17 October 2022
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I was introduced to Duffer and Jim by a mutual friend and colleague, Aaron Gordon—a contractor we all admire a great deal. I am inspired by their work, and by their thoughtful approach to both architecture and firm culture. I feel fortunate to call them friends, and I’m happy to be able to share my conversation with them here at Haven.

As we stepped into 2022, we asked ourselves a series of questions as we thought about our practice, our approach and how we can continue to bring intentionality to our lives and work. With each of our Haven posts this year, we’ve embraced one of those questions in conversations with our colleagues. Today we ask ourselves: how do we begin to make a cultural shift from consuming and doing to investing and being?

For close to two decades, WDA Studio has delivered thoughtful, innovative architecture throughout the Bay Area. Founded in 1998 by William Duff, WDA is a people-driven practice inspired by the Bay Area’s embrace of sustainable, purpose-driven design. Based in San Francisco, the firm has formed a practice built upon trust, communication, integrity and a commitment to support the growth and success of its staff and its community.


We are in a field that most often results in the creation of something new—something that did not exist before we embarked upon our work. In your practice, how do you promote balance between designing the new and projecting a restrained approach to consumption?
Duffer: It’s a great question. It’s one of THE existential questions of anyone involved in the building industry. When I was in college at Cornell, I often reflected on the fact that the purpose of architecture is to create new buildings, which is inherently consumptive. I wrestled with the idea and what came out of it is that our work has to have a sense of purpose—for us that purpose is to house and shelter people.

These structures are needed, and are going to be built.

If we are the ones to design them, we have the opportunity to design them as a positive contribution to the community, to make them additive rather than deductive.

How can residential architecture best promote a shift from consuming and doing to investing and being?
Duffer: The primary answer is to build with care and craft, to design things to last. This is true for products and for structures. Our contribution is to craft architecture that will remain, that is sustainable and sustaining.

Jim: We strive for quality and timelessness.


Who—or what—inspires you?
I’m inspired by the collaboration that our profession allows. I also spend a lot of time in nature, and draw inspiration from the outdoors wherever I am. And I’m inspired by Australia, by its culture and celebration of craft and materials, developed in part by the historic difficulty in importing materials.

Have your clients’ wishes reflected a change in the way they want to live in their homes?
Duffer: There is definitely an interest in creating places in the home where there is both a sense of community and a sense of retreat. Designing places within the home that our clients can retreat to has become even more important since Covid, and is motivated by our clients’ interest in supporting their mental health.

Jim: Covid did have an impact on the way homes are used. With more work done at home, more spaces are multi-use. We open nearly every room to the outdoors, if we can.

We also make a conscious effort to pursue work with like-minded clients, who are conscious of the value of sustainability, quality and well-being, and we amplify that message on our website, in our social media and in our conversations with prospective clients.

Duffer: Clients who invest in the process and in our efforts get a far better product that is additive to their lives for a much longer time.


A shift from consuming and doing to investing and being leaves financial and heartspace for generosity. How do you promote a culture of generosity at WDA?
Jim: We promote generosity and philanthropy, but we tend to be hands-on in the way we give back, whether it’s through Chairity, (where volunteers auction off their designs to raise money for the community), or the art camps we host to expose high school students to architecture.

Duffer: We are much more interested in tactility than in writing a check.

Any concluding thoughts?
Jim: This topic is something I think about often.

The pandemic gave us time to think, to be reflective, time to look closer and see that much of our stuff is unnecessary.

Duffer: As time goes on, I think more and more about being thoughtful and judicious about the things we build and acquire, and it re-emphasizes for me the importance of the term “built to last.” It’s a more sustainable way to build a life.


Now for some fun questions…

What is the one thing you love most about what you do?
Duffer: The opportunity to be creative.

Jim: There is always a new challenge, and something new to learn.

Who—or what—inspires you?
Duffer: I’m inspired by nature and the outdoors.

Jim: I’m inspired by my daughters, Sophia and Lily, who are now adults and starting their careers. They are so much wiser than I was at that age!

What is the single best piece of business or creative advice you’ve ever received?
Duffer: Trust yourself, and be willing to work hard to achieve your goals.

Jim: You cannot learn what you think you already know.


If you weren’t practicing architecture, what would you be up to?
Duffer: I’d either be a scientist, or designing and building furniture.

Jim: I’d be a starving artist, or trying to write/perform comedy, (and still starving). Or a litigator— I’m told I like to debate everything, but I disagree with that.

How do you love spending time outside of work?
Duffer: Spending time with my family and reading.

Jim: Tennis, cycling, softball and listening to live music.

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
Duffer: I was an Eagle Scout.

Jim: I had a very short stint as a cartoonist for a satirical magazine in SF back in the early 90s.

Last book you read?
Duffer: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner.

Jim: The Overstory by Richard Powers.

Favorite quote?
Duffer: “It’s always easier to give up than to try harder.”

Jim: “I apologize for such a long letter—I didn’t have time to write a short one.”