After 37 years in practice, Heidi Richardson has a large body of award-winning work to look back on and learn from. She has developed a reputation for running a design-focused practice that’s extraordinarily good at site strategy—a skill she learned from her mentor, William Turnbull, Jr. Heidi and her business partner, Andrew Pribuss, are dedicated to producing timeless, light-filled architecture that forms a strong bond with the natural landscape.
With a staff of 14, and growing, Richardson Pribuss Architects is in the enviable position of being in the right place at the right time. That place is Mill Valley, which even before Covid saw an influx of residents from San Francisco seeking more space and affordability. Even though Marin County’s Mill Valley is only a 10-minute drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, the building challenges are different here than in the city, Andrew says. The lots have more land to engage with and complex entitlements—exactly the sorts of things the architects excel at.
Heidi landed here in 1977, but she grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, a member of an architectural family with a powerful pedigree. Her childhood bedroom had belonged to her great-grandfather Henry Hobson Richardson, famous for pioneering a uniquely American take on European architecture known as Richardsonian Romanesque. Her father, a fine arts major at Harvard, celebrated that legacy. “He used to take me into the Museum of Fine Arts [in Boston] on Sundays, but we’d drive up and down the Back Bay and Commonwealth Avenue, and he’d point out the things that were Richardsonian or things he’d done,” Heidi says. During summers she worked at the family architecture firm Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott (now Shepley Bulfinch). “My uncle Joe [Richardson] was a mentor; I archived the Richardson stuff before it was handed off to Harvard,” she says. “It was a done deal. I always assumed I would be an architect.”
Her formal path to architecture began with a study of art history at Wellesley, then a transfer to MIT for an architecture degree. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, California was the place to be, and she traveled west for graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where Charles Moore was her adviser. Toward the end of her program, she told him she’d like to work for William Turnbull Associates. “Bill called me the next day and said, can you come in on Monday,” Heidi recalls. “It was 1977, when there had been a recession and everyone was hiring up again. I wanted to travel to Europe, but I wasn’t going to jeopardize that offer.”
Architecture has given Heidi the opportunity to be creative and practical at the same time. From Bill Turnbull she learned how to do site planning and grading. At a time when builders weren’t used to having women around, he took her to construction sites. “I was the first person they hired in three or four years, so there was no honeymoon period,” she says. “I sat right in front of him so he could watch every move, and I was able to learn quickly. It was a real family.”
Early on, visiting Charles Moore and Bill Turnbull’s Condominium One at Sea Ranch made an impression: “The idea of the condo being a wooden rock perched on the edge of the inlets of the Pacific Ocean, and about leaving the car behind and then entering this realm, and how those 10 condo units operated as one big house. The roof slopes reflect what the windblown hedgerows do,” she says, recalling a prominent feature of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s master plan. “You have this wooden rock on the outside, and the inside, especially Charles’ unit, was like a colorful geode.”
Heidi also absorbed the Sea Ranch spirit of inventive yet modest houses driven by the natural landscape. Working on other projects there, “before people started spending big money on houses,” she learned how to “pinch inches.” “Bill taught me that the inside of a closet can be 21 inches instead of 24 inches, so you can make a compact but useful fundamental plan. And that you design from inside out: how is it furnished, how do people live in the space, what do you see when you sit in this chair? It’s why his work feels friendly and easy to live in.”
In 1984, Heidi opened her own office in Mill Valley. After an unsuccessful partnership in those fledgling years, she managed the firm alone until 2019, when Andrew became a partner. He had grown up in Mill Valley in a modern, concrete-and-glass house designed by his stepfather, an architect. Andrew’s educational journey was the opposite of Heidi’s—he left California to attend college in New York, before returning to the Southern California Institute of Architecture for a master’s in architecture. After finishing school in 2005, he spent a year in Mexico City working for architect Michel Rojkind, then took a job as an exhibition designer at the Getty Museum. In 2008, he followed his wife to grad school in San Francisco. “The day after we moved, the Bear Stearns news came out and the economy imploded,” he says. Scrambling for work, he pieced together gigs at various design offices, including Heidi’s, and joined her full-time in 2010.
“The firm has always grown or shrunk a bit with the economy,” Heidi says. “Now we keep growing, concentrating in Marin and Mill Valley because that’s where everyone wants to live. It seems like our sphere is shrinking, but there’s so much money coming in here that we don’t have to go outside. Although we do some work in the city and in Sonoma, most of our new houses are in Mill Valley now.”
In some ways the evolution of this idyllic enclave has come full circle. Mill Valley was a summer cottage community before the bridge was built in the mid-1930s, and later became known for its arts culture and laid-back vibe: “hippie lawyers growing pot on the hillsides,” Andrew says. More recently, it was a bedroom community of folks traveling into the city for work. Now it’s a magnet for sophisticated tech industry clients, many of whom are interested in green building and willing to experiment. The firm is often building new homes on spectacular sites. Many are complicated, leftover lots, but Richardson Pribuss isn’t afraid of them.
The recently completed Warner Canyon Hillside Residence is one of the more extreme examples. The land was so steep that the builders had to belay down the site to erect a set of stairs, and there is a 20-foot drop between the street-level garage and the main level. Noting local restrictions, Heidi says that houses here are typically 2,000 to 3,000 square feet—“this is where my pinching comes in.” In a modest 1,970 square feet, the design team fit three bedrooms, two and a half baths, and an office. Inside-out schemes are an integral part of their work. Here the boundaries disappear through wall-height glazing focused on the view over the canyon. The design isn’t just about the view, though. It incorporates six outdoor spaces, including a barbecue deck off the dining room, a deck off the living room, and another small terrace off the lower-level main bedroom. From there, a stair leads down to a hot tub and an outdoor kitchen. “In part, the success of this project was carving out moments where you could get onto the site, not just a great big deck off the back,” Andrew says.
In exploring their own brand of Northern California modernism, Richardson Pribuss has developed an appreciation for houses as repositories of light and the landscape, an ideal often achieved with height. “We’re constantly trying to express some kind of verticality in these projects,” Heidi says. “Maybe because our height limits are so rigorous.” Restrictions usually dictate a maximum height of 25 feet near the edges of the site and 35 feet in the center, she says, which also leads them to design flat roofs—“what is the point of expressing verticality if you put a cowboy hat on top of it?” Glazed walls create views through their houses, so that the outdoor spaces read as large as possible.
The architects use taut wood cladding—usually local cedar—to soften and scale down the envelope. In newer work, though, they are specifying fiber-cement siding for fire safety, an urgent issue that reinforces their proclivity for simple roof shapes, which minimize entry points for drifting embers. “To be honest, it’s kind of a struggle for us—how do you create this contemporary building that’s all fireproof and doesn’t feel too slick and soulless?” Andrew says. Heidi adds: “And we can’t put landscaping near the house. All these pieces are evolving, and in an exciting way. First we had the seismic challenge, then the energy challenge, and now the fire challenge.”
Another specialty has been renovating older or heritage houses, along with the occasional commercial property, such as the iconic Sweetwater Music Hall, currently underway, that helped put Mill Valley on the map. “Many architects don’t want to touch renovations because they are wrapped around historic preservation,” Heidi says. “We touch all those pieces that comprise what Mill Valley was and is becoming.”
Like many California jurisdictions, Marin County has passed ADU-friendly initiatives in recent years to alleviate the scarcity of rentals and affordable houses, and it’s been a boon for business. “The phone rings three times a week for a new ADU,” Andrew says. “We love them because they’re looser, like one-off design exercises, and they help the younger staff build skills.” Designing for 500 to 800 square feet, “that’s where [Heidi’s] Sea Ranch [experience] comes in,” he adds, “how to get a laundry to work in a bathroom, eliminating halls, and bringing the windows to the floor.” In fact, the firm is working on an ADU design guidebook for San Joaquin County. The county, east of San Francisco at the northern end of the Central Valley food basket, has also commissioned a prototype for farmworker housing.
These smaller projects are part of the roster of about 50 jobs the firm is working on at any one time, and they help alleviate the managerial challenges of large projects that get held up in design reviews and “planning purgatory.” Internal teamwork and weekly meetings with a trusted stable of engineering and landscape consultants keep things on track. Heidi has twice chaired the local planning commission, which helped her understand the complex zoning rules and what it’s like to be on the other side, she says. A crack facilitator is essential too: “We have the most fantastic business manager and permit technician expeditor, Kristin Silmore,” Heidi says. “She knows people in billing departments all over the county and keeps up those relationships.”
With the promotion of Andrew to partner two years ago, Heidi has been positioning the firm for the future. Her management philosophy is to delegate as much as she can, which means sharing rain-making work not only with Andrew but with other senior staff, too. “It invests them in the firm, and it takes the load off of us,” she says. She enjoys meeting with clients and handles marketing, site and floor planning, and politicking with city hall, while Andrew excels at exterior elevations and does most of the construction administration. They are also expanding the interiors department, which currently stands at four staff. “Many clients, especially on new houses, bring an interior designer with them, but on the smaller renovation work we do, we find that clients love one-stop shopping,” Heidi says. “People are trying to simplify their lives.”
No doubt the firm’s longevity and success stems in part from Heidi’s style of leading by collaboration. “Heidi generated this environment where she delegates and empowers employees to be their own project architect, run their own thing,” Andrew says. “That’s why I stayed; I like being accountable to myself, getting it done.” It’s another early lesson that has stuck. “Bill had final say but allowed people to grow,” Heidi says, “which is important if you want to build a team.”
The intrepid spirit of her great-grandfather and her mentors lives on in her work, marrying the technical aspects with a quality design response. “Our understanding of complex sites and entitlements may contribute to why people come to us,” Heidi says. “We like to think it’s our design talent, too.” Indeed, it’s all part of the DNA.