One of the peculiarities of architects is their love of design method—and their love, equally great, of talking about it. This is understandable.

Architects live and breathe design method, whereas the rest of us, happily walking through the Studio City Car Wash or the Taj Mahal (to name only two examples of the builder’s art) are blissfully innocent of the alternating blasts of inspiration and drudgery that architects go through to bring their brainchildren into built form. The problem is, almost nobody really gives a toss about design method, particularly when architects will hold up a scrawl on a napkin, and say, “This is my first conception of what would eventually become the Sierra Flats Cooking School and Cultural Center!” If the architect is a star, like Frank Gehry, he or she may actually exhibit or publish the drawing, as proudly as the first-time mother who shows everyone the photograph of her ultrasound. (“And there you can tell it’s a boy!”)

Sometimes, however, design method is genuinely interesting, such as the five-year process to design and approve the Viewpoint School, a private academy for 1,200 students in the City of Calabasas. In the case of this school, located on a protected scenic corridor in an area of wooded hills and steep ravines, architect Jeff Kalban seems to have been looking for difficulty. “I designed it in reverse,” he said proudly.

To understand what Kalban means by reverse, we need to review the typical process. An owner finds a piece of land and hires an architect, who prepares a design. That design is then vetted by environmental consultants, and then further vetted by city planning and building department staffs, and then further vetted by a design review committee, and perhaps vetted again by the fire department. At that point, the city council approves the project, and the owner builds what is left of it.

In the case of the Viewpoint School, however, the architect and his school-client, on their own volition, spent nearly four years analyzing the site itself before committing themselves to a design. They consulted with an arborist and made a map of every tree on the site, including protected heritage oaks. They consulted with a biologist and made a different map, this time of wetlands, underground streams and “blue-water” streams. In the end, the architect compiled a forbiddingly stringent “constraints map” of all the sensitive places in the landscape to avoid. That constraints map largely dictated the location of buildings, and in some cases, their very shape.

In a sense, allowing the constraints map to determine the positioning and even the contour of some buildings was a reverse in typical architectural thinking: Architects often view their buildings as the “positive” elements in the visual field, while the open space surrounding the building might be considered the “negative” space. In Kalban’s backwards design method, however, the landscape has been treated as the positive, and the buildings are treated as the leftovers. Kalban said he was stimulated by the process, if not always tickled by the successive discovery of new conditions to avoid. “Every time you turn around,” he says, “you get punched in the face again.”

Even without considering environmental constraints, the topography of the site would have been a challenge. The Viewpoint site could be described as a long, green ribbon stretched along Old Topanga Road. Moving from the west to the east (from left to right on our graphics) the site drops 80 feet in elevation. Moving sideways across the skinny side of the ribbon, we encounter a ravine that drops 40 feet from the road. Not surprisingly, drainage is another element in the constraint map because the ravine is part of the regional flood-control system.

The program was not simple: The architect had to create a number of buildings to be constructed in three phases over 12 years. Furthermore, he had to insert a perimeter road inside the boundaries of the property to provide access for emergency vehicles.

“In some cases, we had to make decisions based on a couple of inches,” said Kalban.

Given the constraints, the designs of the buildings, the first phase of which started construction on June 7, turned out handsomely. Particularly notable is the design of an arts building and auditorium, which minimizes excavation by closely following the profile of an existing hillside. Kalban himself is pleased with the design, even though he knows that several building facades, however carefully designed, will be virtually undetectable through the foliage.

There are rewards for doing things the hard way. In this case, the painstaking attention to environmental issues helped move the project with relative ease through the approval process on the federal, state and local levels, as well as through the environmental review process. One person who was impressed by the reverse design method was Joyce Parker Bozylinski, a contract planner for the city who served as project manager.

“They [the owner and the architect] did much of the environmental mitigation work on their own, before the planners got involved,” she said. By the time that officials examined the design, she added, “there wasn’t much to do.”

This exercise in restraint and environmental awareness is a tonic one at a time when people in Southern California are bracing for a one-third increase in population during the next quarter-century. Even in highly protected suburbs like Calabasas, the temptation to build on every subdivided piece of ground will be almost irresistible. We must make some disciplined decisions about where to build, and where not to build, and not let the pressures of the moment overwhelm us.

The story of Viewpoint School is significant because it shows that construction can co-exist with a multi-dimensional environmental program. Despite the constraints, the buildings came out well, in part because Kalban is a resourceful designer, and in part because the buildings reflect so much information about the surrounding landscape.

And we get all of this without having to look at scribbles on a napkin!