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I’m Not an Architect (But I Wanted to Be When I Grew Up)

Not so long ago, I got this weird letter in the mail from the great State of Tennessee’s Board of Architectural and Engineering Examiners asking me to take down all of the references to architecture on my website since I’m not an architect.

It’s not that I had forgotten that I’m not an architect—did I mention that I’m not an architect?—it was just an honest mistake, some crossed wires between my copywriter, web designer, life and myself. (We quickly removed all references.) And these crossed wires became live wires when someone felt like giving me a hard time about semantics.

It’s illegal to call yourself an architect or to call your work architecture if you don’t have an architectural license. What I am is a residential designer. What I do involves creating habitats for shelter with gorgeous interiors, exteriors and landscaping. It is, in effect, architecture, interior design and landscape design. But I’m not an architect. I have a degree in interior design. And, by the way, I’m not a landscape architect either, just in case the State Board is concerned.

What’s the difference? A degree, years of training, and the fact that I can’t stamp drawings or create commercial buildings or design homes that are over 5,000 square feet.

I was mostly trained outside of a classroom, and though I once intended to seek an architectural degree, I just never got around to it. Now life and work are booming, and I don’t see the need—even though all signs have pointed toward design and architecture my whole life.

See: This is me at my drawing board in 1965. I call it “Dee the Draftsman.” I was five years old in this photo my mother thankfully saved for me.

Dee Bynum Bynum Design Nashville

And in ninth grade, when I was assigned a term paper about a career path, I wrote mine about architecture. And I still have it. The writing was on the walls, almost literally, in spite of the fact that I grew up in a ranch house in the suburbs of Nashville that had a dividing wall down the middle with rooms on each side and a stairwell at the end. You know the type. I always loved “The Brady Bunch” and “The Munsters,” mostly because I was fascinated with the houses, and I was very into redecorating or rearranging my room—and often. Even on vacation, we would check into a hotel, and I would move all the furniture that wasn’t bolted to the wall. It’s a sickness. I was weird, and I just always knew what I was supposed to do.

During high school, my mother was gone from home one day, and I took the opportunity to resolve something about our ranch house that had long bothered me: The stairwell on the end of the house had a window in it, and it was next to the living room. I always wondered why that window existed. It didn’t do anything but provide daylight in the stairwell. So, having helped my father build out our basement years prior, I got out his Skillsaw and cut this big rectangular hole in the wall. I didn’t do it right; I didn’t put a header in or anything—I just cut the studs in half, cut the drywall and made the biggest mess. I was so happy to realize it wasn’t load bearing. And when my mother arrived there was this big rectangular hole in the wall. Once she came to her senses we finished it, hung a stained glass on a chain in front of that window (next to a fern), painted it and it looked awesome. Everybody on the street was just mesmerized. Here we are in Podunk, and we had just cut a hole in our wall. It was the talk of the neighborhood.

In 1978, I went to college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, discovered interior design, and it stole my heart. But architecture kept calling me still. Around 2000, I decided I really wanted to return to school to get my architecture degree. I had a long talk with Manuel Zeitlin, who I admire still to this day. He was and is a friend who happened to be a revered architect here in town. He suggested I go to Boston Architectural College, where he received his degree. He almost had me convinced, but then I was like, “Look, I am an adult, and I have a house and I have pets and I have bills and I can’t just fold up and go to school.” Then, that very Sunday in the newspaper there was an ad in the classifieds for an architect intern at this little firm here in town. They did really wacky stuff that I loved. I called them and said, “I’m not an architect, but I’m your guy. You’ve got to hire me.” (See, I’ve been saying “I’m not an architect” my whole life!) And they did. I only worked there for a year and a half when I realized I had to start my own design firm.

The planets have been aligned for me to do this—whatever you want to call it—since 1965, but I didn’t completely pay attention until I was an adult, and by then maybe it felt too late to stop, drop and get my license. But that’s OK because I’m more than happy to be able to do the things I do today and to design the homes you see on my site and along the streets of Nashville. Just don’t call me an architect; I’m proud to say I’m a residential designer. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me design a fabulous house for you!

For Love of the Old Houses

Most people assume I live in a house that I designed and built, but I don’t. I live in a house in 12South that was built in 1928. And it still has its original windows.

Old house door

This morning when I opened my blinds I could feel cold air blowing through. My windows weren’t open; that’s just how “ventilated” they keep the place. But to me it’s kind of romantic. When I was a kid, everyone in my world wanted an old house. Now for some reason, we don’t want to live in old houses. We want all things new and flawless. But here’s the truth: new and flawless is only going to be new and flawless for about two years. After that things are going to start happening. Today, homeownership for Americans under the age of 35 is at an all-time low, but it’s been my experience that those Millennials who do purchase a home prefer to purchase a new one. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about what my Marathon Village neighbor Mike Wolfe (of American Pickers fame) is aiming for with his new HGTV show in the works, Nashville Flipped, which would “tell the story of each renovated home, including through historical research, by delving into the surrounding neighborhood, and through stories told by past residents.”

Old houses

An old house is all I ever wanted. To think that no one wants them anymore, and that throughout Nashville we’re discarding them quickly and thoughtlessly, would affirm a sad trend of not valuing our country’s history. If we don’t keep something, there will be nothing. They’re not doing this in Europe, I promise. My No. 1 objective in the new year is to try to save some old houses in Nashville. Unfortunately, we’ve become a throwaway society, and it’s become no big deal anymore to just bulldoze an old house. Bynum Design has been guilty of it too and has torn down a few houses. But you better believe that the houses we’ve demolished were in terrible shape and weren’t contributing to the neighborhood.

I’m not saying everyone should live in an old house. I want a new house, too. Well, that’s not exactly true; I’m working on a concept to keep the old house I have—a smallish Tudor that I’ve lived in forever—by salvaging the exterior and adding on to it to make it into the house I want. I think that’s where we should go as designers and builders in Nashville. We should respect what’s there and enhance it—make it better and make it live bigger and give people the things they want in a new house in an old house. This is more important now than ever, when empty lots are becoming more and more scarce, and we’re more often faced with the decision of whether or not to keep the dilapidated house that came on the lot we just bought or to just scrap it and avoid the headache of figuring out what to do with it.

Old house porch railing

What I am calling for is more renovations and less bulldozers. The house we renovated on Lawrence Avenue (see photo below), we renovated extravagantly—even taking off the roof and adding lots of height, not to mention a courtyard, two-car garage, and pool in the back—all while keeping its 1935 façade. That was a respectful response to that house and its history. (Speaking of old house history, I love to think of the house as it was being built. Poet T. E. Hulme wrote, “Old houses were scaffolding once and workmen whistling.”) The result: the flow of that lane through 12South isn’t interrupted. If you’re in an old neighborhood, you at least should make the house you’re renovating or building speak to the houses around it (even if six months later all those houses are gone because someone tore them down).

903 Lawrence Avenue

I understand that renovating is more intimidating than building to most of us. But just because it’s intimidating—and costly and time-consuming—doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. And builders have a great opportunity to show people how well this can be done. You really can make a fabulous new old house. Here’s how:

Typically, these houses have eight-foot ceilings, and no one wants that anymore, so you have to take the roof off. And the floor system off. And make the walls taller. And figure out a way to raise the exterior but keep it tight. No big deal, right? People don’t want to live in little rooms. They want “open plan.” There’s a trend to make your house feel like a loft, and it’s a great look. We do it. You can do that in an old house, too. You have to do serious things to it, and it’s hard work. I get it. But it’s well worth it. (It’s also worth noting that old homes don’t always have to go bigger. Mike Wolfe showed that with this reimagining of a 1932 home in East Nashville’s Cleveland Park, where he kept its original 1,300ish square feet). I hope that East Nashville can get some overlays in place and avoid what’s happened in 12South. Because 12South is almost gone in a way. There are so few remaining original houses.

Old house

Maybe, like I said, it’s just that no one wants old houses anymore—but I really hope that’s not true. If it is, I think we’re going to look back and regret some things. We won’t be able to see our history anymore, and the new history we’ve built for ourselves so quickly and so shoddily may represent who we’ve become. Just as we have to give older people more grace—and use our imagination a bit to see them as they once were: young and strong and beautiful—the same courtesy should be extended to old houses. Louisiana author Grace King wrote: “We wander through old streets, and pause before the age stricken houses; and, strange to say, the magic past lights them up.”

If you live in Nashville and are interested in doing a thoughtful, dramatic, quality renovation in 2015, I hope you will consider hiring Bynum Design.

5 Interior Bridges by Bynum Design

We—and most homebuyers, it seems—are nuts for vaulted spaces. However, since space in Nashville is at a premium and many lots these days are narrow as can be, we also have to be nuts about two- and sometimes three-story houses. So, the question becomes how to achieve big, airy cathedral ceilings without losing too much of that precious square footage or sacrificing flow upstairs? For us, the “interior bridge” has been a solution more than a few times.

Not only does it get people from point A to point B upstairs, leaving lots of space for light from recessed lights, skylights, chandeliers, and stacks of windows on either side of the home, but it also creates effortless drama. Evoking a drawbridge over a moat in some cases, an interior bridge can have a castle effect. After all, sky-high ceilings like these were once only found in cathedrals and basilicas. In the modern home, they serve as a gesture of grandeur.

interior bridge 1

A bridge can also help to section off a house, so that, for example, on one side is a master suite, while another side holds an office and a guest bedroom. At the same time, these bridges allow the upstairs and downstairs to feel more connected. It’s much easier to call downstairs, “Honey, can you bring me a beer next time you come this way?”, for instance, when your upstairs looks directly into your kitchen.

interior bridge 2

Of course, not everyone is crazy about the vaulted ceiling. Though it is generally regarded as a luxury in that it allows the illusion of extra space without actually making the most of it, it has been faulted for eating up energy. Others still associate these ceilings with the ’80s and ’90s, when excess ruled so many schools of thought. Like anything, a vaulted ceiling can be done poorly. Just imagine the vaulted ceiling from a few decades ago, covered in that popcorn texture.

interior bridge 3

Perhaps our favorite thing about an interior bridge is the vantage point it allows. From an interior bridge, one may be able to peer down into a kitchen or a living space, to catch sight of a spectacular light fixture or accent wall, to truly get “the lay of the land.” Vaulted ceilings allow ceiling beams and trusses to take center stage in a home, and all this extra vertical space can give a large art canvas or even an indoor tree a place to flourish.

interior bridge 4

These bridges also offer lots of room to play with materials. We tend to keep our bridges pretty traditional, with dark stained wooden banisters and white painted rails, but in more modern spaces we have seen glass-floored bridges and all kinds of appealing railing options.

interior bridge 5

All of the photos in this post are spaces by Bynum Design in Nashville, Tennessee.

Are you a fan of interior bridges?