Monday, April 28, 2014

April AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

The April AIA-SWO chapter meeting was the second in what may become an annually recurring series of presentations dubbed “Blurred (Di)Visions” dedicated to the power of cross-disciplinary collaboration in the conception and execution of design projects. The point of the series is to turn a spotlight on creative partnerships involving architects and other disciplines that are blurring the lines that once so neatly defined the boundaries of our profession. Last year, the program focused upon the integration of building and landscape design efforts. This time around the AIA-SWO Program Committee cast a wider net, choosing to highlight the benefits of all types of collaboration for building projects.

Designed and constructed by Travis Sheridan and Aaron Buckman of Willard C. Dixon, Architect LLC, the new wood-fired oven for New Day Bakery awaits the installation of its oven-front doors (photo courtesy of Will Dixon, AIA)  

Travis Sheridan, Assoc. AIA and Aaron Buckman, Assoc. AIA
Travis Sheridan and Aaron Buckman described the genesis, process, and realization of a custom-designed, wood-fired bread & pizza oven for the New Day Bakery, located in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood. As architectural projects go, Travis and Aaron would be the first to admit their oven assignment was a small one; regardless, it was a big deal for the bakery and an amazing opportunity for the two of them to truly assume the role of creative “master builders.”

The project initially involved converting an existing garage adjacent to the bakery to a production area, as well as improving an adjoining courtyard. It turned out New Day could not afford the shelter/pergola proposed by Travis and Aaron for the courtyard, so the project scope focused increasingly on creating the perfect oven.

The problem was the bakery’s owner didn’t exactly know what kind of oven he wanted. Travis and Aaron would not only carefully research and study the science of wood-fired ovens; they would also design and assemble the New Day Bakery’s oven with their own hands. What the owner asked them to accomplish (design a dual-function wood-fired oven capable of baking both great bread and scrumptious pizzas) was tantamount to designing a practical flying car: baking bread requires low heat and high humidity, whereas baking the perfect pizza requires much higher temperatures and low humidity. The challenge was clear: Design an oven that does both well.

Ultimately, its design would employ “rocket oven” technology, which involves a burning chamber separated by a chimney from the oven itself. The chimney burns most of the wood gases, greatly reducing smoke and increasing the heat available for baking. Building the oven using masonry and concrete provided thermal mass that retains the heat and improves its efficiency. Aaron carefully engineered and fine-tuned the oven’s configuration, utilizing a combination of CMU, aerated autoclaved concrete, and fire brick. It was a one-of-a-kind design, so unique that no masonry contractors were willing to bid for the right to build it.

So, Travis and Aaron laid down their figurative pencils and became masons (Aaron's background does include experience as a crew foreman for a masonry contractor in Idaho). By getting their hands dirty, they learned even more about the oven than they could have as designers alone. The entire project harkens back to a time when designing and making were inseparable. It also serves as a harbinger for a way of building that will increasingly be popular and necessary—one that integrates rather than isolates the processes that shape our built environment.

Complete Vision Center, by Honn Design & Construction (photo from Complete Vision Center's Facebook page

Stan Honn, AIA
Honn Design & Construction
Nothing exemplifies the blurring of the lines for the architectural profession more so than the design-build method of project delivery. Design-build is an integrated approach that delivers design and construction services under one contract with a single point of responsibility. Owners select design-build to achieve best value while meeting schedule, cost, and quality goals.
The architectural profession has been relatively slow (particularly in the U.S.) to embrace the methodology because of an outdated ethical canon that advocates separating design professionals from the construction trades.(1) One consequence of this historic opposition is there are relatively few design-build entities led by architects; most are headed by general contractors.

Stan Honn is among that minority of architects who is operating his own design-build company. Stan is the first to admit that design-build is suitable for some projects but not all. Regardless, it is the continuity of his relationships with his clients, their shared goals, and the realization of projects that make design-build right for him. Design-build has been his methodology of choice since founding Honn Design & Construction in 1981.

One of the latest of Stan’s completed projects is the adaptive reuse of an old commercial duplex near Springfield’s historic Washburne neighborhood as the new home for Complete Vision Center. It’s a perfect example of the benefits of design-build applied to a smaller project. Stan’s conversion of a characterless, one-story, small box to create the bright and cheerful optometry office is a testament to his skills as both an architect and a contractor. He attributes the success of the project to the control and freedom the design-build process afforded him.

A case in point: Stan would frequently find himself onsite all day during the construction period. As both the designer and the builder, he could immediately address the inevitability of unforeseen conditions (inherent in any remodeling project), tweaking and adjusting his design to fit the particulars of the job conditions. In some instances, there were pleasant surprises, such as when Stan discovered he could reposition some walls he initially believed were locked into place by existing plumbing. Moving these walls created more equally sized examination rooms, which are optimal for an optometric practice. Stan effected design changes on the spot, knowing they were beneficial to the finished product and fully cognizant of whatever impact they might have upon the owner’s budget.

Because Stan wears two hats and is so thoroughly engaged throughout all phases of a project means his ability to take on more than one commission at a time is limited. That’s fine with him; his satisfaction comes with providing turnkey services that translate his clients’ visions from concept all the way to reality. The buck stops with Stan, just the way he likes it.

"Rain Funnel" by Mayer/Reed & PIVOT Architecture

Michael Reed
Michael Reed is a founding partner of Mayer/Reed, a multi-disciplinary Portland-based design studio providing urban design, landscape architecture, product design, and graphic design services. His function as a collaborator breaking down the barriers between design disciplines was perhaps the most conventional of the meeting’s presenters. Nevertheless, Michael’s work and his philosophy of integrating the efforts of various design disciplines neatly fit the theme of “Blurred (Di)Visions.”

In Michael’s opinion, humility is the most characteristic trait of successful collaborators. That being said, a lack of ego doesn’t minimize the importance of strong ideas. Well-conceived, resilient concepts remain as important as ever; however, they are increasingly the product of teamwork. More and more, clients are recognizing this and demanding that room is available around the table for many different voices. They understand there is always more than one way to realize the most successful projects. The common thread is working with those who embrace collaboration.

Mayer/Reed has been an exemplary collaborator on dozens of noteworthy, award-winning projects. Michael shared just a few of these with us; they included: 

AIA-SWO member firm PIVOT Architecture enjoyed the opportunity to join forces with Mayer/Reed on the design of the “Rain Funnel” at Lane Transit District’s Springfield Station. PIVOT principal Toby Barwood, AIA joined Michael in describing this particular project to the audience. The two explained how the design process for the site landmark was a journey in understanding how the Springfield community views itself and the values it attributes to its collective sense of place. Mayer/Reed and PIVOT’s eventual solution evolved from clock tower to sign monument to abstract artistic expression. The resultant 30-foot tall stainless steel and cast glass piece references the artifacts of place, in this case the water towers associated with the lumber mills that once surrounded the site. 

“Rain Funnel” would be the product of many hands, among them glass artist Linda Ethier and the metal fabricators. Michael and Toby surprised the latter when they visited the fabrication shop to inspect the stainless steel components. The workers didn’t realize the modules they were assembling would become piece of art. They simply believed they were intended for a utilitarian function and yet the level of care and precision they demonstrated in their work was outstanding.

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Projects are increasingly complex, not less so, and timelines are progressively shorter. Embracing collaboration—and blurring the historic divisions between disciplines—is critical to ameliorating these trends. The advent of integrated project delivery (IPD) and building information modeling (BIM), even for smaller projects, underscores this point. If there’s a takeaway from the April AIA-SWO meeting it is that the ability to collaborate effectively is now a prerequisite to the success of every architectural practice.

If there are future editions of “Blurred (Di)Visions,” I’m certain they’ll prove as insightful as the two already under our belt. We all benefit from sharing lessons learned with each other, particularly when it comes to the subjects of our changing profession and working toward common goals.  

(1) The belief was that it was the architect’s role to protect the interests of the client. If the architect held a fiduciary interest in the construction contract, there was a fear the owner would or could no longer trust the architect. The reality is the architect’s first duty is to protect the health and welfare of the public. This is true regardless of whether the architect is acting as the project’s designer or contractor

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