reduce those items, but there is still a ways to go to achieve the mission.

What is your mission statement or firm goal?

To make thoughtful, sustainable design accessible for everyone.

What is the most indispensable tool in your office?

My iPhone. It helps me be able to make the office wherever in the world I am at that moment.

What software does your firm use?

SketchUp, Photoshop, AutoCAD, and we’re getting into 3D Revit.

Who is your ideal client?

I would hear from my mentors that their favorite clients were the ones who were collaborators. I remember thinking that was interesting, but didn’t actually believe that it was true. Turns out, they were absolutely right. My favorite clients are the ones who are true collaborators on the project. I feel very fortunate to work with very smart, yet caring people. It makes the process fun, and makes the best built design. Plus I learn so much from them.

What is your favorite building?

Tough question, as this changes day to day based on my experiences. Right now, today, I would say it is the building fabric of Oia on the Greek Island of Santorini. I was there last month, and fell in love with the simultaneous private and communal living spaces, and the smart historical approach to design that keeps the interior spaces naturally cool and conserves energy and water. I love remembering to learn from the past.

If you didn’t have the time to design your own house, who would you hire?

I love this question. The answers are so telling. Hands down: William McDonough.