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.

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