Next Wave: Alison Alessi & Meghan O’Reilly
Alison Alessi & Meghan O’Reilly, A3 Architects
If the world of TV and film is any indication, when two women band together, they’re unstoppable. Take Laverne and Shirley, for instance, or their present day contemporaries Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Here on Cape Cod, Alison Alessi, 43, and Meghan O’Reilly, 34, have proven to be an unstoppable force in the world of architecture. As the sole architects of Dennis-based firm A3 Architects, Alessi and O’Reilly have established a unique and successful partnership, designing energy-efficient, sustainable homes. In our conversation with the two, they discuss their work and, through many moments of laughter, their relationship as both coworkers and friends.
CCH: How do you approach your design work?
AA: Our work is diverse. We’ve done some really traditional houses, and some really modern houses, so I don’t think we have a one-size-fits-all approach. We care about the aesthetics and do green design in a way that’s subtle. We try to emphasize a better envelope—the insulation level and not-sexy stuff behind the walls. And we have a very collaborative approach to design.
MO: We always come up with a couple of different options. It’s awesome to get [Alison’s] perspective—it’s always on point, like “Let’s move this around” or “Let’s change this roofline.” We revise and present both of our schemes to the clients, and hopefully it ends up being a hybrid of the two. We both feel a responsibility in what we’re designing—we’re really changing the landscape. So do we want to do something that’s sprawling and using a ton of resources, or do we want to play this kind of game of how can we make it what the client needs in a way that’s practical?
CCH: What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?
AA: It’s almost more challenging when we have a site that has no restrictions. A lot of our projects are in historic districts, and we often have zoning and conservation constraints. I think those constraints help inform the project and enrich the design. It’s a fun challenge.
MO: I think it’s the bridge between making the client’s dream happen and making it as energy efficient as possible. Some clients are gun-ho from the start, and even if they aren’t, Alison does an amazing job of really explaining all of the benefits and getting those clients onboard.
AA: And our work isn’t the three-million-dollar, 10,000-square-foot house. For the most part, our houses are small—2,000 square feet—and for us it’s a really fun challenge—how can we fit everything into a smaller box and still make it look cool?
CCH: What is it about your work that you think particularly stands out?
AA: I think in a lot of ways we hope our work doesn’t stand out and is quite contextual—it looks like it belongs on the site that it’s in—and I think we both bring that quiet personality to it. We’ve done some beautiful designs, though, don’t get me wrong, but it’s meant to blend in. We get inspired on the site we’re at, and hopefully the design responds to the site and the people that live there.
CCH: What do you think makes you two a great team?
AA: We’re really similar—we’re both really practical. We’re good friends too. Meghan is more of a modernist. She keeps up with what’s going on in the design world a little bit more than I do, so she is always like “Look at how this architect did that.” She brings this fresh, new perspective. She’s always pushing me, and I love that about her. We push each other.
MO: I’ve worked with Alison for eight years and have really grown up with her. I started right out of school, and from the beginning I’ve felt so lucky. I think architecture is a hard profession, and to have somebody that’s a friend and a mentor has been such a blessing. Her giving me space to design and being more collaborative as I got more experience has been amazing.
CCH: Why did you decide to pursue a career in sustainable design?
AA: I’ve always been interested in sustainability on a personal level. I became Passive House Certified, which is this rigorous German standard, and there’s an American version of it too. I took these classes and just became passionate about it.
MO: I went to school in Florida, and I studied interior design and architecture. My last year at school everybody was starting to talk about LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), and everything I was working on all kept coming back to energy and climate change. In school you’re so driven by what something looks like, and all of a sudden my eyes were open to the fact that you’re about to be putting things on the landscape that will then have an impact, so what is your responsibility in that way? It felt pie in the sky to find a firm that had a focus like that and find somebody who was like, “We’re going to make awesome houses, but we’re going to actually make spaces that are efficient.”
AA: As architects, I think it’s our responsibility. We live in this really precious, environmentally special place, and we need to be focusing on that.
CCH: How do you view the future of Cape Cod and the local building and design industry in terms of sustainability?
MO: We have really expensive heating per kilowatt prices on Cape, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. As we build new things or as we renovate, every project should be insulated as well as possible—be as efficient as possible—and I hope more and more people become focused on it.
AA: We literally live on the frontline of climate change. If coastal sea levels rise, we’re going to feel it first, so I think it’s really important to lead by example and think about this fragile environment and how we can build in a resilient way that can respond to what will happen in 50 years. I think a lot of people only think about how much [a house] is going to cost and wanting it to look good but not the longevity of it. Part of building in an energy-efficient, environmentally responsible way is thinking about durability—how are things going to last, how are they going to perform over time? Another piece of the puzzle is that we have really high electric rates on the Cape. I think our energy codes, our building codes, are getting harder and harder, and energy efficiency is a cost-effective way to address climate change. It’s more cost effective if everyone in their house is doing little efficiency moves, so to speak.
CCH: What’s one easy way a homeowner can make their house more energy efficient?
AA: The best thing you can do is work with the Cape Light Compact. They do awesome energy audits—they usually give you free LED light bulbs. They can recommend where you need more insulation, and they pay for up to $4,000 worth of upgrades a year. I think everyone should get an audit.
CCH: How do you guys spend your time outside of work?
MO: We both got into shellfishing.
AA: (Laughing) We play football…
MO: We do! We’re on a flag football team in the fall. And then we watch the Patriots and we’re like, “That’s a really hard play!”—like we know. (They both laugh)
CCH: What advice do you have for fellow young professionals looking to succeed in the local home building and design industry?
MO: As an architect you’re expected to know everything, so reaching out to different subs and different people in the community is important. Sometimes design can be like “This is my design,” and I think one of the ways we have succeeded is that we don’t work like that. It’s always like, “What’s your expertise? What are your ideas?”
AA: You have to ask a lot of questions. You have to find a mentor, somebody to ask questions. Even if it’s going out in the field and learning from how the builders do it, I think you have to be curious.