Local architect mixes modernist style with Northwest flavor

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comJuly 24, 2013 

If Amy DeDominicis had listened to her high school guidance counselor, she never would have become an architect. When she told the counselor she wanted to pursue architecture as a career he talked her out of it. “That’s a man’s field. You should think about something else,” DeDominicis recalls him saying.

Today, DeDominicis, 49, is a successful Tacoma-based architect/designer. Her work, both residential and commercial, has gained notoriety throughout the Pacific Northwest.

DeDominicis calls the rustic yet modern style she uses Northwest Modernist. But her interest in architecture and design stretches back decades and to the Old Country.

As a girl, the Connecticut native would watch her Italian immigrant grandfather build houses and design furniture. DeDominicis’s father gravitated to the design aspect of the family business while DeDominicis herself maintained an interest in architecture, art and design.

After the sexist dismissal from her high school counselor, DeDominicis obtained a degree in sociology and biology. But her interest in architecture never waned and she pursued a master’s degree in architecture at North Carolina State University.

But the earlier academic pursuits weren’t a waste of time as both have informed her architectural vernacular. Take a look or walk through one of DeDominicis’ buildings and you’ll notice a bilingual voice — the structures reflect both humanity and biology. DeDominicis calls it biomimicry: the philosophy of basing human-made structures on those found in nature. One of architecture’s better known examples is the echo of the diatom in Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes.

It all sounds very precious — and pricey. But DeDominicis calls herself a people’s architect and says she practiced sustainability “before it was cool.”

“How can you make this look cool with no budget?” DeDominicis asks herself before starting a project.

DeDominicis was hired by one of her professors straight out of college. But even before she started architecture school, she worked for Westfield Group. The Australian-based corporation owns Southcenter Mall in Tukwila, Capital Mall in Olympia and 98 others around the world. It was while working for the shopping center giant that DeDominicis learned the practical side of architecture and construction — the stuff inside the walls: plumbing, ventilation, structural design.

DeDominicis relocated to Puyallup in 1996 and began working for the Seattle-based architectural firm The Miller Hull Partnership in 1997. A year later, along with Bob Hull, she designed a home that would boost her career.

The exterior of that home, the Michaels/Sisson house on Mercer Island, is striking in its incongruity. The backside is a virtual wall of windows while another side is sheathed in two different colored planes of corrugated steel. The rectangles are reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. That’s not a coincidence. DeDominicis designed the Mercer Island home after visiting the famed architect’s project in Pennsylvania: Fallingwater.

The Michaels/Sisson home won a Western Home Award sponsored by Sunset Magazine. That was followed by other awards and an appearance on HGTV. But the design polarized people.

“People either hated it or loved it,” DeDominicis says, spreading her arms wide to illustrate the gulf of disagreement. Some of the Western Home Award jury members panned it. And DeDominicis’s own mother, when shown photos of the house, asked, “When are they going to put the roof on it?”

But the notoriety from the home was a turning point in DeDominicis’s career and led to new projects. Interestingly, they were mostly commercial. Along with Hull she soon found herself designing the Tillamook Forest Center in Oregon and the Mercer Island Community and Event Center.

In 2005, DeDominicis struck out on her own and opened an office in the Cliff Street Lofts in downtown Tacoma.

Recent projects include a state building in Aberdeen, the Mountaineers building in Old Town Tacoma and the new Rainbow Center/Oasis Youth Center in downtown Tacoma.

The Mountaineers building reflects many of DeDominicis’s philosophies. The original building was dismantled more than demolished, and much of the lumber was remilled for use in the new $1.325 million project. The 5,500-square-foot building has tongue and groove paneling, exposed wood beams and soaring steel-trimmed windows. The building’s original concrete pad was preserved and later sealed.

Before she begins a project, DeDominicis studies the site and situates the building and its design to its environment. She considers topography, solar orientation, prevailing winds, site features and views.

But before she does anything, she listens.

A house on Vashon Island is a good example. DeDominicis oriented the house so that it includes views of two large trees: one a fir with a crooked trunk and the other a large cedar snag visited daily by woodpeckers. The client had practical concerns as well. He wanted low maintenance and inexpensive siding and accommodations should he become disabled later in life.

“I spend a lot of the time talking to my client before I do anything. It’s their house, not mine. Lots of designers design for themselves,” DeDominicis said.

Aside from design, costs are forefront in DeDominicis’s mind. She’s never had a client tell her that cost is no object.

“I always tell clients, ‘Don’t tell me what your budget is.’ I don’t want to be swayed,” DeDominicis says. Based on what a client wants she’ll work up high-end and low-end estimates.

“Right off the bat, I give them a reality check.” Often, DeDominicis said, many clients don’t consider “soft” costs: building permits, taxes, contractor’s fees, special inspection fees and others.

Her projects might look expensive but that doesn’t mean she’s not employing cost-saving measures. In the Michaels/Sisson home, she used inexpensive electrical conduit to stand in for cable railing. The corrugated steel was cheaper per square foot than cedar siding.

“I get the biggest bang for your buck,” DeDominicis said of her projects. And, of course, her clients gets homes that are made for them rather than buying something they have to live with. In a world of cookie-cutter subdivisions, buyers often only get to pick out parts of a house.

“With me, you get to pick out your house.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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