William H. Harrison

The Atlanta-based, internationally renowned architect is, by all accounts, a local treasure. He recently sat down with AH&L to discuss his accomplishments to date, simultaneously being celebrated in the just-released tome, Harrison Design Associates: A Decade of Work

ATLANTA HOMES & LIFESTYLES: After working as a draftsman in your teens, you decided to study architecture at Georgia Tech. Tell us about the path you followed from there to the point you founded Harrison Design Associates in 1991.

WILLIAM H. HARRISON: I came into the business very differently than most architects because I came into it from the development/construction/business side. In the early ’70s, people wouldn’t hire you to do good architecture. So I started buying old houses and fixing them up, particularly in Inman Park, Cabbagetown and Virginia-Highland. You learn, by looking at a house, what works and what doesn’t work. And I was curious about the how, what and why of buildings—how the pieces fit together, what was good and what was bad.

So let’s fast-forward. What do you remember from your first major project in Buckhead?
It was a house over on Valley Road. Essentially, we had to gut the house because it was built very poorly. But at that time there was no one who made cast stone, no one who made balustrades—any of that stuff. So we made it all ourselves. It was the same thing if you were working on a Victorian in Ansley Park; you had to make the parts yourself. By the time I was 40, I had a huge construction company. We had our own roofing crew, we had our own carpenters, we had our own millwork shop, we made our own cabinets. I think people started hiring us because we were different.

To what do you credit the firm’s seemingly meteoric success?
We started out doing a couple of houses here in town, then we started doing more houses and started to grow exponentially because we were lucky enough, or smart enough, to hire the right people—really good managers and good business people, which allowed me to expand on what we do. And to have good follow-up. So, as we grew, the quality didn’t diminish; it actually got better. Because we have more resources, and more talent in the pool, we can produce a better product.

To this day, so much of your firm’s work—whether it’s Tuscan-, English- or Mediterranean-inspired—seems right at home in Atlanta.
I think the way you get it right is that you never think your last solution is right. You’re always looking for a better solution. And you’re always looking critically at what you do. Any project that we take, we typically want to go see the site, we want to see it in context. As an architect, your responsibility is to not only create good architecture but to do it in the right place at the right time.

How do you go about looking for that “better” solution each time?
I feel, over the years, I’ve acquired enough knowledge to know the questions. So now I can put the questions out and watch how people react. I know my answer, but is my answer the best answer? I really want a client’s desires—their information to incorporate into my solution. Without that, it’s not a good solution. I get excited about trying to extract more and more information out of whatever situation I’m in. I get excited about projects that allow us to expand who we are as a firm, and that really push the envelope.

Your approach obviously works.
I think one of the best compliments that I’ve gotten over the years is “You guys have really raised the bar in Buckhead; you’ve made people appreciate good architecture.” That’s allowed not only our firm to be successful but a lot of other firms to be successful. But setting the bar means you’re accomplished, raising the bar means you’re working at it. We’re always working at it, trying to make each new solution better than the last.

There’s some real passion behind that thought.
I’ve always been extremely passionate about architecture. Whatever you’re doing, you should be doing it the best you can. Because that’s the significance you bring to the community and to your life—to be good at whatever you’re doing.

We are fortunate to have Bill as a director of the Buckhead Coalition because he adds a depth of sensitivity in our deliberations to residential quality-of-life interests. His soft-spoken demeanor is disarming and persuasive for the common good.
—Sam Massell, President, Buckhead Coalition

Bill and his firm are extremely important to the development of new classical and traditional architecture, not only in the work of the firm, but also in their gifts to Georgia Tech that have created the Harrison Design Associates Visiting Scholar program. Bill is also on the Board of Directors of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America—the single most important national support organization for reviving knowledge of classical design in the country through their programs of coursework.
—Elizabeth Meredith Dowling, Ph.D., College of Architecture, Georgia Institute of Technology

Bill Harrison is outstanding! He has done architectural work for me on several projects, gaining my complete confidence. I asked Bill to design the Pavilion at Lake Rabun and, without hesitation, he said that he would not only like to do the project but that it would be his contribution to the Lake Rabun Association (LRA). His work, once again, was superb and greatly appreciated. Bill has the respect of his clients, his business associates and his friends.
—Dick Stormont, President, Atlanta Rotary Club

Bill is an amazing and talented architect whose mantra after working on EcoManor has become ‘you can have it all without taking it all.’
—Laura Turner Seydel, owner of EcoManor

Bill has a wonderful blend of traits that make up his personality, both professionally and socially. He is extremely creative, intelligent and flexible in his designs as well as having a great work ethic along with a terrific sense of humor. I am pleased to have him as my friend as well as our architect.
—Jeffrey Small, President, Lantrac Properties Inc.