Meet Naomi Darling

“No matter the scale, the underlying theme is to do more with less.”

“Every student now is aware of the climate crisis and the urgent imperative to design more sustainably,” says Naomi Darling, Principal at Naomi Darling Architecture and Associate Professor of Sustainable Architecture at Mount Holyoke College and University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst.

“When I was studying, those ideas weren’t even really being discussed yet at architecture schools.”

Naomi founded her namesake practice in 2011 and has spent the years since delivering projects that embrace creative problem-solving and optimise existing site context to create spaces that are socially responsible and environmentally conscious. “I love working with sites’ natural conditions and topography; taking design from the broad strokes through to the detail and translating vision into stages of design. I enjoy the exploration of materials, where they are coming from and how they are coming together to work with natural light to define the space.”

This exploration takes place across scales, Naomi says, in both her professional and her academic practice. “I enjoy the opportunity to take on large, visionary projects as well as those which are able to be realised a bit more quickly. Prototypes, for instance, can be built and iteratively tested within an academic semester or summer, while even small public projects can take years from the initial design to project completion. Most recently, I’ve been working on a collapsible tent project called Kasa, a Japanese word meaning umbrella and referencing the way that the tent folds in on itself. It is also a play on words with its Spanish homonym being ‘house’. In the first version of Kasa, the joints weren’t as rigid as they needed to be, so this past semester, I worked with two students to develop a new joint system in our campus Makerspace. We used 3D modelling and printing to fabricate a quarter scale prototype of Kasa 2.0. The ultimate goal for this project is a quickly deployable, foldable structure that can be used to provide shade or shelter in many different types of situations.

Image 4 - Maier Camerlenghi Addition-min.jpg

Michele Saee Teulo

“I also recently brought inspiration from my very first architectural project, Kernan Tea House, into the classroom. Tea houses are small, but with a strong conceptual and cultural program that make them a great typology for architectural exploration. My original project was a design/build and sited at the rear of my client’s property with a large, granite boulder and stand of bamboo. I designed a long, low window to frame a view of the boulder, and a bamboo screen on the roadside to sandwich the tea house between the living bamboo and architectural screen. A quarry down the road provided stone for the threshold, so the project was rooted to the earth while the roof reached up to the sky. For my tea house design/build studio, my students at Mount Holyoke each had a budget of just $80 to create a space for 2 people to enjoy a cup of tea. When the constraints are so simple, it opens up a lot of design possibility and innovative thinking and sourcing of materials.

“At the other end of the scale spectrum is a UNESCO competition I participated in to reconstruct the Al Nouri Complex in Mosul. This project involved restoring the Al Nouri Mosque and designing a new arts-focused educational campus with a secondary school, an institute of art and architecture, a performance hall, and a café. It was exciting to work within a large, collaborative team with two Iraqi women who knew the city and culture, and to develop a proposal for the heart of Old Mosul that would not only rebuild two large blocks but also support the rebuilding the lives and livelihoods in the surrounding area.”

Michele Saee Teulo

As a professor within the ‘Five Colleges Consortium’, Naomi is bringing her skills to teaching roles at both Mount Holyoke College and UMass Amherst. “I teach mostly undergraduate students, which I find rewarding because that’s where emerging professionals are designing their career trajectories. By the time you get to graduate school, you already know what you want to do; undergraduates are still figuring it all out and learning that they can make a difference. One of the things that I find meaningful in foundational teaching is instilling the belief that, as architects, they can make a real difference to sustainability, energy consumption and climate change. That’s as foundational as learning how to draw plans. If they learn that at the very beginning, they’ll carry it through into their practice.”

Naomi believes that part of an architect’s role is to educate, whether inside or outside of the classroom. “I am fortunate that my academic and professional practice support each other, so I can be selective with the projects that I undertake. Not everyone wants to learn how to make their design vision more sustainable, but I am able to choose collaborations with clients who are interested in and share that passion.”

The child of two art historians, Naomi split her early life between her father’s homeland in the US and her mother’s in Japan, an environment which, she says, instilled in her a respect for tradition and the beauty of everyday objects. “The Japanese have a different way of thinking about craft and materiality. Their national living treasures are all craftsmen. You can also see the structure in a lot of the temples and shrines; spaces that are modulated in a mathematical way. That’s stayed with me. So many of my projects still start with structure and a module. I always consider what’s going to be the rhythm that’s going to define the space.

Michele Saee Teulo

“From the perspective of my parents as medieval art historians, I also learned that art and architecture weren’t always considered separate disciplines. Architecture ranges from the things we hold to the spaces we inhabit... We spent half a year in France the summer that I turned 10, driving to see different churches nearly every day. I remember the temperature in those churches, the coolness of the stone, the damp smell and the way materials absorbed or reflected the light. As children, we have such visceral memories. Our bodies remember things. I still carry those experiences from my childhood into my work.

“Blurring the hard line between art and architecture might be one reason I particularly enjoy working with creatives on their work spaces. My second project was a studio for a photographer who was very particular about having natural light from all four cardinal directions as well as the ability to control it. More recently, I have completed a studio for a sculptor who creates kinetic sculptures that are illusions. For this client, the indoor and outdoor workspaces, door clearances and shop layout were all vitally important as well as the natural light, views to the field beyond, and a shooting and filming and exhibition space where the light could be completely controlled.”

Naomi has recently joined forces with a UMass colleague Ray Mann and her long-time collaborator and life partner, sculptor Darrell Petit, in a new formal partnership called Ko-LAB Architecture. “We’re excited to be working on some public projects together, including a performance band shell pavilion for the Olmsted-designed Amherst Town Green. The project has been through an extensive public approval process and is now ready to move forward! The design was developed through origami and is a folded plate structure that we are hoping to develop as a mass timber project. We are also working on a few structures for Riverside Park in a neighbouring town. Last summer, we completed a kayak pavilion where the public can check out kayaks like library books and experience the river from the perspective of being on the water. This year, we’re be upgrading the restroom facilities in the park to be gender-neutral and ADA-compliant. I really appreciate the opportunity to work in public parks and shared outdoor spaces that are about bringing people and communities together.”

Michele Saee Teulo

Looking ahead, Naomi Ko-LAB is working on a new museum for the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center in up-state New York as well as a few net-zero residential projects, and Naomi’s using her voice to push for legislative change in her community. “There is a by-law being proposed here which directly addresses Accessible Dwelling Units (ADUs) and I’ve just published an editorial on why this should be approved. There is a huge housing crisis in the US, and we all need to be thinking globally and acting locally on the issues where we can make the biggest impact. As architects, these are things that we can address. People need our voices. We have something to contribute.”

To learn more and connect with Naomi, visit and follow her on Instagram.

Michele Saee Teulo

Bex De Prospo
Bex De Prospo