“mcdowellespinosa show an inventiveness about space and tectonics that roots their practice firmly in the real, even when it seems implausible.”
— Matt Shaw, senior editor of The Architects Newspaper
We are a progressive architecture practice located in New York and Virginia exploring architecture, art, urban design, and teaching as an artifact of material and construction experimentation. Our work has been recognized regionally, nationally and internationally for design excellence and originality. Since our conception in 2012 we have pursued an agenda to make novel architecture resulting from atypical material and construction procedures, foregrounding the transformation of localized waste, excess, and ubiquity into distinctive spatial solutions. Our objective is to challenge assumptions of material inferiority, transiency, and utility by transforming the common into the uncommon, the generic into the unique, and the routine into the anomaly.
As practitioners and teachers, our work bridges reality and fiction; design and writing; architecture and art—while continuously focusing on material and construction as the catalyst for architecture and design.
The question that motivates much of our work is, How can designers enable adaptive change in the built environment while establishing distinctive design solutions? This necessity for adaptability involves allowance for material transformations, such that discarded waste can become material for construction, and spatial transformations such that a city can expand or contract with growth patterns. “Building Tolerance” is the term we put forward as a strategy for facilitating flexibility in design. Much of the waste generated today stems from low- or zero-tolerance design—objects, materials, buildings, and cities that are manufactured to extremely high levels of programmatic or geometric specificity such that they are incapable of adaptation or alteration. We prefer to approach design and construction as a tolerant act capable of responding and adjusting to unanticipated situations.
Material adaptation is vitally important because there are not enough landfills in the world to consume the excessive trash characterized by throw-away, single-use practices. We believe that architecture’s relevance in the twenty-first century resides in its ability to address the glut inherited from industrialization’s mass-manufacturing of materials and objects. Our work has been recognized nationally and internationally by respected organizations—including the Architecture League of New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the American Institute of Architects, The Architect’s Newspaper, and the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia—because it proposes novel solutions to these issues of waste and excess. Our work on this topic is important for two primary reasons:
We propose an architecture of tolerance that has the ability to adapt to change;
We celebrate cultural and material authenticity and place value on adapting industrial standardization to local, site-specific conditions.
Our work is the result of a small, passionate team. We like to touch everything we do and get our hands dirty in the process. From self-built sheds made from agrarian ruins to objects made with chewing gum or human hair, our process is very tactile, very hands-on, very DIY. We believe that this intimate relationship with materials and construction allows us to confront constructability in the design process.
At the core of our process is experimentation. We engage the design process as research—always striving to discover new trajectories and solutions. We attempt to structure every project as a study which prompts thorough and rigorous design investigations that ensure all options have been considered.
We pair the low-tech, hands-on approaches for making with a high-tech digital equivalent and create virtual models of every project using Building Information Modeling (BIM). Navigating between physical and digital studies enable us, our consultants, and our clients to fully see and evaluate design proposals prior to investing in the final built work.
Together, we (partners Seth McDowell and Rychiee Espinosa) have over 20 years of experience working for some of the best architects in the world. From leading international design competition teams to managing construction administration for significant cultural buildings we have experience in all scales of architecture from concept to completion. In addition to maintaining an architectural practice McDowell and Espinosa are also both educators and have taught at some of the US’s most respected institutions for architecture.
During the first eight years of design practice, 2012–2020, an overview of what we have been up to includes the following:
Submitted building designs for 23 architectural competitions.
Completed building designs for 8 commissioned projects.
Completed 5 built projects, 4 of which we acted as primary builder or general contractor.
Completed 2 additional built projects within Steven Holl Architects (Espinosa).
Designed and installed work for 6 exhibitions.
Published projects in 7 books, 13 print journals/periodicals, and 20+ online articles.
Won 25 National or International Awards for design excellence.
Received professional licensure in the states of New York and Virginia.
The significant national and international recognition of our work over the last 8 years include these highlights:
The 2015 NY Architectural League Prize for a design portfolio that exemplifies conditions of “Authenticity” in architecture. This was a refereed, international award (US and Canada) given to 6 design or architecture offices out of 112 submissions.
The Architect’s Newspaper’s 2017 Best of Design Award for Young Architect of the Year, a refereed, national award given to 1 architecture practice out of 40+ submissions.
A winning design entry for The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s 2015 ChiDesign Competition, a refereed, international design competition that awarded 5 winners out of 106 submissions.
First-place design entry in the 2010 Self-Sufficient City Competition sponsored by the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, a refereed, international design competition that awarded 2 winners out of 706 submissions.
Finalist in MoMA’s PS1 2013 Young Architects Program (submitted as TempAgency), a refereed, national project design competition that awarded 5 finalists from 25 nominations.
Winner of the 2015 and 2017 AIA/DC Unbuilt Award for Excellence, a refereed, national awards competition that awarded 2 projects out of 78 submissions in 2015 and 7 projects out of 85 submissions in 2017.
Rychiee Espinosa is an educator and licensed architect in the State of New York. She has practiced architecture since 2004 in New York City, Los Angeles and Detroit within the offices of Steven Holl Architects, Bernard Tschumi Architects, MOrphosis Architects, and S3 Architecture. Espinosa is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture. She has previously taught at the Cornell University College of Architecture, Art and Planning.
Espinosa received a Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in 2009, a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture from Lawrence Technological University in 2006, and a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a focus in Kinesiology and Psychology from Indiana University in 2001. At GSAPP, she was awarded the New York Society of Architects' Matthew del Gaudio Award for Excellence in Total Design and the Lucille Smyser Lowenfish Memorial Prize. Prior to teaching, Espinosa was an Associate Architect at Steven Holl Architects as the Project Architect for the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in Houston, Texas and the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History's Visual Arts Building in Iowa City, Iowa.
Seth McDowell has practiced architecture in Charleston, SC, and New York, NY within the offices of WORK Architecture Company and Huff+Gooden Architects. He is a co-founding partner of mcdowellespinosa architects.
McDowell is an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia. He received a Master of Architecture from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and a Bachelor of Science in Design from Clemson University. At Columbia, he was awarded the American Institute of Architects Certificate of Merit, the Lucille Smyser Lowenfish Memorial Prize, and the Avery 6 Award for work that holds the most promise to advance the discipline of architecture.
McDowell’s writing has been published in STUDIO Architecture and Urbanism Magazine, Pataphysics Then & Now(forthcoming), New Architecture Assembly Magazine, and presented at various national conferences. His letter for the book competition Dear Architecture was awarded honorable mention and is published in the book. He is the editor of the book Water Index: Design Strategies for Drought, Flooding and Contamination, an ACTAR / UVA publication released in 2017.