Risa Boyer
From dreaming of becoming an architect as a child to helping family friends rebuild from the devastating 2017 wildfires in Napa, we chronicle architect Risa Boyer’s search for what makes work meaningful.
I met Risa by happenstance when I walked by a jobsite she was on and stuck my neck out and said hello. I wanted to learn more about her work, and was delighted to find out she had collaborated with our mutual friends Cole and Leanne whom we had just recently featured. And then I approached her about using our products and was excited to hear she would squeeze us in at the last minute.

We recently got together for a chat about the evolution of home office design, her beginnings as an architect, and an incredible project in Napa that was about so much more than transforming physical space.

- Ken Tomita (co-founder and CEO)
Home Office Design
Ken: Let's kick this off by talking about the home office. How have they evolved? And what's going on these days? Because they are really booming.
Risa: Home offices are hot this year. I have a couple projects starting up that are just desperate to have an office outside of their bedroom or even outside of their main living space. "I want a little something outside of my house," They want a detached structure on their property, a separate space that is their own where they go to work. Most of my projects, there's always a little desk spot somewhere for somebody to work, but the home office has changed a lot in the last 18 months.

Ken: Could you describe what has changed?

Risa: We would often get a request to have somewhere to pay bills or work on the computer but it was kind of an afterthought or not a priority.
It really was just a kind of, "Give me a space to put my laptop." Now I'm hearing more about having natural light, wanting to be able to look out a window. We are learning a lot about people's work habits. Then, instead of being in a small closed-off room somewhere, people are realizing they're spending a lot of time in this space, so they want to have the quality of life, windows, air.

Ken: So if I came to you and I have no idea, I have no design sense, I need a home office, I'm struggling here, how do you help me figure that out?

Risa: I want to learn a little bit about what you're doing in the space, and when you're working, and then what else is happening in your house during the day, or whenever you're working. Are there other things, are other people working, are there kids, are there dogs? Then, help figure out where it makes sense to place that space in relation to the rest of the house.
Ken: I see. What kind of physical characteristics are you finding ideal for work, versus play? How much square feet do you need to build a home office if somebody wants one?

Risa: I think it really can range. I have one of these clients now, they want to have some kind of space that they're sharing, so it's going to be a larger space, it's going to have to have some flexibility, it's going to be removed from their property, removed from the house. That maybe is going to be a 300 square foot space, versus something where we're adding a room, or converting a room, in a house you can go smaller. How many monitors people have, how much stuff, do they draw, do they need room to lay things out? It's really going to be a personal thing, I think.
Ken: Backing up a little, I’d love to hear what led you to a life of design.

Risa: From a pretty young age I knew I wanted to do something related to architecture. For a while I thought it was interior design. Then my mother started to take me to architecture exhibits and showed me cool buildings. I was pretty young, I was like eight or nine. I started with Barbie doll houses, so we're talking young.

Ken: Wow! How often does that happen, where that conversation turns into reality and a very successful career? That's like a fairy tale.
Risa: Yeah, there were plenty of moments where I wondered if I was a little too narrow in my path.

I went to an art and architecture school in San Francisco (CCAC), and I chose a five-year program so that I could come out of it with a professional degree.

For me, by the time I got interested in architecture school, I was already six years into undergrad. That's a little late. [laughs] So what was it like when you actually got to school?

Risa: The first year was mostly just various classes like art history, drawing, core classes. The second year is when I got into the architecture studio. I think it was my second semester where I was like, "Oh my God, what did I do?”
Ken: That's really similar to my experience. I came from no art background, I was so lost, totally unprepared. The intensity of architecture school is legendary. How did you push through in that situation there?

Risa: I don't know if I was really ever at a complete quitting point, but there was definitely a semester that was so challenging, and hard, and people were so into it and I felt lost. But I decided I'm sticking with it, and the next semester came around, and I had a great studio, and I had a couple professors that really kind of gave me hope, and helped me through it.
Ken: All of that theory in school... how does it help you now that you're a veteran architect? Was it just a rite of passage thing?

Risa: I think it's a rite of passage. I do. 25 or more years ago it was very, "This is how you teach architecture."

All the architecture studio teachers wore black, they all had the Corbusier glasses.

The theoretical stuff, I think it probably helps you think more conceptually. You get into practicing architecture, and they don't really prepare you for what the real world is like. The real schooling comes in when you get your first job.
Getting Started
Ken: So suddenly you go from theory-heavy academia to a professional setting, let's hear about that.

Risa: I started with an internship at a firm during school. One of the principals of that firm was on a critique of mine and he tore my project to pieces. After the internship was over I was offered a job and he didn't remember that critique. He said, "Risa, I should probably sit down and actually have a real interview with you, and you should show me your portfolio," and I was like, not doing it [laughs].

Somehow I avoided actually having to be interviewed for my first job.

Ken: Haha that's such a great story! When did you start your own company? And what was the catalyst? That's a big leap, obviously.

Risa: I started my company in 2006, so 15 years ago. I was working in a firm in LA that was a small residential firm, and I was leading the projects, ... I was enjoying that process, and I was thinking about my future, and I knew that at some point I would want to have a family, and I thought for some strange reason that working for myself would allow me to have more flexibility. So I started to phase out of that job, and started taking on my own clients.
Ken: And what's your company like now? Your staff, the scale you work at, the kind of clients you work for?

Risa: My projects are at a little bigger scale, full remodels and new homes, vs the kitchen and baths remodels I started out with 15 years ago. I've had an employee for the last, maybe, eight years or so but right now I have three employees, maybe four in a few months when one of them comes back from hiking the continental divide trail. It's been a busy year.

Ken: Then what size is ideal for you, for your goals with your company?

Risa: I think that maybe five employees would be good. I hear that eight is somehow a magic number, but I don't know if I want to get there.

I turn a lot of work away if it’s not a good fit because I want to manage the quality of the work, and be involved in all of my projects.

The larger you get, the more you're pulled away from actual design work.

Ken: I find that really inspiring, because the default is just bigger, bigger, bigger. It’s so refreshing to hear your clarity on that.

For me, I love working with people on their homes, I enjoy getting to know them through the process, designing homes is very personal.

A Life Rebuilt
Ken: Let's finish off with discussing the latest project that you completed.
Risa: This project was a fire rebuild, they lost their home in the 2017 fire in Napa. There was a redwood grove on the property that the house fits around. They had designed and built this lovely custom home then that just got completely destroyed in the fire. So we rebuilt in that location.

The fire was so hot the steel moment frame had melted down.

Ken: Oh my goodness that is incredibly tragic. Because there's all these charred trees on the site I was wondering what was going on. There's that giant burnt stump behind the house. So this is a recent forest fire area.
Risa: The clients are Michelle and Fred, and they are actually very good close family friends of mine. I grew up in the area. After the fire happened, they were talking about what they were going to rebuild, and how they were going to rebuild it. They realized they wanted to have a smaller structure up there than they had.
They wanted something that was all on one level, their little getaway. They live in downtown Napa, really only 20 minutes away. We came up with this design, it was about giving them the bare minimum for them to be able to spend time up there and still do their daily things that they like to do. Fred works on the computer a lot, it's really important that he had somewhere where he could set up a spot to be on the computer and be working. Then Michelle is an artist, so she also needed to have something, a spot where she could keep some art supplies, and be able to do some drawing. So we came up with this kind of built-in desk storage wall, basically.

Ken: Yeah. It's a really spare cabin. It's a kind of minimalist's dream here. That explains it a little bit, but it's not their primary home.

Risa: No. But they still use it. They needed to have it function ... They weren't just going there to vacation, they're still going there to do their thing and that was our solution.

Ken: They needed to do good work, right? So on a project like this, what are your top challenges?
Risa: This one, they really didn't want to go bigger than 700 square feet, so that was the number one challenge. The other thing is what we're working with, [after the fire] there were some things that were remaining, some walkways, the redwood groves where you see the burnt trees, or space that they occupied. So making sure that this much smaller footprint of a house still accessed all of those areas with intention and it all had to coexist with everything that was there before.
Ken: It's a really difficult project. What do you think was the most successful? It's really hard to nail everything, right, with these projects. What are the things where you're like, "This really worked, I'm happy"?
Risa: I think that having that open main volume with the room divider, was pretty successful, in that if we had just a wall with a door to go into the bedroom, that would make the space feel so much smaller. There's no door to the bedroom, it's just an open passageway, keeping that open helps the space just feel bigger than it is.

Cantilevering that roofline out with a deep overhang also helps create a sense of space beyond the house where the outdoor living space feels like an extension of the inside.

Ken: I don't know if I've seen this, or consciously at least, before, that eave looks like it's the same material and color as the interior, so it looks like the interior just keeps going, the ceiling. Makes the space look bigger. It's really cool. It looks like it's somehow on the same plane.
Risa: Yeah. It is, it's on the same plane.

Ken: How much harder is it to build something like that? Because it's pretty unusual.

Risa: It's a little trickier where the beams are, when you have a double cantilever like that. The end cantilevers out and there's no dropped beams, so you have to pull beams out to the edge of the overhang. So the beams are attached in an unconventional way not how you would normally build a house.

I love that, sometimes, people who are creative want a little bit more, and push the limits. I think you can feel that here.

Ken: One photo that really caught my eyes is the one looking out the kitchen. There's this panoramic window behind the sink, and then you see this gigantic burnt redwood stump framed within it. Can you tell me about that a little bit, this particular detail?
Risa: Yeah. That redwood grove with charred redwoods and the stumps was an area that they spent a lot of time in before the fire, and it was where they entertained and hosted parties, and hung out and did artwork. So we needed to make sure that there was that strong visual connection from the house to that space. When I went up to the site after the fire, of course the house was completely gone, but within a year already, the redwoods, new growth was coming out of them. It was just this fuzzy bright green, almost neon green, kind of fuzz coming out of the charred redwood, it was really beautiful.

Ken: Wow, the contrast is incredible, I can see it in the photo.

Risa: Yeah. It just made me realize how resilient nature is. They have a pretty prolific garden, and the plants re-germinated in such an intense way even though all the man made structures were obliterated.

All the flowers came back, and plants, and the redwoods were not going to give up.

Ken: This is really powerful. I didn't expect this ... Just hearing this story, it's actually making me a little emotional, just imagining their home getting burnt down, and this fire damage. So for your clients, how did they react when you were able to help them rebuild ... How are they dealing with the sorrow that's inherent in the space, but also the new beginnings?

Risa: Yeah, there was a lot of grieving around losing all their property, and all of her artwork. Everything.

Ken: Oh no that is so terrible...

Risa: They weren't able to take any of that with them, photographs, everything. So I think that the process of construction was hard, having to go up there, and progress was slow, the contractors were busy. But now that it's completed, Michelle is able to go up there and do artwork, and Fred goes up and gardens, and these are the things that they love to do, so I think it's helping them kind of come to terms with all the loss.

Ken: Earlier without the context ... I was looking at these photos and remarked that the black, charred stumps were so beautiful. I just didn't know the history and pain behind it. It's really stunning to hear what happened, and then what it's turned into, and that they're embracing the change and returning home. That's amazing.

Risa: Yeah. It's nice to get messages from her, "I'm sitting in the redwood grove doing art." It makes me very happy.

These were people that I grew up with and I love, so it's really important.

See more of Risa’s work on her homepage...


Further Reading