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Business Aims to Be a Hinge Between Homeowners and Architects

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Missa Aloisi and Anna Thelemarck - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • Missa Aloisi and Anna Thelemarck

Homeowners almost never hire an architect when renovating a bathroom or building a deck. Why not? Take your pick: Hiring a builder is cheaper. The homeowner already has a vision. Architects are seen as egotistical. Architectural firms generally don't take on small projects.

But homeowners shouldn't have to exclude design from the process of building for any reason, say Burlington architects Missa Aloisi and Anna Thelemarck. Good design "can really impact how people live and how they feel," Aloisi points out.

The partners hope to foster those design benefits precisely in the small projects of average homeowners through their new Burlington-based architectural practice. Called Hinge, the business upends every expectation homeowners might have of the architectural profession.

It's not that Aloisi and Thelemarck won't design your new house, if that's what you want. Both are licensed architects with experience in residential, commercial, educational and municipal design. Each has been practicing for 15 years, including in Burlington's two best-known firms: Aloisi at Freeman French Freeman and Thelemarck at TruexCullins.

Right now, the women are temporarily operating out of the back of AO Glass' retail store on College Street. They expect to acquire a space of their own soon but are reluctant to say more until they've worked out the details. It won't be just an architectural office, though, but a "design lab," as Aloisi puts it — or a "home hub," in Thelemarck's words.

Hinge's planned space will have three parts. At the storefront, homeowners will be able to access a variety of services for a dollar a minute. They can browse a collection of sample materials, an online image library and design books. The space will have a drafting table and a computer design station for those who want to see how their ideas look in practice. The company will research a project's code and permitting requirements, and even generate a 3-D model, among other services proposed on Hinge's website.

A second area, called a coworking space, will host an array of design professionals, from builders to interior designers. These "coworkers" will be available for consulting on everything from beam size to paint color. (They will also help pay Hinge's overhead.) The two architects plan to maintain an office in a third area at the back, where they will be available for collaborative consultation with clients who may or may not want to bring other design professionals into the conversation.

A Lego table will be a boon to clients who come with children in tow, promise the architects, both sympathetic parents. Thelemarck has a 6- and a 9-year-old, Aloisi an infant.

"We're in support of the do-it-yourselfers," Aloisi says, summing up their plans.

The women believe their model will help homeowners to determine exactly what they need for their design projects and access it. Explains Thelemarck, "They can say, 'I have $60. What can I get for that?' We're educating people in a way that's nonthreatening," she continues. "We know proportions, materials; we can bring more depth to people's projects."

Hence the name Hinge, a metaphor for the community-oriented, collaborative nature of the women's endeavor. Theirs is also an educative mission: Thelemarck and Aloisi hope to teach people about design, both by assisting clients and holding planned lunch-and-learns and workshops. Both have taught incarcerated women through Vermont Works for Women, and Aloisi teaches one class a year at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren.

"Architects have an ego reputation," Aloisi comments. "We want to take the ego out of it." While most residential architects are commissioned by the wealthy few, she says, "Our niche is the 99 percent. Which is a good percentage to work with, I think."

Aloisi and Thelemarck incorporated Hinge 11 months ago and have at least one happy client to date. Ruby Perry and her husband, Andrew Simon, are building a 500-square-foot cottage on Perry's daughter's property in the Five Sisters neighborhood in Burlington. Perry says that, though she knew building codes would allow for an accessory dwelling, she planned simply to expand the existing garage, following "status quo" — until she brought the Hinge founders on-site.

"They just presented in one sentence a beautiful image of what was possible: separate living spaces [for each generation] and tons of light," says Perry, a retired community organizer.

After that, the architects acted as collaborators on Perry's project. Having taken Aloisi's two-week Yestermorrow course on natural design/build in January, Perry spent a month doing her own drawings. (Burlington's development review board requires architect-level drawings for each project, Perry notes, though not an actual architect.) Aloisi and Thelemarck agreed to help her conceptualize the drawings and then review and redline them, up to a specified fee cap.

Perry is still working out plans with her husband using masking tape on the floor of their current Marble Avenue home. While they're both "do-it-yourself kind of people," she says, they're appreciating the expert help. "I am more involved than most people would be because I have more time than money," Perry admits. "To hire someone to help you do it yourself — that's a real advantage."

Thelemarck and Aloisi call their practice unique. Without question, the very existence of a woman-owned architectural business is still rare; rarer still, two practicing mothers. During her time at Freeman, Aloisi was the only licensed female architect. (Just 17 percent of the American Institute of Architects' members are women.)

"I'm usually the only woman in a roomful of men," confirms architect Sandra Silla, a Burlington resident who joined Joseph Architects in Waterbury three years ago.

Silla, who met Thelemarck a decade ago as her colleague at MorrisSwitzer in Williston and then at Truex, notes that Thelemarck and Aloisi aren't just gender standouts; they really are doing something new.

"I've been in the profession for 20 years, and I've never seen anything like this," she says of Hinge.

"I really think there's a niche market for Anna and Missa's [approach]," Silla adds. "They're trying to bring the profession down to the level of the common homeowner, who may not even know what architects offer as expertise."

At Joseph, a corporate-architecture firm, Silla specializes in designing for the health care sector. Even for firms doing residential work, however, she notes bluntly, "it's just not efficient" to take on small home-renovation projects.

Seeing a business fill that void is already cause for excitement, but Silla identifies another benefit of Hinge's new business model. "I see it as raising the bar on design in our community," she says. "When most people have a porch addition, they think, I can have a builder do it for me. But the result of that line of thought is that the quality of design is lowered. Now you're going to have architects to help Joe Homeowner with his front porch."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Design for the Times"

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