As a girl growing up in Bryn Mawr, Margo Gonzalez Leach ’74, AIA, arranged piles of autumn leaves into floor plans in her yard and walked through these ephemeral spaces. Today, as principal of M. G. Leach Architects, she is still creating houses in the landscape, only these are lasting structures built of steel, stone, timber, and glass.
The daughter of Richard C. Gonzalez, Class of 1897 Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Leach lived in a faculty house on the hill above the hockey fields. She remembers running from her house down a steep dirt path through the woods and onto the expansive fields. “It was a feeling of passage followed by an exhilarating moment of arrival,” she says. “As architects, we need to understand those experiences and how to make them.
“I think my fascination with architecture is similar to the way people feel about nature—from it one can get a sense of wonder and beauty, centeredness, and peace,” Leach observes.
The Bryn Mawr campus had a significant influence on her approach to architecture, Leach says, “because I was surrounded by meaningful architecture with great spirit.”
Leach earned her masters degree in architecture from Yale University, where she studied under leading architects, including Philip Johnson and James Stirling. Following an apprenticeship at Dagit-Saylor Architects (now Saylor-Gregg), Philadelphia, Leach served as a project architect and manager for large-scale university projects. During that period, she established and taught an entry-level studio design course, “Introduction to Architectural Design,” at Bryn Mawr.
Leach founded M. G. Leach Architects in 1983. Initially, her work included educational, institutional, and commercial projects, new townhouses, restoration of historic buildings, and conversions of historic buildings to new uses. Since the firm moved to Chadds Ford, Pa., in 1987, her focus has been new residential design and construction. Recently, the firm has emphasized environmental sustainability, with the goal of designing and building homes with net-zero energy use.
For Leach, the design process begins by listening to her client’s goals, needs, favorite music, and dreams, and listing them on paper; then she spends time walking around the building site. “That’s a key piece of the process because every house is an addition to the existing world around it,” she says. “You have to consider the topography, trees and vegetation, views, sun angles, wind direction, climate, neighboring structures, approach to the site, privacy concerns, and the regional and natural contexts.”
For example, Leach designed and built a house on a wooded, sloped site in Chadd’s Ford for clients who said they wanted to “live in the trees.” Her design is a glass and steel cantilevered structure that juts out over a slope into the woods. The main floor is covered in natural slate, suggesting a rocky ledge.
Leach manages the firm’s projects from inception through completion of construction. ”We do this in order to take the burden off the client of coordinating multiple design professionals, contractors, vendors, and governmental agencies required for building a custom home,” she says. “This enables us to include everything, including our fee, in the client’s budget.”
Form and functionality are among the constants of architecture, but the process has significantly changed over the last 30 years, including the technologies used in design and construction.
Take computer-aided design and drafting (CADD). Introduced in the early 1980s, CADD has evolved from a simple automated 2D drawing process to a technology that enables the architect to draw in 3D and insert repetitive architectural forms and details selected from a database.
Recently, CADD has evolved into building information modeling (BIM) systems, combining 3D modeling, databases, and interoperable software, which enable architects, engineers, and contractors to design a building and simulate its construction. The digital files are commonly shared by the team over the Internet. Leach uses BIM to accurately predict construction costs early in the design process, for clearer communications with the contractor, for greater reliability in the fieldwork, and to significantly reduce the design and construction timetable.
Similarly, Leach says, new building materials and methods enable her to achieve sustainability goals. It is now possible to build a better, tighter structure using prefabricated components, including insulated double walls and structural insulated roof panels to enable use of smaller, more energy-efficient mechanical systems. Other green technologies include improved solar collectors and geothermal systems, energy-efficient electrical systems, water-conserving plumbing systems, and wood from certified-sustainable forests. A final step is to recycle virtually all of the construction waste.
For example, on a new project, BIM drawings will be used to manufacture major components, including high R-value insulated walls. The finished components will be wrapped, numbered, and shipped to the site, where contractors will assemble them in a fraction of the time required for a “stick-built” house. “Prefabrication used to mean cheap construction, but advances in computer and building technologies are revolutionizing the construction industry and enabling architects to create better, more sustainable homes,” she says.
Looking back, Leach recalls, “Bryn Mawr was the making of me. Access to people who loved learning and wanted to talk about ideas—beauty, art, and meaning—opened up the world to me.”
Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering, and general-interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.