the Flyover

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday break I took a roadtrip from Colorado to my native Kentucky.  This is the vast Flyover land of the center of the United States.  It is roughly the former vast inland sea from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachian Mountains.  It is certainly the least densely populated one third to one half of the the US, and largely dominated by fields and pasture, sheds and barns, farmhouses and shacks of agricultural America.

This immense area - eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, western Kentucky - is not the stuff of dramatic landscapes.  That is not to say that it is not beautiful, but it is a softer, more subtle set of relationships between land and sky that makes this area's initial uniformity peel away to reveal an intensely beautiful sense of place.  And in that flat, or gently rolling landscape, a building sticking up from the earth holds a kind of power that qualifies the space around it.  A sense of space aggregates around a building.  Here in the Rocky Mountains and in so many places along the eastern seaboard, there seems to be a natural space that buildings have been placed within.  But in these midwestern plains, a building makes a space, a small domesticated sphere that comes into being only by the nature of the building.

Frank Lloyd Wright knew this.  He clearly understood how a building sits on this flat earth and how a large, sheltering roof can make a space more profound than a series of walls.  On my recent trip I did not visit any of his iconic prairie-style houses, but rather the Price Tower in Oklahoma.  More about that in an upcoming post.

Driving for many hours is a great way to reflect on things, and for me this naturally falls to things architectural.  Over the next few weeks I will post some more photos and thoughts that bubbled up during this long drive.  Send me your thoughts.

First Christian Church, Boulder, Colorado

As almost anyone can attest to, one of the very first buildings that most people see on arriving in Boulder is the First Christian Church on CO 36/28th Street, in southeast Boulder.

Built in 1960 and designed by Nixon and Jones, it is an excellent introduction to Boulder's great collection of late Modernist architecture.

The main sanctuary is the west-projecting prow that mimics the angled flatirons on the horizon and is clad in long strips of blue glass with a decorative, multi-colored geometric motif.  The dropping site grade accentuates the projecting prow and the long, white horizontal balcony acts like a visual cantilevered beam simultaneously anchoring the building to the ground and allowing for it to soar upward.

Alongside the form of the sanctuary space is a stark brick "campanile", lozenge-shaped, standing just to the east of the main entry.  While I don't think this tower houses any bells, it does act as that typical vertical element of the traditional campanile, distinguishing the entry and providing a vertical counter to the horizontal impetus of the front of the building.

The east side of the building is a series of low, single-story structures, an office and school.  But the heart of the building clearly lies in the west sloping face.

The sanctuary portion of the building has been empty for quite a few years and is suffering from some much needed delayed maintenance.  The soffits are showing some damage and the brick, with its raked horizontal joints and flush vertical joints, so typical of Wright-inspired mid-century architecture, is in need of proper tuck-pointing.

There are development plans afoot for much of the site, including some demolition, but retaining the sanctuary and campanile.  As First Christian sits along the most-traveled entry into Boulder, thousands of folks travel past it everyday without much of a thought.  Certainly the sites around this church have sprouted many buildings of ever-increasing size and articulation, diminishing the impact of the work.  Nevertheless, it would be difficult to imagine Boulder without this iconic, welcoming edifice.

new construction in Dakota Ridge, north Boulder

We are just getting ready to start construction on a new house in the Dakota Ridge Village neighborhood of north Boulder.  The project is a design/build collaboration with Cottonwood Custom Builders with whom we have executed a number of past projects.

The house consists of an extensive main level which houses all the primary functions of the house as well as the master bedroom for a barrier-free design.  This necessary horizontal datum of the floor is offset by a series of interrelated vertical spaces linking the main level to the other floors of the house.  These vertical spaces generated a tall, narrow proportion that is reflected on the exterior of the building, creating dormers and projections that articulate the building while still adhering to the homeowners association's guidelines.

The property is an unusual corner situation with the corner spanning approximately 135 degrees instead of the usual right angle relationship.  This flaring of the site luckily corresponds with the view opening up from the rear of the property's densely populated alley condition to the west edge facing the rolling undulations of the Boulder foothills.  This span across the site from alley to street also has a fairly consistent slope, rising 10 feet from back to front.

Pending the receipt of our building permit, we are finalizing budgets and finishes and are looking forward to executing another project with the folks over at Cottonwood Custom Builders.  Designing buildings is fun and inspirational, but pales in comparison to the real event - making a building.

Author and illustrator's studio addition

We finally have some initial photos of the author and illustrator's studio we completed earlier this year.

The project consisted of the demolition of an older studio building - small and poorly constructed - and the creation of a new studio with an elevated reading loft.

One of our goals of the project was to open the studio to the rear yard, infusing the space with light and landscape.  The flood of reflected green light from the lush vegetation spills into the studio and manifests the nature-inspired children's books that are created within.

The reading loft is a bit of a refuge, a passive space connected to, but somewhat separate from, the more active space of the studio.  The cork flooring of the loft and spiral stair treads lends a delicate, warm atmosphere to the loft contrasting the radiant heated concrete floor of the studio.

One of the challenges of the project was to make a largely blank wall against the street and express the studio as  distinct from the existing 1890's house.  The old house's porch was greatly compromised by the old studio and the new design pulls the studio away from the house, letting both the new and old construction establish a dialogue of equals.

The new studio has three large, high clerestory windows which act like dormers, articulating the mass of the studio and echoing the form of the mansard roof of the old house.  The new exterior siding delineates the new from the old, but subtly recognizes the dimension of the mansard shingles with the syncopated rhythm of the new siding.

The new connection to the old house was a peeling open of the existing plaster to reveal the massive stone exterior wall on the interior, re-emphasizing the transition between old and new, literally framing the new with the existing.

This studio is phase one of a multi-phase project that will include a new interior hall and kitchen/dining extension from the old house into the rear yard.  The completion of the second phase will result in a more compact and intimately scaled courtyard space between the studio and the house, realizing a more complex relationship of live-work that is the day-to-day life of this creative couple.

This project entails a lot of the complexity of issues that we are increasingly attracted to in our work - preservation and new construction, live/work environments, interior/exterior relationships.

Designed by M. Gerwing Architects

Mark Gerwing, Project Architect

General Contractor:  Cottonwood Custom Builders

Structural Engineering:  Gebau, Inc.


"Do I look fat in this house?" Hyper-Attenuated Building Syndrome

One of the sure-fire ways of designing a cool looking building in graduate school was to be infected with the Hyper-Attenuated Building Syndrome (HABS).  Any project can be made absurdly long and skinny and by violating any notion of “pleasant” golden-section-type proportions, it instantly propels a project from everyday to extraordinary.  Mind you, this was simply grad school students messing around.  However, the Hyper-Attenuated Building Syndrome is no laughing matter:

Japanese architects are particularly susceptible to HABS but it was not uncommon in nineteenth century Europe:

The most marked sympton is a building  exceeding a 10:1 length or height to width ratio.

In increasingly dense cities, every little sliver of available space is ripe for potential building.  These skinny buildings have room proportions that are a far cry from the typical American suburban house (14' wide rooms with 8' tall ceilings) or even Palladian villas (room ceiling heights equal room widths).  Rather, the HABS spaces are taller than wide - maybe more appropriate for a standing population, on the go.  Maybe not so good for an overweight generation.

I am currently working on a project with an available building envelope of 20' wide by 127' long on the main level and an incredible 9' wide by 127' long on the upper level.  These long, skinny spaces inevitably conjure up vaguely militaristic architectural terms like the shotgun house or enfilade. Or maybe a bowling alley or a house for an archer.

navigating bureaucratic waters

In case you had any doubt about the role of the architect and how that has changed over time, below is a partial list of the items turned in for a building permit for a recent project: the drawings

Plumbing Fixture Count Form

Greenpoints Application

HERS report (Home Energy Rating System)

ACCA Manual J & D (for proper HVAC duct sizing)

Solar Shadow Analysis

Bulk Plane compliance information

Floor Area & Building Coverage Worksheet

Lot Area Declaration Form

Landscape Plan

Demolition Plans

Soils Report

Engineered Trusses manufacturer's drawings and information

Stormwater & Flood Management Plant Investment Fee Calculation Form

IECC Code Compliance

Growth Management Allocation/Compliance with inclusionary zoning

Development Excise Tax Form

Impact Fee Form

Existing PUD Approvals (Planned Unit Development or platted suburb)

Floodplain/Wetland Development Permit

Steep Slope/Geological Constraint Information

and finally the Building Permit Application

(this amounted to 58 pages not including the drawings)

Needless to say, the drawings represent the design of the project and, with some additional information, will be used to create a Construction Set that will guide the making of the building.  Everything else is the result of good intentions exercised as bureaucracy.  I'm not necessarily opposed to completing all these forms and checklists, but love of this kind of administration is not why I went to architecture school.

All of these submittals certainly do constrain the worst projects from getting built, but not the ugliest or most insensitive.  Unfortunately the worse actors in the residential building game, the bottom-line house speculators, have so dumbed down the making of buildings that the planning and building departments feel they need to babysit every project and try to ferret out the misrepresentations and outright lies embedded in a set of crappy drawings.  It never occurs to code officials that the work that I and many other architects do, is of a higher quality than they can imagine.  Unfortunately, getting there includes more hoop-jumping every year and makes a disincentive for truly imaginative and unconventional work.

In some places, like Chicago, registered, licensed architects, upon passing additional tests and with extensive experience, call self-certify that a single family house meets all codes and will be a safe and efficient dwelling at the very least.  The code officials don't have to act as policing agents for these professionals and it is reassuring that the state that grants us a license to practice actually recognizes that this license actually means something.  That program is not in place here in Colorado and all of our projects and work, and by extension our experience and very selves,  will have to continue to be scrutinized and examined like disobedient schoolboys.

(sorry for the rant. I usually try not to infect the website and blog with these thoughts, but this is really getting a bit out of hand.)