An Interview with Hamptons Architect Eric Woodward

Popular architect Eric Woodward sat down recently to answer questions about his life’s work. You can see his designs all over the South Fork, over 350 buildings in all.

What was your first commission?

One of the first jobs when I got my license was around 1983 for Cyril Dwek in Southampton. We renovated a California modern ranch house to look like a turn-of-the-century shingled house. It was exciting because Paul Goldberger included it in his Houses of the Hamptons book and said at the time I was notable as one of the young architects that had an interest in traditional design straight out of school. Most of the other architects in the area then were modernists who secondarily adopted the postmodern or traditional designs.

How do you work with a client to determine their needs? 

The initial interview will usually include a visit to the site and review of the property survey. We talk about the client’s desires and look at pictures of things the client likes. If things are going well I produce a spreadsheet, which lists of the room sizes and total square footage, and if desired even attempt a preliminary square footage budget.

How long is the process of designing a home from start to finish? 

Design time can be quite variable. My clients are usually looking for considerable customization. My preliminary sketches within the first month give a very good general idea of the design. At this point sometimes we can go right into detail drawings but often spend another month or two refining the preliminary sketches.

How did you develop a clientele in the Hamptons? 

Working in this area full-time since 1976, I have met and worked with a lot of people in all aspects of the profession. I worked with Eugene Futterman during the boom years 1983 to ’87 and took over his practice upon his passing. I have never advertised because the best source of referrals is word-of-mouth from satisfied clients.

What’s the biggest project you have completed? The smallest? 

The biggest was probably the renovation for Burton Brous of “By the Way” on Gin Lane in Southampton. This major renovation even included an indoor swimming pool in the basement. The biggest new house was Bruce Wasserstein’s residence in East Hampton.

How has the practice evolved over the years? 

In 1976 I worked for two years for my uncle, architect Peter Paul Muller, who was a conservative designer and gave me a strong grounding in the professional nature of the architect-client relationship. Then I spent two years renovating a six-unit apartment building in Southampton village because I wanted to get more understanding of the construction trades. I learned carpentry, wiring, sheet rocking, cabinet making, and a lot of hard labor. Next I started freelance architecture jobs but was most fortunate to associate with Gene Futterman—he lit the spark for me where creative and traditional designs combined successfully.

How involved are you in the design process with five employees? 

We now share the design process depending on the nature of each job. Two  nof my employees have been with me for many years and we can match the clients’ desires effectively.

How have the demands of the clients changed? 

It has been interesting to watch how style trends change. In 1976 polished brass plumbing was the latest in upscale construction and now it looks common and dated. But the significant thing that has not changed is clients always want good value. They will be willing to spend the money but they need to know they are getting high quality and not being overcharged.

What’s the strangest request you have had for a custom feature? 

One client wanted a “bat pole” from his second floor bedroom to the basement.

What does “shingle style” mean to you? 

When done well, shingle style is still the essence of the East End’s best architectural heritage. In the 1880s architects developed a style that was simultaneously practical and creative. The new resort houses could blend with the existing shingled vernacular. The shingle detailing was often clever and visually exciting without being ostentatious. Houses had less painted trim than colonial architecture and could introduce more  and larger windows to capture views and breezes. Inside the Victorian floor plans were opened up and became less formal. A good shingle style house today is as fresh and exciting as it was 130 years ago.

What is the craftsman style renovation? 

Craftsman Style followed Shingle Style around 1905. The emphasis was more on rationality than the exuberance of shingle style, generally more rectilinear and straightforward. As with the concurrent mission style furniture, forms were kept simple and often the structural essence was the only decoration. In theory the handwork of the craftsman was honored over machine production, but right from the start true craftwork was quite expensive. There are some outstanding examples of Craftsman Style architecture on the East End, but not many.

How would you describe your clientele? 

My clients are usually looking for more customization than average and often want to interact with their design team rather than just buy a finished product. And of course they are looking for an office with track record of producing results.

What kind of house do you live in? 

My wife Hilary and I live in a craftsman style renovation in the woods north of Southampton. It’s a simple, large gable form with big overhangs, exposed rafters and a big stone chimney. The trim is dark green and the windows dark red, partly inspired by the Swedish arts and crafts palette.

You work with developer Michael Davis and some of those houses are $26 million. What is it like to design a house like that? 

Almost half of my work now is now for Michael Davis. He offers custom clients a comprehensive package including design and construction. We have done over 70 houses together and more and more often they are for clients with their own land rather than spec houses. On his jobs I’m part of the team and Michael’s office coordinates all aspects of the project. My responsibility will be the basic design and basic working drawings and Michael works with others for detailing interiors and picking interior finish materials. Michael has an excellent design sense and some of my best English country house inspired designs have been for him. Whether it’s for Michael or for a custom client and whether it’s a small house or a big house, with every custom detail the basic design process is very similar—-consider the site, the client’s dreams, a myriad of practical constraints and synthesize it all into a wonderful new home.

For more information, visit ericwoodwardarchitect.com.

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