Frank Harmon has won his fair share of accolades for design over the years. But no occasion evoked such a pointed reaction to his work as the judging of the entries for AIA North Carolina in 1999, when Harmon swept the competition by winning three out of four Honor Awards in his home state. On that day awards juror Max Protetch, the New York gallery owner, opened the concealed identification tucked into the submissions for three very accomplished, but very different, buildings by Harmon—and was stunned to learn of their common authorship. “I don't who this guy is,” Protetch reputedly said, “but he's either a genius or a schizophrenic.”

Frank Harmon
Danny Turner Frank Harmon

Harmon, 63, lets go an easy laugh as he tells the story. “I'm quite comfortable with that,” he allows, noting how his diverse body of work illustrates an important lesson he learned from his mentor a quarter century ago: The best buildings grow from the individual needs of the client, if only you take time to listen. “He let me know it was all right to start afresh every time.” (More about that mentor later.) By accepting such simple truths, Harmon—an affable teacher-practitioner—has made his own way through a career that took many turns early on. Over time, he found his comfort zone in a modernism that eschews self-reference—and instead draws its strength from a responsiveness to the site and client and a fondness for the sensual characteristics of light, materials, and color. In recognition of the standard of excellence Harmon has set and maintained, Frank Harmon Architect, Raleigh, N.C., is the residential architect Firm of the Year for 2005.

size matters Like many architects, Harmon started his practice with a desire to build big and “important” buildings. But he made a decision about 12 years ago to focus more on houses. “Up until then, my firm had been doing mostly office buildings, museums, and galleries. At the time, we had one or two very large projects. I woke up one morning and thought, ‘Gosh, if one of those projects went away, our firm would be in big trouble.' That's the way that I began to develop more small projects. It's a way that we could work on design ideas at a smaller scale that would be applicable to larger buildings as well.”

Scattered around an industrial loft building that once housed electrical hardware, Harmon and his staff of five work in a casual setting that very much resembles a university architecture studio. The firm has been as large as 10, but Harmon says he likes the present size because it allows him more involvement. His wife, Judy, runs her landscape architecture practice under the same roof, working off to one side near the plate-glass storefront.

“It's very important that we all work in one room,” says Harmon, who used to organize his practice like the mammoth New York firm where he once worked. But one day while doing studio crits at nearby North Carolina State University, he realized he could train better architects and cultivate a more productive atmosphere if he gave his employees greater responsibility for their projects. The system has worked well: “I know what's going on with everybody, they know what's going on with everybody, and we all have mutual interaction,” he says.

Residential projects comprise between one-third and two-thirds of the workload in Harmon's office. Some are single-family houses; others are modest additions. But they all share an instinctive relationship to their natural surroundings. “There is a strong relationship between the indoors and the outdoors,” he says. “The craft of how they are made and finished is very evident. The materials are usually natural and things you would want to touch. And they are usually colorful—I love to use color.”

learning curve Born in Georgia, Harmon was still a child when his family moved to North Carolina. It was a sizable family—four kids in a small house with a demanding mother watching over the brood. “As a result, I spent a lot of time out of doors,” Harmon says. “It was easier for me to be in the woods following the streams.”

On the day he discovered architecture, Harmon was sitting in his eighth grade English class gazing across the street. “I saw this wonderful old house—one of those big wood-frame houses with porches all around it. And I remember wondering, ‘How did a house like that get built?'” Soon he learned about the existence of architects, and decided that it was the path he would follow. It wasn't the easiest thing, he says. His mother wanted him to be a doctor.

When the time came, Harmon enrolled in the design school at N.C. State. After two years, he moved to London to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, where he encountered a different approach to architecture. The faculty—including personalities such as James Stirling, Nikolaus Pevsner, and Kenneth Frampton—were an inspiring lot. “The thing about the AA was that everybody who taught there was an architect,” he says. “That made the difference for me, as opposed to most American universities, where the teachers are academics. I loved that, because I'm an architect who likes the real making of things.”