A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down and talk with the four founding partners of Onion Flats. For those of you who aren't yet familiar with the firm, Onion Flats is a Philadelphia based, family run and oriented design-build organization. The enterprise began the late 1990s when two brothers, Timothy and Patrick McDonald, decided to buy an abandoned building the in Old City section of Philadelphia and turn it into an art gallery (a project now referred to as the "Market Flats", shown in the last two images below). Since that first project, the company has grown exponentially (albeit almost accidentally), and in 2005, Tim and Patrick were joined in their efforts by brother Johnny McDonald and lifelong friend Howard Steinberg.
The work of Onion Flats offers a refreshing example of what can happen when a bold dream becomes so inextricably tied to certain realities that the two are inseparable and, in this case, one isn't compromised by the other. These guys are well aware of what it takes to build in today's economic, social, and political climates. Between the four of them and the others in their office, there exists a fundamental understanding of how a building can move past the drawing board to get contracted out, financed, put together, and ultimately sold to tenants. Each project is conceived of, constructed, and marketed completely in house through their three divisions: PLUMBOB (the architect), JIG (the builder), and ONION FLATS (the developer). And while most involved in architecture might shy away from the responsibilities, risks, and associated restrictions that can inevitably come from such an intimate involvement in the complex design-build process, the partners at Onion Flats see this involvement as a means of replacing the linear, detached design process used by many architects with a non-linear, comprehensive, and well-informed way of thinking that in many ways uses the hard financial, environmental, and societal realities of today as starting points for a multitude of effective and visionary projects.
In our discussion, the partners went into greater length and detail about their approach to design, building, and architecture, explaining why they believe it to be both necessary and useful, especially for those just entering into the workforce. They also shared their views on issues like sustainability, the economy, and education, elaborating on what each means not only to the architecture and building industries, but also to society in general and to Philadelphia, its new mayor, and his plan to go green.
To view the full transcript of the interview, please click on the download link below. Also, make sure to check out Onion Flats' website, where larger images and descriptions of their work can be found, and to take a look at Jargon Etc.'s recent coverage of the firm and their newly completed project, Thin Flats.
Many thanks to Onion Flats for their time and thoughts!