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In the front hallway of architect Kirsten Thoft’s Linden Lane home sits an oversize purple suitcase. Bursting slightly at the seams, the thing is covered in a layer of dust from a recent journey: Thoft’s husband, Ted, has just returned from Burning Man, a temporary city that draws tens of thousands of people to the middle of nowhere (i.e., Nevada’s Black Rock Desert). Legendary for its fantastical art, mind-boggling structures, and outlandishly attired attendees, the event sounds like it’s exactly the kind of crazy-cool a creator like Thoft would relish. “Looks kind of uncomfortable and seems like a lot of work,” she says with a laugh. No stranger to rolling-up-her-sleeves hard work herself, Thoft prefers her adventures experienced without a dust mask and protective goggles (unless she’s on a job site) and in a city, any city, where she can happily wander—with or without a road map, guidebook, or any sort of plan.
“When we travel, I take Ted on what he jokingly calls ‘architectural death marches.’ It’s a theme in our vacations: We go to cities because I just like to walk for hours and hours and hours, sometimes with a destination, sometimes not,” she says. “But really I don’t need to go anywhere. I love having a house where I feel like I’m on vacation. I like coming home because I really like my house.”
Her “house” is what many consider her architectural calling card: the LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) home she built from the ground up in Princeton’s tree-street neighborhood and is the first in town to receive such a distinction. It’s also the truest expression of Thoft’s architectural aesthetic, a declaration that good, solid design doesn’t need to be grand to make an impression. She’s never been interested in, say, reimagining the Eiffel Tower (“It’s an icon for a reason”) or Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (“It’s a statement”). Thoft has cultivated this aesthetic since her undergrad and graduate days studying design and architecture, and it’s one that garners her positive feedback from residents and town officials alike. Her architectural skill is just as much painstakingly learned as it is canny intuition—although it’s worth noting she wasn’t always convinced this was her calling until about, oh, five years ago.
“My whole career, I’ve struggled with the idea of not being an architect with a capital A,” Thoft says. “I think I’m a little less ego-driven. I do have a vision. I do have an aesthetic, but it’s a little quieter. I’m very interested in making things that fit in, as opposed to standing out.”
Thoft was raised in the waterside town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, and from an early age loved all disciplines of design: In middle school, she was the only girl in woodshop, in her spare time building the woodworking projects from her parents’ copies of Better Homes and Gardens. She sewed, and sewed well, once working on a line with a Philadelphia-based brand. She met her husband, Ted Nadeau, in her junior year of high school, and after graduation, Thoft went off to University of Pennsylvania and Nadeau headed to Princeton. She felt college was a time to “get serious,” which for her meant moving on from art and shop, and declaring a pre-med major. But by the end of her freshman year, she realized she was missing the art in her life, and discovered Penn’s selective Design of the Environment major. She spent the whole of her sophomore year drawing everything from buildings to nudes before she was officially accepted into the program. Yet she still wasn’t convinced architecture was for her. So when she was making her postgrad plans, she bucked the trend of working for an architect and instead took a gig with a model-making company.
“The contracts this company had were mostly with the Department of Defense and nuclear power companies,” she says. “I worked on the rotor blades for a model of the Osprey V-22 vertical takeoff helicopter. I was like, ‘This is not for me.’ I was there for two weeks.”
She spent the next couple of years with a former professor’s firm, contentedly working on residential projects in historic districts likes those on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, and along Philadelphia’s Main Line. And then her father offered to underwrite a graduate degree in architecture if she would finally, please, commit to a direction for her future. Her response: “Well, it is referred to as the mother of all arts. I guess I can still have an architecture degree and do something else.” That nudge proved to be critical because grad school was where Thoft would connect with the kind of architecture that has become her hallmark: housing and sustainable design.
“At the time, sustainability was not on too many people’s radars—it was too sciency, not artsy enough,” she says. “I was interested in green, in housing, in prefab and modular stuff … the things I most enjoy doing now, because it feels so small-scale and personal.”
While working on her graduate degree, she decided to make the move to Princeton for the summer, to live with Nadeau who she’d been seriously dating.
“When I first moved here 26 years ago, nothing was open past 9 p.m. There were no restaurants worth going to. There was Mike’s Tavern and The Ivy, but I was used to going to dance clubs and diners that were open all night long,” she says with a laugh. “It’s changed a lot.”
Despite the lackluster social scene, Thoft’s location change was fortuitous: She began working with the renowned American architect and Princeton University professor Michael Graves. There, she dug into big-idea design and development for projects including an exhibition of the treasures of the Vatican for the Library of Congress, and tableware for Walt Disney World’s Swan and Dolphin Resort. Creatively, she was having a blast, but she realized how little she knew about the nuts and the bolts of what she was conjuring up. She moved on to a job at the Princeton-based firm Studio Hillier, where she remained for the next few years. It was only after she became pregnant with her first child, her daughter Zoë, that she decided it was time to get back into design. She officially opened her own shop in 1998, and as her family expanded to include daughter Ella and son Escher, so did her business.
Twenty years and countless builds later, Thoft has a roster of clients and projects to her name. Some of her best-known work includes a circa-1905 Queen Anne–style multifamily building on Wiggins Street she sustainably renovated into four condos, earning a National Home Builders Green Building Standard “Emerald” rating (the highest you can get, by the way). There’s The Princeton Parklet, currently outside of Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street, a collaborative effort between the Arts Council of Princeton and other builders and architects including Thoft, who transformed original sketches into detailed drawings and lent a hand in the construction, too.
Her development projects—like the zero-energy-ready spec home on Valley Road, a house so efficiently built that its energy system offsets most of its consumption—are what she gets the biggest creative charge from and hopes will make up the future of her business. (She and her husband just purchased a second spec property on Valley Road.)
“With development, I’m the architect, the owner, the developer, the contractor. I like the buck stopping here,” she says. “I spend a fair amount of time thinking if a house is going to fit in, how the color looks with the houses on either side, what people are going to think. Everything I build is a public project because everybody sees it.”
Another recent undertaking is a commercial site called The Social Profit Center at Mill One, a historic former textile factory located in Hamilton. Commissioned by the Trenton-based nonprofit group Isles, Inc., the 240,000-square-foot space required a serious amount of elbow grease to clean up decades of water damage and dirt. Thoft will oversee a complete renovation of the neglected building, which encompasses everything from new stairs and an elevator, to completely updated mechanical systems, to all interior renovations such as bathrooms, finished office spaces, and a roof deck. The end goal is to create beautiful, affordable space for social-impact businesses, artists, and philanthropic organizations; in Thoft’s words, “it was a shell with nothing in it and it’s going to be a cool-looking, fully occupied building when we’re done.”
And then there’s her beloved geothermal-heated and -cooled, solar-paneled, U.S. Green Building Council–approved house at 45 Linden Lane, which allowed her to experiment with building techniques she’d never attempted before. Thoft and Nadeau purchased the house along with the next-door property, 43 Linden, which they renovated and eventually sold. Their home, however, is an entirely new build that Thoft designed to beautifully fit in with the rest of the neighborhood, finding her inspiration in intention: From the raw-steel staircase to the exposed ceiling beams, every detail has a purpose, and is a pure expression of the way it was built—embracing a sustainable aesthetic that suits Thoft’s design perspective and her family just fine.
“I continually ask myself why I’m doing what I do, is this making me happy?” she says. “I want to have fun. I want to enjoy the people I work with. And I think the fact that I like what I do comes out in the work. I sleep better at night knowing, even just in a local sense, I’m making the world a better place.” —Jennifer P. Henderson (photographs by Dan Komoda; article originally appeared in Bricks & Mortar: Fall/Winter 2018)