Engaging with Architecture in New Jersey

Q&A with Kimberly Bunn, president of the American Institute of Architects' New Jersey Chapter.

KimBunnRooted in early United States history and considered among the best small towns in America, the Philadelphia suburb of Moorestown, NJ is a great place to be an architect.

Kimberly Bunn, current president of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, definitely agrees. She’s written a book on the community called Moorestown, released in 2014, and many of her professional projects focus on adaptive reuse or preservation of local buildings. She also gives local walking tours focused on historic architecture and has volunteered to teach third and fifth graders about the unique buildings in their hometown.

“Historic homes and buildings are the kind of architecture that I specialize and focus in,” Bunn explained. “My favorite projects are working with clients to make something old work for modern times.”

Bunn, who owns her own architecture firm, talked with CPE about her initiatives as AIA New Jersey president and her work in Moorestown.

CPE: What is your focus as an architect?

Bunn: I do a wide range of projects, which is what most architects do. My niche is adaptive reuse, whether it’s an old home, a building being retrofit as a business, or an old warehouse transitioning to a commercial application like a restaurant, library or theatre. I work on projects that transform structures into more than what they were designed for. It’s an interesting challenge to work on buildings that were built 100 to 200 years ago. There are big differences in the way they’re put together and the way buildings were used in the past, and just generally in the way they are constructed. I love that challenge.

CPE: What is the oldest structure that you have ever worked on?

Bunn: A building built in 1753 called Harmony Hall, which some accounts have as a place where early colonial residents and Native Americans met for discussions.

CPE: What’s an interesting Moorestown fact that readers may not know?

Bunn: When the town was founded before the Revolutionary War, we were an agrarian town. We had a lot of tomato farms, and a lot of apple and peach orchards. We supplied the tomatoes for Campbell’s, a local company, and local tomatoes were some of the original ingredients of Campbell’s tomato soup.

CPE: What are some of the inherent challenges of working on much older structures?

Bunn: Sometimes it’s making things work for modern use, but still keeping the historic aspect. It could be something that happened in the building, so you’re trying to save the space, or just preserve the general feel of the building. You don’t want to come in with a modern building and just obliterate the existing structure. It’s finding that balance between the two. Obviously, if there’s a historic element to the building, there may be the input of a Historic Commission, or if it is listed on the Register of Historic Places, that can create bigger hurdles and challenges. But normally that gives you more to work towards. You want to preserve whatever that element was.

CPE: How about specific hurdles that you’ve encountered in your own work?

Bunn: I’ve had houses that were moved to their sites. They were often built in one place in the late 1700s or early 1800s, and then they were moved, reconfigured, and added on to. So then the challenge is, what are you taking it back to? Are you taking it back to the 1700s when it was originally built, or the 1820’s, when it was moved, or the 1920’s, when the first addition was put on? Sometimes that’s the challenge of a historic building – what period are you trying to restore it to?

Other challenges don’t relate to historic work, specifically, but to architecture, overall. In some instances, homeowners and contractors try to draw up plans without using an architect. I’ve been called in numerous times to solve the problems that were created by not contracting with an architect in the first place. It’s always more of a challenge to enter a project mid-way (especially after something goes wrong!) than it is to collaborate with the homeowner from the beginning of the process.

CPE: What have been your presidential initiatives as the leader of AIA New Jersey this year?

Bunn: Architecture is a changing profession, and we want to continue to make sure that as a chapter and organization we are doing what our members need. We have taken this year to do some self-evaluation, which is always good in an organization, or in any business.

The architectural profession took a big hit during the recession and hasn’t fully recovered. As a result, there is a “lost generation” of architects. As the economy begins to recover, we anticipate increased opportunities in the profession. Therefore, to support that growth and help the “lost generation” of architects rejoin the profession, we are actively engaging our “Emerging Professionals” – that is graduates of architectural schools and/or young architects with less than ten years in the profession. Those individuals are our future.

We’re wrapping these activities up, and trying to set a good pace for next year and the next five years, as we continue to progress as an organization and serve our constituents and the broader community.

CPE: New Jersey is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. How has the AIA been involved with that?

Bunn: All of our architects were involved in their local communities, but as an organization, AIA-NJ did a number of things. We’ve worked in support of our local members, and we were also able to work with our local legislators to pass Good Samaritan legislation. When some kind of natural disaster like Sandy hits, you need people, including architects and engineers, to be able to help rebuild.

But you also have a legal system that often obstructs them from doing that. We worked with the legislators, and especially our Majority Leader Louis Greenwald in New Jersey, and were able to not only get the Good Samaritan legislation introduced, but also passed. This is something that we had been working on at a slower pace for at least 15 years.

We’ve also worked on a tri-state basis with the New York State, New York City and Connecticut AIA chapters. We formed a Resiliency Group that holds seminars, trainings and other community-based events, such as helping communities with recovery-focused charrettes. We’re working to grow a stronger preparedness base so that in the future, events like this don’t hit as hard.