If you’ve recently visited the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, driven down Interstate 75 near the Chattahoochee River, or ridden MARTA near the airport, you’ve passed a part of the city touched by architect Jordache Avery. Not yet 40, the Florida native has built a practice that is now one of the busiest boutique firms in the city, having completed more than $100 million worth of projects.
But success was far from certain when he arrived in Atlanta on the brink of the Great Recession—a fresh college grad inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright in a city more enamored with Philip Trammell Shutze. Moreover, while storied Black-owned firms like Turner Associates and Stanley, Love-Stanley are nationally recognized commercial practices here, Black residential architects are still rare. So, Avery started small, by tearing down his own house.
It began in 2006, when Avery spotted a 1940s, two-bedroom bungalow in Ormewood Park with a shoddy addition and exterior vinyl so raggedy it appeared to be melting. But the neighborhood was buzzing with new construction, and the home’s tree-shaded lot had primo city views. Avery’s girlfriend wasn’t feeling it. “Um, no,” protested Rashida Allen, a few months before they would become engaged. “This is a teardown shack.”
Still, Avery bought the house, and together, the couple dove into elbow-grease renovations, determined to make it livable on a shoestring while Avery launched his career and Rashida finished her training at Morehouse School of Medicine.
Just a week after they’d moved in, Avery was sitting alone in the kitchen when he heard a commotion outside. Men’s voices, low and cautious. Burglars, he thought. Panicked, Avery shot up from his chair and went to find a bat, a tool, anything that might pass for a weapon. That’s when he heard the command, shouted through a window: Freeze!
The house, yelled the voice, was surrounded by police. Get on the floor and stay there. Avery complied, and, though he couldn’t see the guns, he could feel their aim on his skin.
“How’d you get in there?” the Atlanta police officer asked, as Avery recalls.
“I came through the door,” Avery replied, still lying on the floor.
“Get up slowly, walk over, and open it.”
“I can’t,” said Avery. “There’s a deadbolt on it. The key’s in my pocket.” He didn’t dare reach toward his waist.
Finally, Avery cautiously stood up and unlocked his own front door. The officers looked surprised when he produced mail with a name that matched his ID. When he asked why they’d come, one officer said a neighbor had reported a burglary in progress. Avery peered across his yard, up his new street, into a city he’d only barely come to know, and asked, “Which neighbor?”
• • •
On a crisp October morning under cloudless blue skies, Avery is touring a construction project he designed called Poncey Haus. It’s a geometric puzzle of two duplexes and a stand-alone house—all white stucco, expansive rooftop decks, and sharp modern angles—occupying a formerly overgrown lot and homeless encampment near Ponce City Market. Talk to his friends, colleagues, and wife, and certain adjectives are often used to describe Avery: mellow, thoughtful, humble. But on a job site, he’s all business.
At age 39, Avery has tightly cropped hair with the first signs of salt. He’s wearing a black long-sleeve button-up, Air Force Ones, and a black protective mask. Wandering through a spartan three-story residence, surrounded by the smell of latex paint and fresh wood, Avery extols the virtues of clerestory windows, the balance of voids and mass, and the living room’s view of downtown high-rises. He stresses the importance of perfectly straight lines. The master bathroom, he notes, was redesigned three times. The drive for perfection makes sense. Living here will cost between $1.05 and $1.35 million, beckoning well-heeled buyers in a city that finally has embraced contemporary residential architecture.
Avery believes the adage that cities are the museums of our culture, telling the story of our time by way of current architecture, and his goal is to design houses that reflect human advancement. Modernism has always intrigued him because it’s challenging, and when done right, it evokes uniqueness and an absence of physical constraints. “We have the capacity to have larger open spaces, to cantilever over the landscape, and open up a room with a wall of glass,” he says. “Those are the types of things you couldn’t do back in the day, just from an energy perspective. As time passes, the profession should keep up.”
His idealism started early, when Avery was growing up in Jacksonville. Named for his mother Rene’s favorite 1980s actor, Rudy Jordache (not the iconic high-waisted jeans), he built cities out of cardboard boxes in his closet. His father, Ken, was a senior planner for the city and would take Jordache and his older brother to evening citizens’ planning meetings. Ken recalls, “Jordache used to be real curious, asking, Daddy, why’d they disagree with you on that development? Why don’t they want it here? At a young age, he started picking up on that information.” After meetings, Ken would lug home blueprints and pore over zoning codes and setback requirements with Jordache beside him.
At Jacksonville’s highly ranked Stanton College Preparatory School, Avery explored engineering but found it too mired in math and calculations—and not creative enough. Nothing about engineering was as timelessly cool as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater—one of Avery’s favorite houses in the world—or Philip Johnson’s simple, transparent Glass House. After graduation he enrolled at Florida A&M University, a historically Black college in Tallahassee, where he entered the architecture program on a one-semester trial basis and never looked back.
Degree in hand, Avery itched to return to an urban environment that wasn’t Jacksonville. He considered taking a chance on Los Angeles but opted for more affordable Atlanta. When he had visited an uncle here during the early 1990s, Avery had been awed by a Black mecca that felt like a boomtown, where monolithic new towers were still rising, especially in Midtown. He chose a city that was still changing, still restless in its adolescence, a place he hoped to help guide toward smarter urbanism.
• • •
Avery’s first big project was designing a five-story apartment building called the Oxford Hapeville for architect Michael Corcoran—a free-spirited Brit who moonlights as a rock guitarist and who’d been designing hotels, homes, and full communities around the city since the early 1970s. “He’s the most talented guy I’ve had,” says Corcoran. “He’s got a very nice way of detailing in the modern materials, in the metals and stuff, a clean crisp way of presenting something in its three-dimensional form . . . He can do anything.”
But as 2008 wore on, work started drying up. The financial crisis deepened. And fresh from his honeymoon, Avery was laid off that December.
For a year, Avery scrounged for work, at one point designing technology closets for a healthcare company. “I was literally drawing up freakin’ server racks in AutoCAD,” Avery recalls.
Finally, he launched his own company and named it Xmetrical—a nod to the home designs he dreamed of, ones that aren’t symmetrical or asymmetrical but something different, their balance and definition of space not so easily defined. He began designing small projects for a home-flipper and investor in intown neighborhoods like Kirkwood. It was steady income, and he gained invaluable field experience, scheduling crews, overseeing framing, wrangling building permits, calling in inspectors—but he longed to push the envelope. At last, a couple came to the builders asking for a more contemporary house. Avery eagerly drew up two schemes: one a cutting-edge modern he was proud of, the other a Craftsman-style traditional like those found all over Atlanta. “The morning before we took the schemes to the client, [the company owner] made a decision not to show the modern, which really pissed me off,” says Avery. “They didn’t know enough about the construction costs and how to build it.”
That settled it. Avery counted his resources and made a bet on himself, lingering recession be damned. He and Rashida moved into a neighbor’s guest house. Then, he bulldozed his bungalow and built his first ground-up modern, a three-story dwelling with rooftop views clear to Midtown and downtown. It became the billboard that launched his company—before it was even finished.
“Who’s building that?” people would ask while driving by.
“I am,” Avery would say, in his yard.
“Well, can you do it again?”
• • •
The real turning point came in 2014 when Avery’s personal home was featured on the MA! Architecture Tour as part of the Atlanta Design Festival—scoring him two commissions. According to MA! cofounder Elayne DeLeo, new modern projects and remodels have increased annually between 30 and 40 percent since the tour launched in 2007, reflecting at least $1 billion in value and impact to Atlanta’s economy.
Also in 2014, Corcoran, Avery’s old boss, commissioned him to help design the Encore, a $50 million upscale apartment project that peers down on Interstate 75 next to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
In the seven years since, Avery’s risen from an industry neophyte to a trendsetter in the realm of approachable modern. “He knows how to maximize the footprint of his projects so that they feel larger and lighter,” says DeLeo. “I think he speaks to the younger homebuyers who’re looking for comfort and style on an affordable scale.” As of last fall, Avery had completed more than $100 million in residential and commercial office projects in 20 neighborhoods. That includes 36 modern houses in neighborhoods from Buckhead to Edgewood. Another $40 million’s worth is under construction or on Avery’s drafting table now. One midcentury-modern renovation in Collier Heights was a finalist for an AIA Atlanta design award, and a recent Xmetrical home in Reynoldstown brought a near record-breaking price. “It’s shocking to me,” says Avery, “how fast we’re growing.”
His firm has grown to six employees, all of them people of color, including Shreya Gera, an interior designer who’s relocated from Brooklyn. Their profiles on the firm’s website are magnets for top minority candidates across the country. “We don’t get a huge pool,” Avery says. “But I do want to promote diversity in architecture, and it’s working out so far.”
David Southerland, AIA Atlanta and AIA Georgia executive director, recognizes that architecture traditionally hasn’t been as diverse in Atlanta as other professions, despite notable exceptions such as the late J.W. Robinson, Oscar Harris, William Stanley III, and Ivenue Love-Stanley. Moreover, of the National Organization of Minority Architects’ local chapter’s 120 members, only about 10 percent predominantly design single-family residences. Pinpointing exactly why is difficult. Factors include barriers into the profession itself, volatility of the home-design sector, and lack of diversity in architecture overall, says NOMAtlanta president Ralph Raymond.
Avery suspects the root cause begins with exposure—that many Black youths don’t see architects in their communities, or physical examples of their work to aspire toward. “Growing up, you don’t really know many Black architects,” Avery says. “You didn’t have that Black uncle doing architecture.”
Southerland applauds Avery’s doggedness, noting that, during the Great Recession, “we lost an entire generation of architects” who opted to start over in other industries. “For [Avery] to stay in the profession as a leader, to not [have] abandoned it during the worst recession we’ve had since the 1930s, that’s huge,” says Southerland. “The fact that he did it with the obvious racism that’s out there—kudos to him.”
• • •
Avery never found out who reported him as a burglar in his own house. Protocol prevented officers from disclosing who had called 911, but as they left his home, they pulled up to a house one street over and spoke with a man there. By the time Avery attended a community meeting at that same house a year or so later, a single woman had purchased it, and the former occupant’s name remained a mystery Avery didn’t pursue. Water under an old bridge.
On a warm autumn evening at home, a more relaxed Avery wears checkered socks and sips Bulleit Bourbon next to his new saltwater pool. Spurred by the pandemic lockdown, he’s added a fifth bedroom, a two-car garage, and palm-studded professional landscaping to his now-3,600-square-foot home. His squirrelly children—Jaiden, eight; Jace, three; and Jordyn, two—slap patio glass and play peek-a-boo around corners, excited by a rare, masked visitor. Rashida, now a Grady Health System pediatric physician, gets a kick out of driving around Atlanta and hearing her kids accurately identify their father’s work: townhouse communities, angular new homes, or mixed-use ventures taking full street corners—all projects she’d first seen as raw sketches on their kitchen table.
For Avery, the near future holds more of the urban infill he’s been conceptualizing since that cardboard metropolis in his boyhood closet. A project in Old Fourth Ward near the BeltLine, for instance, is transforming a blighted lot into three townhomes and an office. He points to the commercial core of Inman Park as urbanism done right in recent years but scoffs at parts of Midtown, for instance, that may have developed too quickly and exude all the blandness of beachfront high-rises and parking garages.
Avery also is turning his focus to the city’s historically underserved areas in an effort to bolster diversity in the field and provide more affordable housing where it’s most needed. That includes a townhome venture, with units to be sold at 80 percent of the area median income, with the Atlanta Land Trust in Oakland City and a 72-unit apartment complex, in collaboration with the Atlanta Housing Authority and Integral Group, both in planning stages. The latter project would rise near the Atlanta University Center. Avery hopes it will serve as tangible, modernistic proof for HBCU students that persistence in architecture can pay off.
This article appears in our April 2021 issue.