Architect James Timberlake says helping rehouse the victims of Hurricane Katrina is one of his greatest achievements.

He may not be as famous as the pop star and actor with whom he shares a surname, but James Timberlake, founding partner of American architectural practice Kieran Timberlake, has claimed his fair share of the limelight. The firm has received more than 100 citations since it began in 1984 and current projects include the new United States Embassy in London, several university buildings, and the Delaware River Master Plan in his hometown of Philadelphia. Timberlake heads to our shores next week to be a judge in Home New Zealand magazine's Home of the Year award. Viva caught up with him before he hopped on the plane ...

Did you always want to be an architect? Was it a calling?
I grew up in the Midwest where my father was an Episcopalian minister. He was known for building up parishes into robust congregations. He was so successful that there was often the need for new facilities. In both Ohio and Michigan, new buildings were commissioned. Dad would invite the architects to dinner and, even as a 7-year-old, I would sit and listen to the conversations. They were kind enough to engage me in small talk. I can remember asking 'What is a lintel?'

I spent hours on construction sites - I'd ride my bike there and sit and watch the trucks and other equipment. I found it fascinating. I also loved to draw, so architecture is my perfect profession because it is where art and science come together. I took drawing classes with a friend when I was in high school. We both raced through the workbooks and had finished the set projects three weeks into the semester. The instructor allowed us to spend the rest of the time designing houses. My friend became an engineer and I became an architect. I graduated with a Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania where I had some very inspiring tutors such as Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi.

Have you ever been to New Zealand?
No, but I have always wanted to. I devour stories about it in the New York Times' travel section. I know you have a wonderful core of historical buildings in some of your cities and that your contemporary houses are of a design that is intrinsically linked to the powerful landscape.

Please describe your own home.
I live with my wife, who is also a designer, our 13-year-old son, nine-year-old-daughter and four cats in a condominium in the centre of Philadelphia. It was designed by IM Pei. It's called Society Hill Towers and we have half a floor on the 31st level. This was one of IM Pei's earliest projects and a bit of an experiment in that it was part of a plan to re-gentrify or revitalise this area of Philadelphia. I remember our family came here on summer vacation when I was 12. We had dinner at Bookbinders restaurant across the street from Society Hill when the land was just a pile of dirt. Forty years later, I live here.

What is your favourite building in your home town of Philadelphia?
I have three, actually. The first, William Strickland's Merchant's Exchange Building, c. 1832-34, in Center City, is beautifully modern for a building of that era. The wall/window details are quite flush for a stone-bearing wall building with window punctuations. The second, the Esherick House, in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, was designed by Louis Kahn, c. 1961. The house is literally a piece of cabinetry. Lastly, I.M. Pei's Society Hill Towers, c. 1964, are glassy and iconic, not to mention a great place to live.

Which architects (present or past) do you admire?
There are probably too many to name. Generationally, [Leon Battista] Alberti - the first modernist. Also Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, each of whom defined the use of programme differently and executed beautifully crafted, simple structures of all different scales. Norman Foster, who taught me briefly at the University of Pennsylvania, has developed an extraordinary firm that makes incredible buildings of all types all over the world, sustainably.

You cite sustainability as one of your core values. How so?
It's so much a part of our nature that we don't think of it as a separate entity anymore. It's something we've had in ourselves since the inception of the firm. We always specify local materials, paints and finishes with low volatility, build houses and structures that have an intrinsic connection to the site and orient the building properly. Plus we like to ask: "What can you do without?" It's not always necessary, for instance, to have air conditioning. Our first point of call is always to see how we can design or organise things differently.

Kieran Timberlake was one of 13 architectural firms commissioned by Brad Pitt's Make it Right Foundation to design affordable homes for New Orleans after the devastating floods that followed Hurricane Katrina. Tell us about this.
It is profoundly sad when you visit a place after a natural disaster. You know that homes, lives, communities, neighbourhoods and whole daily patterns of life have been irrevocably changed. The houses themselves are a chilling marker of this. They are either displaced or still there but terribly damaged shells. It's ghostly as they were once the shelter for someone's life. We were invited to design a prototype home and we didn't think twice; donating our design services was the least we could do. We had no idea where the project might head or if the houses would be built at that stage. The Lower Ninth Ward was the area most affected by the flooding. Brad Pitt was intensively involved in the initial phase, talking with former inhabitants of the area who had been displaced to places like Atlanta and Chicago. In an attempt to rebuild what was once a very strong community, they were asked the question "Do you want to move back?" And 35-50 families agreed to do so. These people were given a federal contribution of US$75,000 to offset the cost of their houses. We designed houses somewhat under the US$100,000 mark and the rest they would pay off with low to no-interest loans. Right now, 14 families live in Make It Right homes.

We have just experienced our own natural disaster in the Christchurch earthquake. What are your thoughts and/or advice about reshaping the built environment after such a catastrophe?
It is somewhat presumptuous of me to offer anything since I only know Christchurch from pictures and descriptions. Perhaps the way to look at any disaster, after the loss and sadness, is to treat it as an opportunity. It begins with questions, or queries. How might building in a region where earthquakes are possible make the physical characteristics of the city different? How might we build and live differently so that the results ensure safety, healthy lives, and sustainable environments? What opportunities might result from building less densely in this specific place - the result of which may be more open space, integrated landscapes, and an architecture that offers refuge from a shake?

There will be a call to rebuild quickly and that call probably already exists. However, good planning, both physical and strategic, cannot be replaced by rapid redevelopment and repair. Rebuilding the city should be done with careful consideration and care. What Christchurch looks like in 25 years, and 100 years from now should be the legacy of this generation and should be viewed as a success rather than lamented. To achieve that requires careful attention to detail, patience and skill, all of which I am sure exists in Christchurch and New Zealand at-large.

In times of global economic crisis, does architecture have a real role to play? How do you keep it relevant?
Architecture, like fashion, has been treated by the media with celebrity status. In the US, in general, it's about glamour and glitz. To be truly relevant to everyday people, architecture has to serve their purpose. It shouldn't be architecture that gets in their way. Instead, it should enable them a better way of living, encourage community and a better social condition.

The Make It Right house we designed is a good example.

We estimated it would cost US$1600 per year to run the utilities. In fact, the house cost US$600. That is for two bedrooms and 110sq m. The meaningful thing to the owner was that it didn't cost her much. That is the true value of architecture. There are two sides to Kieran Timberlake - we do architecture with a big "A", projects such as the US Embassy that get public exposure. But it is architecture with a small "A", such as the MIR house, that is really the most important thing any of us can do in our lives.

* James Timberlake will talk about his work on Monday May 2 at 6pm at the DWC Auditorium at Auckland Girls' Grammar School. Book online or phone 0800 842 538.