Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Case Study – Part 6: Modesty

The administration of the VA Roseburg Healthcare System has christened its new Community Living Center Expansion as “The Lodge.” (my photos)

This is the sixth post of a series dedicated to a case study of a single project—the VA Roseburg Healthcare System Community Living Center (CLC) Expansion— designed by Robertson/Sherwood/Architects. Click on “A Case Study” in the Labels list at right for the full series. 
Once again, far too much time has elapsed since the last entry in my Case Study series of posts about the Community Living Center Expansion project for the VA Roseburg Healthcare System. Since I wrote Part 5 in August of 2013, construction of the project has progressed in fits and starts (see the section below entitled “Reality Check”). The protracted process and its attendant frustrations have afforded me plenty of time to reflect on its design and how architecture will play a role in helping its future residents enjoy the best lives possible despite their circumstances. The bottom line is this project has reaffirmed my conviction that architects should, first and foremost, design places that embody human concerns and deeply connect with their users. 
Central to this conviction is a necessary dose of modesty. By nature, my colleagues at Robertson/Sherwood/Architects and I shy away from architectural bravado. We believe audacity has its place in architecture but we’ve yet to be involved in a project that warranted self-important posturing or bluster. In part this is because the majority of our commissions are in the public sector, where we’re expected to act as stewards of a community’s trust and novelty for its own sake is frowned upon. Mostly though, we understand who it is we are designing for. 
Our office isn’t known for a signature style. We don’t attempt to emulate the recognizable work of others, nor do we subscribe to any of the passing “isms.” Instead, we focus upon creating physical conditions that are experientially supportive for people. We bear in mind all that should be considered in design and try to do that well. We avoid bringing preconceptions to our work, preferring instead to draw out good design ideas by determining how the individuals who will encounter, live with, or work in our projects see their world. We also make a point of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of existing places so that our design responses appear appropriate, connected, and in harmony with their historical and physical contexts. 
Modesty also presumes speaking in a language most people understand. We don’t see the point of designing in a way that fails to resonate with those our buildings are intended to serve. We choose not to follow the whims of fashion. We’re more than happy to leave the reinvention of the wheel to architects who are more proficient at creating seminal work. There may be occasions suitable for aesthetic and philosophical experimentation but the design of the CLC Expansion project wasn’t one of them. 
Accordingly, our design appears familiar and ordinary. We used sloping roofs and brick in conventional ways that echo those of the neighboring, older buildings. The roofs feature generous overhangs that shelter and protect the walls and windows beneath them. We complemented, defined, and captured the spirit of the place by emphasizing connections, respecting its structure, and unifying its parts. We allowed the natural landscape to play a role in the architecture. We treated our design as a participant in and contributor to the larger order of the campus. Inside, we created living spaces we hope will provide generous support for the needs of the users. We developed opportunities for interaction in varied types of spaces. We provided options for retreat by making places that feel defensible and safe, as well as edges and “in-between” spaces from which to observe and engage without necessitating full commitment. 
At the same time, we attempted to create an architecture that speaks to universal concerns, such as the arc of life, what it means to dwell upon this earth, and our connectedness with nature. Engaging in such weighty talk may seem pretentious or, dare I say, immodest. On the other hand, it is a means to enriching and adding to the experience of living. In the words of Sir John Summerson, it helps “bring out the values which are latent everywhere in the measured enclosure of space.”(1) 
It remains to be seen, but our hope for the CLC Expansion is that its residents and staff will find it to be a suitable response to the VA’s mandate to develop a supportive, patient-centered environment. If we did our job well, the completed project will enhance and most importantly dignify the ordinary lives of veterans burdened with the cruelest of afflictions. 
Living Room
Reality Check
The process of transforming design concepts into real-life brick and mortar is fraught with perils and pitfalls. Sometimes, it simply isn’t enough to produce a complete and coordinated set of construction documents—you need luck and favorable circumstances on your side as well. Unfortunately, the vicissitudes of public contracting and bidding often conspire against realizing the full promise of good intentions. 
Right out of the gate, the CLC Expansion suffered a gut punch: all of the competing bids came in over the project’s $8 million construction budget. Consequently, before awarding the contract for construction, the VA had no choice but to exercise all three of the deductive bid alternates we devised for such an outcome. Each one of the deductive alternates materially impacted the project: 

  • Alternate No. 1Delete the Pergola: Topped with a clear polycarbonate roof, the pergola would have sheltered residents and staff from rain or snow as they moved between the separate buildings that form the courtyard. Meaningfully, it would also have provided a visible tie to the classical details of the Georgian Revival porticos found on the neighboring WPA-era buildings, and also heightened the courtyard’s allusions to an idyllic arcadia
  • Alternate No. 2Substitute French Door Pairs for the Folding Glass Walls: During periods of favorable weather, the folding glass walls would have erased the barrier between the central courtyard and the living room of each house. The pairs of French doors in their place are much less effective at bringing the outside in and the inside out.
  • Alternate No. 3Substitute Plastic Laminate for Quartz at Countertops: Nuff said.
Together, the impact of the three alternates wasn’t so acute that they irretrievably compromise our overall design concept. Nevertheless, we grieve for each of them and lament what might have been. 
The CLC Expansion viewed from the south through a veil of existing, mature plantings. The medical center's circa 1932 main hospital building is visible on the right-hand side of the photo.

Part 5 of this case study optimistically projected completion of the CLC Expansion last March. It’s now late December, so it’s been nearly two years since it first broke ground in February of 2013. There’s no good reason why a project of this size and type should take so long to build. Workmanship issues have been the biggest factor (necessitating deconstruction and reconstruction of significant building components, such as the siding, soffits, and HVAC ductwork). Inadequate crews during key periods of the construction schedule also played a part. Additionally, frequent turnover of the contractor’s key supervisory personnel throughout the project did not help. The drawn out construction phase has cost Robertson/Sherwood/Architects dearly; there was no way we could anticipate the extra work nor could the VA’s mandated fee limitation assure us adequate compensation. 
What are the things I would change if we could do it all over again? The exterior color scheme for one: the gray we used at the courtyard walls is too cool and alien to the surrounding campus. In retrospect, a warmer and brighter scheme would be preferable. Other changes? A shift to a set of more neutral interior color palettes. Additional maneuvering space in the bariatric suites.  A simpler, more direct solution to the problem of routing the patient lift rails from the bedrooms to the bathrooms. Use of newer LED lighting technology. Overall though I’m satisfied with how completely we followed through and realized our original design concept. 
*    *    *    *    *   
The VA Roseburg Healthcare System will officially celebrate acceptance of the project, which it has dubbed “The Lodge,” at a formal ribbon-cutting on February 3, 2015. I’ll compose one final post in the Case Study series sometime following the ribbon-cutting event. I hope to feature better photographs of the completed project and possibly some initial feedback from the VA staff. Ultimately, it’s their opinion that will matter the most and be the true gauge of the project’s success. 
Next in the Case Study Series: Denouement
(1)   From Summerson’s book Heavenly Mansions.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Best People

The inimitable Rosie Nice.
Any primer on running a successful business will tell you it is axiomatic that the best companies employ the best people. Assembling the right mix of talent and more importantly staff members who enjoy each other’s company is critical. This is particularly true for small companies since each employee figures so prominently in determining business success or failure. 
The overwhelming majority of architectural practices are small companies. With a current staff of fourteen, the firm I work for (Robertson/Sherwood/Architects) is no exception. To say we’re like a family is not hyperbole. Many of us have worked together for decades. We’ve shared our professional triumphs and failures, and our personal ones too. I attribute the good fortune we’ve enjoyed for so many years to our genuine affection for and ease with one another. It’s because of the people I work with that walking through our office door each day is as comfortable as slipping on an old shoe. 
Because we employ the right people, Robertson/Sherwood/Architects has a distinct personality. Definitely first among equals in this regard is our soon-to-be retired, longtime office manager Rosie Nice. More than anyone else (aside from principals Jim Robertson and Carl Sherwood), Rosie has been synonymous with Robertson/Sherwood/Architects. By force of her character—and she is nothing if not a character—Rosie has shaped our office culture in immeasurably positive ways. 
Rosie came with the office when Jim and Carl purchased it from founders Don Lutes and Ron Sanetel in 1986. In fact, with the exception of a brief time away in the mid-seventies, Rosie has been the firm’s office manager, receptionist, bookkeeper, gadfly, chief cook and bottle washer for nearly forty years. During her time with us, she has provided our clients and visitors with their always memorable first impression of our office. She’s kept the ancillary aspects of our operation running smoothly so that we’ve been able to focus on service to our clients and creating the best architecture we can. 
Jim and Carl recently hosted a big party to thank Rosie for her inestimable contributions and celebrate her pending retirement. Well over a hundred of the professional colleagues, friends, and acquaintances she’s come to know during her long career were on hand. Everyone had a great time reminiscing with Rosie. Carl shared a tribute the members of our office composed for the occasion. It largely took the form of an affectionate and sometimes irreverent list of adjectives and nouns to help describe what Rosie has meant to us: 
For our uniquely. . . 
. . . beautiful, awesome, fabulous, fun, colorful, spirited, cheerful, witty, hilarious, friendly, memorable, authentic, raucous, one-in-a-million, genuine, obnoxious, outgoing, direct, indomitable, pushy, boisterous, stubborn, strong, spunky, scheming, considerate, thorny, cattle-prod-wielding, irreplaceable, technology resistant, warm, dedicated, loyal, persistent, brassy, loud, nutty, bodacious, caring, dependable, unfiltered, opinionated, full-of-life, huggable, kind and loving . . . 
. . . friend, partner, MVP, coworker, confidant, big sister, mom, rascal, shoulder-to-cry-on, listener, gad-about-town, hootenanny, kick-in-the-pants, bull-in-a-China-shop, handful, artist, treasure, character, heart-of-our-clan, piece-of-work . . . 
. . . and brightest will be missed! 
We love you, 
Carl, Jim…and the Gang! 
Jim Robertson (left) and Carl Sherwood (right) fete Rosie at her retirement party.
Rosie officially retires on December 31 but she’ll continue to help us out on an as-needed basis (Rosie’s relishing the opportunity to bill her services to us at a yet-to-be-determined exorbitant rate per hour). She’s been grooming her successor, Sherry White, since this past October, so we expect the transition to be smooth. Sherry brings a similar energy and enthusiasm to her work as Rosie always has, and is a great fit for our office. 
Personality traits—such as whether an employee has integrity, resiliency, self-confidence, and a strong work ethic—matter as much to employers, if not more, as one’s educational background or initial skill set. I’m pretty sure Robertson/Sherwood/Architects is not alone in this regard. Every firm has its own unique office culture. I’m so glad Rosie played an outsized role in shaping ours for so many years. 
All of us at Robertson/Sherwood/Architects wish Rosie and her husband, Tom, the best as she opens a new chapter in her life. We love her and will miss the undeniable energy she brought to the office each day. There’s no doubt about it: Rosie is one of the best people you could ever have the privilege to know!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Responding to Place

I’ve been a little slow on the blogging front lately as work and the holiday season’s social commitments have taken priority. Nevertheless, I do like to maintain a pace of at least one new post a week, so being able to draw upon the rich trove of Bill Kleinsasser’s writing is always a godsend. 
The following excerpts from Bill’s 1983 iteration of SYNTHESIS succinctly capture his thoughts on the importance of responding to place—achieving connection, particularity, orientation, physical continuity, and appropriateness vis-à-vis setting. 
In today’s hyper-connected world, people are increasingly failing to appreciate the characteristics that make a place special or unique. More and more, we’re losing our sense of authentic attachment and belonging to places of meaning and significance to us. Consequently, Bill’s words ring even truer today than when he wrote them more than thirty years ago. Read for yourself: 
When a building or place is made in response to the particular setting in which it is located, it established a silent, lasting definition of that setting. In its embodiment of the tangible and intangible qualities of place, it explains the place. 
A place that has been organized and shaped in response to its particular physical context establishes an opportunity to become more aware on that context. Responding to place entails analyzing the setting thoroughly in regard to the following characteristics and conditions: 
Solving Place Problems
  • Responding to weather and climate (the heat, the cold, the humidity, the dryness, the precipitation, the wind, etc.).
  • Responding to the physical character of the land (the topography, the vegetation, the drainage, the subsurface conditions, the ecological patterns).
  • Reducing scale (creating security and shelter), if appropriate.
  • Establishing appropriate separation and control.
  • Making necessary transitions.
  • Respecting the rights of others.

Developing Place Opportunities
  • Organizing spaces to let in sunlight.
  • Organizing and developing spaces to dramatize sunlight.
  • Utilizing solar and other natural energies.
  • Establishing connections to local features and phenomena.
  • Using the whole site (treating the building as one element in the making of a larger room) and going beyond the site to an even larger room by:
    • Reinforcing a larger order by continuing or completing an existing pattern or structure;
    • Reinforcing a larger order by augmenting the collective life space—that is, improving or adding to the spaces, paths, services, institutions or other facilities needed by those who will occupy the space, including those nearby;     
    • Embodying and expressing the essential spirit of the place, reflecting in the way the new construct is made the unique and distinguishing qualities of the place; and finally:
    • Diagramming important place-response ideas so that they may be fully understood and not forgotten as other objectives are considered.

Through its embodiment and expression of its setting, any built-place has the capacity to establish connections. By being of its setting through its designer’s response, a built-place can both define and dramatize that setting, including the processes occurring there, people and their values, and even moments in time. And we need to sense the connections between ourselves and all things—how we belong to each other and to the world—for, as we do so, we expand not only our experience but also our conception of reality and life. We enlarge our image banks and frames of reference. We grow in our ability to make a better world.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Understanding Geotechnical Reports

The Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute always endeavors to provide excellent continuing education opportunities to everyone in the local design and construction industry. The WVC/CSI Education Committee’s latest offering, Understanding Geotechnical Reports, promises to be no exception. 
Literally underlying every construction project, the importance of proper foundation design cannot be overstated. Three experts on the subject will touch upon a wide range of considerations, including water table & weather issues, foundation preparation, the deleterious impact of inaccurate soils data, expansive soils, and the responsibilities of design professionals (architects and structural engineers) when dealing with geotechnical challenges. 
I know each of the seminar’s panelists well and fully expect them to deliver a comprehensive overview of the topic in three brief, information-packed hours. 
The panelists are: 
Jim Maitland, Ph.D., P.E., G.E.
Principal and Founder of Foundation Engineering Inc.
35 years experience as a geotechnical engineer 
Matt Gralund, M.S., P.E., S.E.
Principal and Owner of Gralund Engineering, Inc.
25 years experience as a structural engineer

Curt Offenbacher, B.S.
OSU degrees in Civil Engineering Technology & Business Administration
40+ years experience as site superintendent, estimator, and civil construction department manager. 
This is the first time in recent memory that the chapter has offered a seminar on this important topic. Register now in advance of the event. Refer to the event details below; RSVP soon as space is limited. 
Registration: Contact Steve Gunn of Construction Focus, Inc., WVC/CSI Education Committee Chair, to let him know you plan to attend the seminar. Call him at 541-686-2031 or email him at 
What:   Educational Seminar: Understanding Geotechnical Reports
When:  Thursday, December 11, 2014
Registration: 8:00 AM - 8:30 AM
Program: 5:00 PM
Pastries/Tea/Coffee will be provided.
Where: Baker Downtown Center, 975 High Street, Eugene, OR
Parking available in the east lot.
Credits: 3AIA/CES HSW Learning Units 
Cost: $90 (CSI members $10 off); make checks payable to WVC/CSI