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Are These Architects Shaping Boston or Is Boston Shaping Them?

David Bates / June 19, 2017-10:12 am

“I never did a project in Boston. Not one,” recalls Eric Robinson, 46, about the 10 years he worked at a Harvard Square architectural firm.

Robinson managed exciting projects, but apparently never walked, took a bike, or jumped on the MBTA to get to any of them.

Then, instead of being an on-the-road architect, Robinson (“RO”) teamed up with his former classmate, Kevin Deabler (“DE”), and became a principal at RODE Architects.

Frankly, their entrepreneurial timing wasn’t so great: 2007.

And their initial projects weren’t so big: bathroom renovations.

But one thing the pair of architects had going for them was that they were part of a community, which – by the way – is something completely different than an area where people just live. A community is where people know and care about their neighbors.

For 13 years, Robinson and Deabler lived a two-family apart from each other in Savin Hill. It was in Deabler’s two-family that they started the firm. Dorchester is where they found their first niche: “There are a ton of families that want to raise their kids, that want to live in the city,” Robinson says.

Speaking about the firm’s early days, he says, “We just started putting our names out there and we were so active in the neighborhood.”

Their names got around. “These are two good guys,” they would hear as one neighbor would introduce them to another who needed their services.

It took a while, but hard work, talent, and community connectedness eventually snowballed and the firm’s opportunities grew.

RODE’s first larger project happened when Robinson and Deabler went to the blast-from-the-past part of Boston known as Allston and got a Glenville Avenue site approved for four contemporary townhomes.

The venture helped build a foundation for their feelings about design. “We are architects that are building for this day,” Robinson says, “so we don’t want to build and design work that looks like something in the past.”

People live differently now than they did in the past, notes Robinson. So, although RODE is sensitive to the historical and contextual aspects of a building’s surroundings, designing the architecture – even on the outside – to reflect these lifestyle changes ultimately drives their more contemporary approach to the project.

RODE was the lead architect for the interiors of Radian, the curved 26-story apartment development in Chinatown. It was a challenging project, even for a firm committed to design that doesn’t look like something in the past.

RODE also designed restaurants in Somerville, Cambridge, and Boston.

Today, instead of logging frequent flyer miles, Robinson is accruing Uber charges, the preferred method of transportation for the 20-person firm located on Albany Street in the South End.

Not long ago, Robinson and Deabler were invited to speak to architecture students at their North Carolina State alma mater; their talk was titled “Shaping Boston.” But because they are working on so many projects in so many different Boston neighborhoods, they had to ask, “Are we shaping Boston or is Boston shaping us?”

Currently, they’re the architects on a 40-unit building in Mission Hill, a 73-unit in Jamaica Plain, and a boutique hotel and condos at 14 West Broadway in South Boston.

In Brighton, RODE is designing a new synagogue, a new Mikvah, and a new 70-unit residential building.

There’s no cookie-cutter approach to these residential buildings, as developers look to cater to the values and routines of residents in each neighborhood.

Their strong suit, however, is Dorchester.

In Dorchester, they are the architects for 14 units in Savin Hill, a sizable Port Norfolk development, and DOTBLOCK, the game changing mixed-use development that includes 362 residential units.

Robinson says one of the firm’s strengths is navigating Boston’s challenging appeal process and getting projects approved. What makes them so good at it?

Matching the goals of the client with the neighborhood helps, but it’s really their understanding of how community works that wins the day.

Robinson describes an approach that is clearly the exact opposite of walking into a meeting, dropping a plan for a building, and telling neighborhood attendees, “Here you go.”

“We work extremely hard in the first part of the process with both the client group and the neighborhood association,” he says. He wants the neighborhood to understand what they’re doing and why, even early on.

Clearly, caring about others in the neighborhood can pay off.

Where does the Virginia native get that civic sensitivity? “I think it comes clearly out of being Dorchester residents, being in a neighborhood and understanding,” he says.