Judy O'Brien '68

Designing sustainable communities
June 1, 2008

 

Judy O'Brien '68

Jerry Agee

With Americans more concerned than ever about environmental issues and dwindling resources, "less is more" is becoming an increasingly popular mantra. But for architect Judy O'Brien, it's been a way of life and work for years. As the founder of Alliance Architecture, O'Brien takes on a variety of projects, but is particularly interested in creating sustainable housing, and making creative use of sometimes very small spaces.

O'Brien says she enjoys taking "buildings that are unattractive or don't function and turning them into something pretty wonderful." Based in Evergreen, Colorado, she has managed to increase the functionality of a variety of spaces there and in other parts of the state. She's turned a "tacky little house" into a functional arts center and reconfigured what she calls "one of the ugliest houses I've ever seen" to take better advantage of its beautiful lot. Among other issues, O'Brien is especially interested in homelessness, and does a fair amount of work pro bono or for reduced fees. At one domestic-violence shelter in the mountains of Colorado, O'Brien and others turned the building's bathroom into two bathrooms and a laundry room. "I was amazed we could do that," she says, "but it made the shelter work so much better for the six families living there."

When O'Brien started architecture school in the mid-1980s, she says it felt "like I was in a foreign land." While most of her classmates had spent time working in the field, O'Brien's professional experience was as a human-resource manager and university administrator. But tired of putting out administrative fires and eager to find a way to "get paid for playing," O'Brien decided to give architecture a go. In 1987, she earned her architecture degree from University of Colorado at Denver at the age of forty-one.

Five years later, she started Alliance, and around the same time helped to found the Evergreen chapter of Habitat for Humanity, serving six years as its president. During her time at Habitat, O'Brien worked to build more than twenty homes-fundraising, designing some, and recruiting other architects to get involved. Those homes were then sold to "partner" families at no profit.

In many ways, Habitat is the perfect fit for O'Brien, who has always valued practicality over flash. She intentionally developed her own firm slowly to keep a handle on the quality of the projects, doesn't have a website, and says she's never had more money than she needed but also never less. "I want things that work for me," she says, opting to spend her dollars on plants for her garden rather than on fancy cars or massive amounts of space.

To that end, O'Brien is working with others in Evergreen interested in creating what she calls "a more intentional community," in which residents will own their own homes, but also share some responsibilities with their neighbors-like tending to a community garden or eating together a couple of times a week. Residents will also "create a smaller footprint" by building with materials that are easily replaced (like bamboo), sharing certain spaces (exercise or party rooms), and carpooling to the grocery store.

O'Brien is now a board member for the statewide Habitat. That hasn't stopped her from hammering some nails. Recently, during a winter vacation touring the Southeastern United States in an RV, she spent a week in Biloxi, Mississippi, working with Habitat volunteers on homes in an area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.