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Jeff Shelton Gets Big On Fig With New Design Book



If you’ve lived in Santa Barbara long enough, you know exactly who Jeff Shelton is. If you don’t recognize his name, you’ve certainly seen his work. For years, architect Jeff Shelton, this resident president of charming buildings, has lit the streets of Santa Barbara with smiley structures that push the boundaries of architectural possibility. A book is now available for people who want to dig deeper into the design process and have a bit of this architecture in their own home. The fig quarter is a 192-page project (led by Mattie Shelton of Shelton Huts – who also happens to be Jeff’s daughter) featuring a handful of Jeff’s buildings that are within walking distance of his office in downtown SB . I recently met Jeff by email for an overview of the process of creating this new book.

When did the idea of The fig quarter start to marinate in your brain, and what was the creation process like?

Marinate! It sounds peaceful and intentional. The fig quarter we started calling the area about six blocks from my office on Fig Avenue. I was fortunate to have designed several buildings close enough to be able to get away from the office or just take a coffee break. They all have a similar background, on commercial land in a city with a “Spanish Revival” design overlay. Upton Construction built them all and, in a way, they are part of the same architectural language. When people started calling to ask where these buildings were, I would send them a typed list. One night I drew a map and put it on a map, which made it easier for me; I might just hand out the card. Then I started organizing tours for fundraisers, telling weird stories about each building’s approval or design, and decided to create a “brochure” that I could hand out. When my family and I went to Montesquieu-Volvestre in the southwest of France for three months, I started the so-called pamphlet while I was sitting at the Bar des Arcades.

The manufacturing process The fig quarter was more difficult than designing a building. A building is instinctive, reacting along the way. The book took me into some of the convoluted design processes and quagmire of dealing with the city and everyone involved. Inanimate building materials are easier to work with than words. Fortunately, my daughter Mattie took matters into her own hands and designed a book that exposes the intricacies of designing and constructing a building. The process also made it clear that a short brochure could not include some of the important stories and people that bring a building to life. The brochure became a book.

Credit: Courtesy

What was your inspiration for the book?

My inspiration was to make people understand that the architect is only one part in making a building work. A lot of things have to go right, or at least they have to go in a direction that we can manipulate. Without Dan Upton and Leon Olson taking a chance and then rolling around with some weird ideas, it all goes in a different direction. Without Upton’s lateral thinking about opportunities, the exciting idea doesn’t come true. Without David Shelton’s distorted sense of what steel is, it all takes a different turn. Without the city approving these ideas, they stay on paper. I could go on, but that’s what the book is for.

A handful of buildings in downtown SB are featured. What were some of your early experiences built here?

One advantage of building on commercial property is that neighbors don’t complain. When neighbors complain, projects cost more, everyone gets frustrated, and the project becomes a beige version of life. There are certainly construction issues, as there are always tight spaces and big coordination issues. However, it is a great city to build. If you have a problem, you can go straight to the source at the construction department and find a solution. There may be a lot of regulations, but that’s why we live here; we have to deal with it.

The review boards have been nice to me. I make sure to think carefully and fill my trash can with ideas that don’t work. By the time I have plans in front of the review board, the building is in my blood and I bring a lot of details. I think they recognize it. Even if I go a little too far for some, it is better to go a little far than to fail.

Credit: Courtesy

Who knows how to build your architectural creations? I heard it was a happy bunch of craftsmen.

I somehow find great clients; without them, none of this happens. I start the ball rolling by understanding all the constraints of the site and the prescriptions while taking into account the needs of our customers. I tell them that I will try to get them what they want, but that they must also give back to the streets and to the fabric of the city. Depending on the type of structure we are proposing, I meet Upton Construction and we discuss methods. We meet with the structural engineer very early on and try to make sure that we all look at things the same way. We go through review boards and come up with the best set of plans possible. Just because we have plans for a building doesn’t mean it’s easy to build. Upton keeps the project in perspective, so we have the flexibility to use the experience of his workers to keep adding touches as we go. After a while, the building takes over, and I respond to the building’s needs. I tell everyone the building is talking now. Jason Rick, a client and the book’s photographer, described the entire construction experience in an interview. He said, “First the bulldozers come to level the site, then the ‘Merry Band of Craftsmen’ appears. Upton has a great team of people who know what to do, and they work with people like my brother David and Andy Johnson, who have their own way of doing things. When they are on the project, it always goes well. David will make it as good as possible, every time. Andy doesn’t want to discuss money; you can’t lift the word. It’s hard to explain to new customers. It’s a bit tricky. At the end of a project, Andy once brought me an invoice written in pencil on a 2 × 4. You have to remember that the end product is always worth it.

The fig quarter is currently in preorder on jeffsheltonarchitect.com and will be available for purchase in November from the Santa Barbara Company and local bookstores.

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