Architectonic Harmony

A fine bromance

by Phyl Newbeck

smith_buckley0517Cleary O. Buckley (left) and Israel Smith formed Smith Buckley Architects in 2011. They’re pictured near Burlington’s New Moran, for which they are the architects.

The field of architecture has changed since Israel Smith and Cleary Buckley started out, and they believe they can tell the difference between someone who learned to draw by hand and one who started out on the computer. “There’s a certain sensibility that we bring to our use of technology,” Smith says.

They have seen the tools of their trade expand to include 3D virtual reality glasses that allow clients to visualize buildings before they are constructed. For Buckley, the new technology is challenging but fun. “It brings me back to what I love about architecture,” he says. Smith enjoys the new 3D glasses but is more than willing to take out a pencil and paper. “I was a draftsman before I was anything else,” he says.

The two met while working at TruexCullins Architecture in Burlington, but their friendship solidified on the ski slopes of Sugarbush. Smith was the first to leave the firm, but eventually Buckley also departed, and in 2011, they set up shop to form Smith Buckley Architects.

Growing up in Schenectady, New York, Smith had a head start in the field because his father was an architect. “My father had me take a drafting class, and I started working for him when I was 14,” he recalls. He studied engineering for two years at Hudson Valley Community College before earning his master’s in architecture from Temple University.

He spent a decade in Philadelphia and considers himself lucky to have been able to work with a Temple graduate on a public library project in Evanston, Illinois. “I was hired as part of the design team while I was still a student,” he says. “That was a great experience. There was a lot of green design, which was cutting-edge at the time.”

Buckley’s childhood in Middlesex was a little bit different. His father, whom he says was “kind of his own man,” worked as a real estate broker, auctioneer, plumber, farmer, and antiques dealer; his mother was a former dancer who later became a court reporter. When he was young, his parents also owned several inns.

After earning a B.A. in fine arts from Bennington College with an emphasis on sculpture and architecture, Buckley spent a year working for an architect in New Haven, Connecticut, before heading to Rice University for his master’s degree in architecture.

He took a job at Payette, a large Boston firm that specialized in laboratories and health care facilities. From there he went to Donham & Sweeney, a smaller Boston firm that did a lot of work on police and public safety structures, then spent two years with Tsoi/Kobus Architects in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After two years, though, he began to think about returning to Vermont and accepted an offer from TruexCullins in 2003. “I moved here and bought a house, got a dog, and met my wife,” he says.

While Buckley was working on commercial and municipal buildings, Smith was in Philadelphia with Kass & Associates doing high-end residential renovations of old mansions on the Main Line. “I was a deconstructivist in school,” he says “and there I was working on old Tudor-style buildings.”

He moved to DeAngelis Architectural Services near New York City while also doing independent consulting. After the September 11 attacks, he was only able to find work outside the city, and again, it was primarily residential renovations. A divorce and the realization that he had spent 15 years in big cities led him to explore other options. After visiting a number of locales, he found a firm that had offices in Burlington and in Scarsdale, New York. That company was not a good fit, but he landed a job at TruexCullins in 2004.

Buckley survived several rounds of layoffs at TruexCullins until 2009, when his position was eliminated. The timing was good because he and his wife had just adopted a son and her maternity leave was coming to an end. “I did some architectural work on my own,” he recalls “but I was also being a dad for a 1-year-old, which was rewarding but not always easy.”

Smith left TruexCullins in 2007 when the project he was assigned to was dying down. He weathered the recession working on a residential structure in Maine and the Courtyard by Marriott Burlington Harbor. “I gave my house in Winooski back to the bank,” he says, “but I was able to keep my office doors open.” Soon, though, he was hired to work on the Hotel Vermont and then the Innovation Center. Buckley began to help out, and by 2011, they had decided to formally partner up.

Although Buckley studied fine art, and Smith, engineering, they don’t divide their work along those lines. Both take part in all facets of the job, although Smith has taken charge of the computer end of the business. As they have aged, the two have learned not to be wedded to a particular style of architecture.

“When you’re younger you’re more inclined to have strong ideas,” Buckley says, “but there are great buildings in every style. Just because one style is good doesn’t preclude the others.”

They have had as many as five employees, depending on the project, but they are currently a two-man operation. “One of the challenges all architects face,” Buckley says, “is that we are designing ‘one-instance products.’ We can do a great job and our client is thrilled and the building works perfectly, but they don’t need another building.”

Additional challenges are budgetary constraints and tight schedules, which include working with structural, civil, mechanical, plumbing, electrical, and fire-protection engineers. “There are some days when you never pick up a pencil,” says Smith, “but we’re the only ones with the full picture.” The duo has also had to master zoning regulations, political realities, and contractual language.

Both men care about the environment and try to practice sustainable design, but they don’t see that as the focal point of their work. “It’s more about being responsible,” says Buckley. “It’s not front and center to our mission.”

While they agree on many things, they point to different projects as their favorites. Smith is particularly fond of a private garage they designed for a car collector in South Hero. “It’s not every day you get to make a building that houses beautiful objects,” he says.

Buckley is partial to the Hotel Vermont and an apartment building they created on Pearl Street. He also points to their work on the old General Dynamics building, now known as the Innovation Center, which houses municipal offices, a health facility, café, and private businesses. “It’s fun going into that building and seeing how it’s been transformed,” he says.

Don Stewart, founder and president of Stewart Construction, first worked with Buckley and Smith on the Innovation Center, but he has also been involved with them on other projects. “They have a sort of sublime ability to combine interesting architectural work and pragmatism,” he says. “That’s not an easy thing to do.”

Stewart says that often architects have mastered the nuts and bolts of buildings but lack pizzazz or, conversely, have great ideas but lack practicality. “Smith and Buckley manage to put those two things together,” he says. Stewart also notes that the plans created by the partners have never overrun their budget.

Smith and Buckley’s friendship began on the slopes and they both continue to ski. Smith spends as much time as possible with his 41/2-year-old son, who just learned the sport. A resident of Burlington, he married his junior prom date, Kendra Barber, after reconnecting at a high school reunion. He admits to having multiple hobbies for short periods of time. “I’m a process junkie,” he says. “I like to think about making stuff.”

Buckley lives in Burlington with his wife, Barbara, and spends a lot of time on the lake, waterskiing, fishing, and sailing. His list of sports includes bicycling and skating but he also enjoys sewing, which he sees as just another way of taking flat objects and turning them into something three-dimensional.

Yves Bradley of Pomerleau Real Estate has worked on multiple projects with Buckley and Smith over the last six years. “I hold them in the highest regard,” he says. He gives the example of two companies the firm worked with simultaneously. One was extremely conservative and hierarchical while the other valued open space and creativity and rejected the notion of hierarchy. “Working with both of them at the same time, they absolutely nailed it,” he says.

Bradley also praises the duo for being approachable and responsive and working directly with clients rather than through intermediaries, but there is another aspect to their work that he considers just as important: “They think outside the box and they enjoy a challenge,” he says. “They’re not your traditional architecture firm. They’re damn creative.”•