Studio Collective Issue XV - Matt

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Interviewer: Emma V and Isabelle Chagnon Editor: Isabelle Chagnon Photos: Scooter Graphics:Matt Lee

Here, Clay Dills, a Virginia Tech alumni practicing architecture out of Virginia Beach, argues that the word “sustainability” needs to undertake a new meaning—quickly. We learn why this as we examine two Virginia-based projects: The Garden of Tomorrow at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens and College Park Elementary School.

THERE IS A COMMON MISCONCEPTION THAT SUSTAINABILITY IN DESIGN HAS TO BE SACRIFICED DUE TO FINANCIAL CONSTRAINTS. DOES YOUR FIRM DEBUNK THIS STIGMA? We try to. We are well beyond the days of saying, “It costs more to buy recycled carpets.” There are tons of simple decisions you can make to save energy when you design a building. There are also many architectural decisions, for example, thinking about how you decide to site, orient, or provide shade for a building, that can make your design better and less expensive. Usually, your client doesn’t come to you and say, “I need my building to be a hundred thousand square feet.” So, if you can consolidate, or design the building in eighty thousand square feet, that’s probably the most sustainable thing you can do as the architect. Having less of everything targets the source of the problem.

YOU ONCE WROTE, “ARCHITECTURE BECOMES THE PRIMARY WAY WE MARK THE EARTH AND MAKE PLACE. THESE MARKS WILL BECOME THE REMAINS OF OUR LIVING, AND WE MUST RECONCILE THE ACT OF BUILDING WITH THE NATURAL PLACE”. HOW DO YOU STRIKE A BALANCE BETWEEN MAINTAINING THE INTEGRITY OF AN EXISTING SPACE WHILE STILL CREATING ARCHITECTURE? That’s a pretty heady, environmental statement, right? I wrote it about a year out of school, I wasn’t even licensed yet. I wrote that, thinking about what decisions are important when it comes to designing buildings. For example, if you think of ruins as remains. The decisions that you make, in terms of what gets built, what the building will become, who will use and occupy the space— this outlives all of us. They become our remains. Some

of our remains may end up being climate change or social inequities, all the problems of sustainability and the environment. This was a way to say architecture is very important. It’s what we want to live in. We want better places and more wonderful ways of living, but at the same time, you can’t throw out the fact that you can’t do that at any cost. You have to be able to find a balance between the architecture and the environment it’s in. You have to be able to make educated environmental decisions. We all live here on this earth together with an ecology of species and animals and we have to respect that. While also acknowledging that we want to design great architecture and not live in horrible conditions.


YOUR WORK STRIVES TO UPLIFT AND REINFORCE HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS, CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE GARDEN OF TOMORROW AND HOW IT EMBODIES THIS IDEA? This goes back to that thought about imagining new or wonderful ways of living to uplift people. The Garden of Tomorrow is a client that we, as a firm, pursued and then they came to us. We competed for that project and got it because the values on our side and their side aligned. Their mission is to educate people about the environment, the importance of being outdoors, and to acknowledge that we are not the species that should dominate the earth; there is no hierarchy. In this project, we’re uplifting people by expressing the inner relationship between ourselves and the environment. Part of this client’s mission is to say that you, the bugs, the animals, and the plants, and all of that are on the same plane. There’s also an educational aspect at play. In some of the

conservatories we are building, people are going to be in the presence of plants that won’t be here in about five years. They will be extinct. Being confronted with life on the verge of extinction can create another level of awareness or way of thinking. I think our client’s mission, and our mission is to try to get people to think differently. After all, it goes directly to the way we live and the way we treat the rest of the ecology.

If these practices and revelations can happen, you’re actually talking about sustainability at that point. People say sustainability like it is turning the lights off when you leave a room or using LED bulbs, right? That actually isn’t sustainable. Because there is still a coal-fired power plant powering that LED bulb.

We’re all compromised when it comes to sustainability. I think once people realize that, you stop trying to either preach about it or complain about it. You can then attempt to change the way we think to do better. With architecture, you can do that. It’s hard because these are huge projects costing millions of dollars, but when scientists, donors, and horticulturists come together, they start to think differently. And then, everyone that visits can be uplifted, they can experience, “Hey, this is a reality”. I think walking down the street near a Taco Bell or a gas station, you don’t really get a sense that the environmental problem can be solved.

Architecture, because it deals with these huge problems, like the faults of capitalism or the carbon economy, has an opportunity to demonstrate that we can overcome them.

“ Being confronted with life on the verge of extinction can create another level of awareness or way of thinking.”




TO THE PUBLIC? It handles water education first. It’s right on the lake that surrounds the Botanical Gardens, and it sits essentially in a flood plain. It’s designed to store boats and as an event space for college rowing competitions, but first and foremost, it’s intended to educate people on what’s going on with their water. The lake that it sits on is a part of the water reservoir that everyone drinks from in Norfolk. With the architecture, we’re trying to tell the story of how water is cleaned before it gets back to you.

There will be different levels that we’re going to terrace into the property, and we’re planning to plant water-tolerant plants to filter the water on the lower tiers. We’re also forming an outdoor classroom that sits under this canopy where we have taken the water’s edge and essentially pulled it up under the building. When you are inside, you’ll be able to see the plant life and witness how the shoreline functions and is restored. It’s an interactive way for architecture to meet a problem.

Most people would say that the floodplain is a problem, but we’re trying to treat that problem as an opportunity.

Top: Plan view of Water Education Rowing Center

Middle: Entrance to Rowing Center

Bottom: Rowing Center ramp







MATERIALS? The manufacturing processes of all the basic elements that go into buildings, like concrete, steel, and glass are horrible for the environment. I don’t know the statistics currently, but the carbon dioxide that comes from the manufacturing of steel alone is off the charts. To address this, we try to use the least amount of material possible. That’s our approach.

We’ll specify steel that has a 95% recycled content in it. It still doesn’t stop the CO2 from making the steel shapes and the smelting process, but we are specifying products with a high recycled content.

We’ll get to a building design and ask the structural engineer to give us the total weight of the steel in the building. So, he’ll

the project and tell the story of how it’s made because it will replace concrete one day.

There’s no heat involved, which is the huge extraction problem with Portland cement. You can also reuse them, you can crush them up and use the material again, which is fantastic.

We’re also using a bio-cement called bio-LITH by the company Biomason. They’re growing concrete, like how you grow coral, into tiles or pavers. They pack sand in and then they feed it microorganisms and bacterias in a water solution. And then they just let it go. It becomes a material as strong as concrete. For the Garden of Tomorrow project, we’re doing tiles and pavers out of that. We want to feature it in come back and say, “it’s around 40,000 pounds” And then we’ll say “Okay, can we do it for less”? Looking at the volume of material in a building is one of the biggest impacts you can have. Thinking consciously, not designing buildings just to show off “How big we can make it”, or even “How cool we can make it”. We try to be a bit more strategic in the way we use material.

DILLS ARCHITECTS DESIGNED COLLEGE PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, THE FIRST LEED PLATINUM-CERTIFIED K12 SCHOOL IN VIRGINIA. WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU FACED IN COMPLETING THIS PROJECT? LEED is basically a rating system for sustainable projects or an indicator that tells everyone, “Yes. You’re actually doing what you said you would do,” from an environmental standpoint. There are so many people that greenwash. Every time I see an Exxon commercial, they say that they’re all for clean energy. Who believes that? LEED did a lot of good when they first came out, because they pushed people, pushed owners, governments, and buildings to prove claims of sustainability. College Park Elementary School was the first platinum-rated elementary school in Virginia. This is the highest LEEd ranking you can achieve, which is pretty hard to do, especially for public schools. One of the challenges of this project was that there were, and still are, a lot of people that don’t think taxes should be spent on buildings like these.

You end up devoting a lot of time to proving it’s worth it. For example, we made the building have natural daylight in probably 99% of every space. When you’re a student there, you’re in daylight all day, which is proven to help people learn better. You see better, you learn better, you feel better. You’re almost living in a better space when you go to school there. In the years after the building opened, attendance rates and grades went up. When you see these results, it’s hard to make an argument against the building.

College Park is one of the most disadvantaged communities in Virginia Beach. That was what always excited me about the project, is that it debunked the idea that environmental changes only happen when people can afford them. This project was going after problems from an environmental standpoint, but also from a learning environment standpoint, and was put right into a community that needed it the most and never gets it.


THE 10 YEAR ANNIVERSARY IS COMING UP ON THAT PROJECT. HOW HAVE YOU WITNESSED THE IDEA OF SUSTAINABLE DESIGN DEVELOP WITHIN THOSE PAST 10 YEARS? We’ve spent the last year thinking about the difference between the Garden of Tomorrow and College Park Elementary School. Both designs are really high achieving and out of the box. I think they’ll both be relevant, or say something 10 years from now. College Park Elementary School is still saying the right things, but the attitude towards LEED platinum and LEED rating systems has really changed. Back then, the LEED platinum rating was really meaningful. Our

ability to say that we were the first elementary school to do that in Virginia carried a lot of weight. I mean, people were high-fiving us all the time where now, it’s kind of like, “Ah, cool.” And it’s not that it’s lost its “cool” factor, it’s more so that people are much more interested in what it does instead of a rating.

The Botanical Gardens is front and center with the community, it is a cultural institution. They’ve been around for 80 years now, and they have become the environmental voice in Norfolk. They’re ground zero for it. The people involved with the Garden of Tomorrow, who are really smart people, still want their project to

have a LEED rating, but it’s really more about performance. It’s more important to ask, “What does it actually do?”

We’re designing to show how plant species, animal species, insects, intersect and live together. The work we have done on this project is changing the way that we, as an office, think about social equity and environmentalism. If the rating system is your end all be all, it tends to get in the way of achievement. Because you’ve taken your eyes off the target a little bit.

Top Left: College Park Elementry School

Top Right: Connection of Architecture and Nature at College Park Elementry

Bottom Left: Entrance to the Norfolk Botanical Garden

Bottom Right: View of The Conservatory at the Garden




IS HEADED? Not particularly. I think your generation is acutely aware of this, but there’s a lot of greenwashing or saying “I’m sustainable” when you’re really not. If I look at the words in your question, if you want things to be sustainable, you’re talking about some really radical changes. You’re talking about capitalism and carbon economies, right? These systems that we have right now are not sustainable. If they keep heading down their present trajectory, it’s all going to come to a screeching, painful halt. Sustainability right now needs a redefinition. And I think it’s undergoing one.

I hope projects like the Garden of Tomorrow can help to push the needle into redefining what sustainability is. We as a firm try to think of sustainability in a broader scope. We try to identify ways to impact the bigger picture, especially if we have a client who requests it.

We’ve learned that if you, as an architect, don’t provide the vision for sustainability for your client, whether they ask for it or not, it is not going to happen. It’s not going to go anywhere. You guys probably know this from your projects at school, right? If you come up with an idea, but you’re

not presenting the vision for that idea, it doesn’t go anywhere. Everyone just asks, “Well, how are you gonna do it”? Or it only leads to more questions. I think for me, the biggest change to sustainability as a concept is that it probably won’t be called that soon.

I’ve been actively trying not to use the word “sustainability” as much, because it’s become so dumbed down, or has been equated to tiny actions that aren’t truly sustainable, like the recycling of plastic water bottles. Even when you recycle plastic, you’re still part of the problem. I know I’m part of the problem every day. For example, I bought an electric car and I plug it in at my house, and from there, there’s a coal fire plant that’s sending me electricity.

The equity question is the strongest way to address environmental concerns because you’re talking about masses of people being impacted by the decisions of a few people that are in power positions. Eventually, it’s going to come to a head. So not calling it sustainability, but calling it equity, referring to it as something that really impacts people, is a better way to think about it.

It also comes back to not thinking of ourselves as the dominant species. Acknowledging that we

can learn from other species, affects the entirety of the ecosystem, including other humans too. It affects the way we all live together. Do you know who Graham Harman is? He, and Timothy Morton, who is the public speaker version of Harman are writing philosophies that are setting a new space for thinking about the flattening of the ecology. They are thinking about an ecology where everything is interdependent. We’ve all been taught that we know better, right? That we know better than the plant. But there are things the plant knows that you, as a human, will never know. That sounds kind of dumb, Harman and Morton make it sound a lot better.

There are inner relationships and parts and pieces to the world, to ecology, that is this grand mesh of things that we shouldn’t assume that we’re the leaders of. It is more of an equalizing, flattening, “everyone on the same plane” way of thinking. And that’s why I say equity is probably number one on the list as a way to rethink sustainability.

“These systems that we have right now are not sustainable. If they keep heading down their present trajectory, it’s all going to come to a screeching, painful halt. Sustainability right now needs a redefinition. And I think it’s undergoing one. “


Past Builds, Present Benefits

Here, we sat down with Marissa (Treasurer) and Tyler (President) of the Virginia Tech Historic Preservation Society (HPS). HPS believes that architecture doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch and that preserving historic structures leads to exciting, sustainable, and creative opportunities unique to each site.

Interview: Abigail Cox and Ally Vermillion

Editing: Abigail Cox Photos: Graphics: Rachel Dugdell




Tyler: The biggest accomplishment was getting started. Back in 2018, a graduate student by the name of Joshua Berkley and I put our heads together and realized that there wasn’t anything like this for students interested in preservation and adaptive reuse.

Marissa: Another accomplishment that sticks out to me was our fundraiser. We sold all 150 tickets for a bus tour of different historic buildings in Radford, like the Glencoe Mansion and Ingles Castle. We had people stationed at each destination giving information about the history of the building, who lived there, why it was designed the way that it was, and how it’s currently being restored.

Tyler: One that I’ve been looking at recently— it’s not really a building, but it’s a structure— is the Highline in New York. It’s one of the best examples of adaptive reuse. During the mid 1800s, it was a street-level rail line that carried food into the city. It created an unsafe environment for the pedestrians because it caused a lot of accidents. So, in 1933 the city created an elevated rail line. In 1960 however, rail travel in New York City started to dwindle. When the Highline was left abandoned, a photographer snuck up there and took pictures of it. The pictures revealed grass growing all along the rail line. People were interested in that set of photographs and now it’s a one and a half mile greenway that serves as a park with community activities, art installations, and performances.



Tyler: One of the biggest challenges is convincing people to take the adaptive reuse route instead of demolishing and building a new building. Some people think razing the site and starting from scratch is the easiest option because you don’t have to worry about retaining the building’s historic integrity and adapting the function of the building to today’s standards. Adaptive reuse and new construction are two different approaches moving towards the same goal. When designing a new building, you have the chance to make a great place. With adaptive reuse, you have the chance to make a place great


Marissa: I’m from Minnesota. I knew nothing about Appalachia before I moved here. Even though I’ve been in Blacksburg for five years, the Historic Preservation Society has enabled me to learn a lot more about the history of this place than I would’ve otherwise. I’ve had the opportunity to go to different places in Radford that I might have never visited. We went to Poplar forest, which is another interesting historically preserved building that I did not know was here. And I don’t think a lot of people do. It’s basically the companion to Monticello. It’s Thomas Jefferson’s summer home and it’s very similarly designed in terms of the octagon, the brick, the curves, and the windows.

Joshua Berkley, one of the founders of the club, knew someone who was working on the preservation there. We were able to take a trip to the site and witness the behind-the-scenes process of the renovation. Experiences like this expanded my knowledge of the area and my appreciation of Appalachia.

Tyler: This area has so much history that people don’t really know about. 50 years or 100 years of history can go right out the window and be forgotten. It’s important that we make efforts to document and preserve the past.

Above: The Interior of Poplar Forest


Marissa: One of the largest misconceptions is the idea that preserving a building means restoring it or replicating it to look exactly how it did before. Preservation and adaptive reuse can go hand in hand a lot more than people think. The Highline is a good example of that. It wasn’t restored to what it was previously, but it still maintains the integrity of the history that was there. This kind of design encourages people to think about what was previously on the site and what the city used to look like.

Tyler: A more specific example would be when people are discouraged from buying a building on the national register of historic places because they think, “Oh, I don’t want to buy that building because I’m going to be so limited with what I can do with it.” This isn’t true. The only time you’re limited with a build is if you want to use historic tax credits, which can be beneficial, but it’s not something that has to be used. Also if there are local historic laws, those affect you more than the national register.

Marissa: When a lot of people think about historic preservation and adaptive reuse and they immediately go to the restrictions and the rigidity. There’s a lot of opportunities to be creative in ways that if there were no restrictions, you wouldn’t discover.


Tyler: Whenever you demolish a building, you’re destroying all of the energy, labor, and materials that were put into it when it was built. And then you’re also using that energy to physically demolish it. Then more energy and materials are needed to construct another building. It’s almost like you’ve built a building three times to an extent, whereas if you preserve a building and adapt it, you’re retaining all of that existing energy.

Marissa: In Environmental Building Systems class, we talked a lot about this. Our professor, Michael Ermann, discussed the inherent energy that’s consumed in the building. The entire lifetime of a building (including producing the materials that go into it, accounting for the labor involved in constructing it, having all the lights on, air-conditioning) only accounts for 30% of the building’s energy. The other 70% of energy goes into the initial construction of the building. So, if you can avoid having to tear down a building and rebuild a new one, you save 70% of the energy.

Tyler: And then you also have to think about how these buildings were built a hundred years ago. They didn’t have air conditioning to rely on. They had to design them to be energy efficient and stay cool during the summer and warm during the winter. So they’re already green and sustainable if you think about it.


Marissa: We think an excellent example of historic preservation in Blacksburg that respects the history of Blacksburg while also promoting the future is the Lyric Theater. It’s been an icon of the downtown area for a long time. The company has been there since 1909, but the building has been there since 1929. It’s been restored and serves its original function of being a theater, but it also hosts a lot of gatherings for the town of Blacksburg. The theater promotes the growth of the community while still serving its original function and maintaining its historical integrity.

“When designing a new building, you have the chance to make a great place. With adaptive reuse, you have the chance to make a place great.“
Photo: A deep pit adjacent to the defunct Glen Lyn Power Plant contains remnants of coal, which erode and shift with the rains.


Designing for Them: Community-Focused Architecture



JonesKevin Jones is a practicing architect and Associate Professor in the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech. Here, he speaks of his interest in questioning how new architecture relates to the historic and the degree to which they handshake and mesh

Interviewer: Isabel, Gabi Editor: Ally Graphics: Virginia Martin Photographs: Kevin Jones

PREEXISTING PLACE? Definitely learning as much history as possible of the neighborhood, the building, the businesses that were in the building, and most importantly, the demographic and cultural changes that have occurred over time. From a technical perspective, particularly in the cities that I’ve worked in, I rely on Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, GIS data, and searching the Library of Congress for old photographs, writings, and maps. In Roanoke, for example, there’s a number of photographic archives available through the local museums and through the Roanoke public library where one can find historic documentation.

I do a lot of work in neighborhoods that have been designated on the National Register. The 30-page applications that helped those neighborhoods become certified are also a wealth of information. From there, I compile and curate the information to help my clients understand the site’s history in particular ways. Sometimes it’s about the branding and future life of the building.

Maybe the new name of the building is drawn from that history. This revealing of the layers of history through research helps to bring authenticity to the project. A newspaper clipping found in some old archive can suddenly become part of a new narrative.

A collection of historic maps that show how the site has changed over time can also be quite helpful. I always compile these together in a slideshow where I can see how the changes snap into place – like trace paper overlays, but digital. It is interesting to see how things have evolved – maybe buildings next door appear or disappear. This gives a sense of what the place might have been, and you don’t have to go very far to see the urban environment change. Grounding oneself in the history of a place gives you a flavor for what might come next. The more the history is understood, the more informed one’s design decisions will be.


CDAC is the Community Design Assistance Center, which is an outreach center of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies here at Virginia Tech. CDAC got its start in the late 1980’s, and they provide practiceoriented opportunities for students to work on conceptual, community-engaged design services in support of municipal governments, community organizations, and other similar groups. Their work encompasses master planning, and landscape design, as well as architecture and interior design projects. Regardless of the project type, community engagement,

placemaking, and environmental and social wellness are at the core. The CDAC team has developed an extensive network of relationships and projects. I’ve gone as far as Albany, Kentucky, and worked on a number of projects in Southwest Virginia and Southern West Virginia.

I began my collaboration with CDAC after experiences working in Richmond with Storefront for Community Design. My mentors at the firm I worked for in Richmond, BAM Architects, introduced me to the idea of the ‘citizen architect’ and an ethic that design is not a luxury. Now, as a teacher, I’ve seen how working impact-oriented projects can be a very formative experience for students.

I remember coming back from a meeting in Southwest Virginia while working on my first project with CDAC. The team was collaborating with the Russell County Fair Association on a tree planting master plan and a vision for transforming an old metal shed into a new market hall. We were driving back with two graduate architecture students, and from the back of the van, I heard one of them, Divya Nautiyal, say “I think I just realized it’s about them and not us.” This was a profound moment, where the world of architecture somehow opened up and revealed something bigger about her role as a designer.

Above: Russell County Fairgrounds Site


I’ve been working in buildings and neighborhoods that have been vacant for 30 years. Places like Richmond and Roanoke and now Danville, cities that people left in great numbers in the 1970s. A lot of the time, design for these spaces revolves around the idea of returning.

I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of community partners who have lived experiences very different from mine, and these opportunities have shaped who I am, what I believe about architecture, and how I go about the work. The approach we take is to listen more than we talk and to avoid coming in with predetermined solutions. You have to gain access and earn trust. For some student projects, we have partnered with local groups in support of ongoing cycles of community engagement and investment. Plugging into this process, we’re coming to the table with partners in the community as well as through contacts and support networks in the city government. If you fail to acknowledge that there’s a lack of trust in those kinds of relationships, built up over generations and decades, particularly in underserved communities, it’s easy to be viewed as more of that same problem. You have to actively work to not make the same mistakes. Do things with people, not to them.

Working with communities for extended periods of time has also been helpful. Prolonged engagement builds trust.

You don’t want to come in and create a design and then disappear, particularly when it is student-oriented work.. My role, or the student’s role, might come and go, but working with CDAC or other teams allows for a sustained engagement over time with particular players. You can be part of a bigger network of people. Within this framework, I just try to do good work, and don’t be an a__hole.

It’s important to possess the humility to recognize that there are other good ideas in the room and that those will likely come from the community, not necessarily from the designer. When you listen and truly consider these ideas, new opportunities open up. The task is to empower the community and help them bring things to life using design and the skills that architects bring to the table. With this approach, there’s a greater chance of sustained success, because community buy-in is present from the start. If the folks you are working with don’t believe in the ideas of a project, and they feel like it’s “other,” or they feel like it doesn’t represent them or their goals, then it won’t be successful.

I’ve had the opportunity to work in underserved communities of color in urban settings, and similarly I’ve worked in rural, majority-white communities in need – what I have learned is that everybody wants the same thing: good jobs, a chance to succeed, and a safe and nurturing place for their kids. I always take heart knowing that if we forget politics and look critically at fundamental human aspirations, people are much more similar than they are different.

Below: Inteior of the 120 Luck Ave Reuse Project Opposite: Inital Sketches of the space



HOW DO YOU FIND A BALANCE BETWEEN PRESERVING ARCHITECTURAL ELEMENTS OF THE PAST WHILE DESIGNING FOR THE INHABITANTS AND PROGRAMS OF TODAY? My thinking has evolved on this topic regarding my role as a designer. When I was young and of a different mindset, my concern was – how can I be distinctive?

How do I show that I’m a modern architect? How do I convey my own personal sensibilities or beliefs or aspirations?

My mind has since shifted towards seeing myself as part of a continuum of things that have been built before, and things that will be built after. I want to respond thoughtfully to the parameters that I’m given, as well as those that are discovered, whether that be the structure of the building, the historic and cultural context, or the client’s program.

I’ve come to realize that something can be good even if it is ‘old.’ I’ve started to appreciate buildings differently than I did when I was young and impetuous. The more I build and engage with architecture from different periods, the more I realize that

there are a few ideas that have worked for thousands of years that perhaps have just been put together differently. Increasingly, I see my role as an architect as that of a steward – part of a continuum – and that I should work to design for the present while taking into account what came before as well as what might come later. Do no harm, and don’t make things hard to change later.

Over time, I have developed a better eye for things that have value and are worthy of respect. It actually forces me to be smarter and more creative, to work within a tighter set of constraints, and strive for good architecture.

In the long run, it seems that more constraints make the project better and challenge me as a designer. It’s easy to wipe the slate clean and build whatever you want. It’s much more challenging, and I’m finding it increasingly much more interesting and satisfying, to have to work within existing frameworks. To discover where I can push and pull.

things with people, not to them.”

Left: Exterior of 120 Luck Ave Reuse Project

The short answer is because we had to. This project, for which I served as project architect with my previous firm in Richmond, involved the adaptive reuse of a pair of brick masonry buildings – one that was four-story, and one that was two-story – with an existing heavy timber frame on the inside. All buildings of this type and age tend to have a regular structural grid at plus or minus 15 feet as that was the limitation of the materials and methods of construction a hundred years ago.

The contributing historical character of those buildings was that they were open on the inside, that the

timber framing and the wood joists were exposed. These were projects that utilized historic rehabilitation tax credits, so aspects of preservation are key. It’s a rule from the very beginning. We wouldn’t want to cover the structure anyway, because architecturally that’s the flavor, right? It’s the good stuff.

Because of the large size of the buildings, we needed to bring light into the inside so that we could make good places to live. To do this, the primary architectural maneuver was to subtract an atrium out of the two-story building, which allowed some units in the four-story space to look into the atrium. The removal of the roof on the second floor to bring in light enabled the entire middle section of the four floors to be utilized. It was needed from a programmatic standpoint to make it work— to get the right number of apartments –but it became the heart and soul of the project. To do this required structural intervention but we wanted to leave the old columns and beams exposed. We avoided having walls intersect with the

structure and kept original ceiling framing so that these elements could contribute to the architectural and experiential qualities of the space.

Expressed steel connectors, where new elements fasten onto the old ones, make clear what is historic and what is new. The glulam timbers are speaking a similar language to the heavy timber but in a contemporary way. Overall, I think it makes a nice composition with a combination of older and newer elements with steel mediating the connection. The result is a two-story space, lit from above, that acts as a public square inside the building.

With all projects, it becomes: How do I create a bit of contrast with the historic? How do I present the historic? How do I avoid hiding it, ruining it, or taking away that character? Then, how do you add to the conversation in a way that makes sense?

Left: Exterior of the Lofts

Right: Interior of the Lofts


It is almost always better to reuse something than to tear it down and build from scratch. There is so much embodied energy and latent human labor in existing buildings that strategies of reuse, renovation, and preservation are essential. There are challenges to improving environmental performance in old buildings, which typically lack insulation and are extremely permeable to air and moisture. I recently spent a surprising amount of time trying to figure out how to insulate the roof of a historic building given the challenging set of preservation parameters imposed on the project. But we have to do this because we want to reoccupy and continue the life of these structures, so they must be made comfortable and we must consider their long-term performance.

Historic renovation projects and adaptive reuse often privilege certain things over environmental questions. From my perspective, they tend to focus on specific historical or aesthetic characteristics of buildings and less on other measures of value. Increasingly, I think we need to be discussing cultural value and the role of history and narrative in these buildings as much as we focus on aesthetic qualities, historic elements, and the treatment of buildings simply as objects. When you limit your considerations to formal characteristics only, you end up excluding decades of a building’s history and contributions it might have made to the life of the people that lived there. We should be thinking more critically about the nature of what we conserve beyond the ‘body’ or ‘object’ of the building.

A lot of times, the aesthetic and historic questions tend to outweigh these other perspectives. I see this as an opportunity to challenge prevailing attitudes about preservation, building codes, and the perceptions of what constitutes so-called “contributing elements.”. Can we evolve some of the thinking about the nature of historic buildings and how we should reuse them beyond freezing them as a snapshot of the time they were built? Can we balance conflicting narratives? This is an area of work that needs to be engaged – to think about reuse and rehabilitation through other lenses beyond the ones that are easy or obvious.

What is our responsibility as designers to the communities we work in and their histories?

To listen and lift up. To make things present and to acknowledge. Good architecture is conceptually rigorous, thoughtfully crafted, and it dignifies people and place. I try to think about the concentric circles of people who engage with our work and our responsibilities as designers. Our client who is paying us, the people who will use the building, the folks who will walk by, and those who might be positively impacted by how that building and its life will change the context.

My closest mentor and friend, architect Burt Pinnock, once told me (after I made a particularly boneheaded comment about my ‘vision’ as a young architect) that our job is to do what the work asks of us. An observation, not unlike Divya’s comment driving back from Russell County, that a life in architecture is a call to something bigger than ourselves. So I try to remember the idea of stewardship. Can I be a steward of the built environment? Of buildings, ideas, and people and can I bring my skills to bear in some small way. That’s a place to start.


Eric Oglander is a NYC-based artist known for his Craigslist Mirrors project and for using traditional crafting methods to transform unconventional objects. Here, he ventures into how functionality and scavenged materials, especially from the natural world, inform his process of making. Oglander also discusses the stigma associated with “found art.”

Photos: Graphics: Matt Lee Interviewer: Audrey Editor: Grace Hamilton Turner

YOUR WORK SHOWS A GRAVITATION TOWARDS USING FOUND MATERIALS AND TRADITIONAL METHODS OF MAKING TO PRODUCE UNCONVENTIONAL PIECES AND TOOLS. WHERE DID THIS START AND WHAT DO YOU FIND CAPTIVATING ABOUT THIS PROCESS? My parents are both artists, so we were never really allowed to be bored. They would put paper-mâché in front of us, or I’d be out in the woods making forts and whittling branches. It was this early exposure to these materials that resulted in me using them now. I was always reluctant to pay for art supplies and felt like I preferred to be informed by the materials that I found rather than force my aesthetic onto stuff I purchased.

I’ve always appreciated the simplicity and efficiency of bladed tools, such as axes and knives and carving wood was an excuse to use them. I discovered spoon carving when I was 24 and still living in the woods. I was able to explore the forest with a saw, seeking out the right kind of wood and the right kind of branch shape that would inform the style of spoon. I did little else but hone this craft for months before moving to NYC. The spoons gradually became more sensitive and sculptural and ultimately ended up becoming my “art” and less of a hobby. This line is often blurred. In addition to utilizing found branches, I’d also go to abandoned houses, estate sales and flea markets and end up incorporating materials I found in these spaces. Once, I found a striped button down shirt in an abandoned house that I intended on wearing, but it sat in my studio, and on a whim, I cut it up and started soaking it in beeswax, and then wrung the wax out of it. I loved how the beeswax transformed the material so that it no longer looked like a shirt. Much of my use of found objects is the result of play.


I gather branches from the Catskills quite a bit, but within the city I find branches on the street and in the mulch pile in Prospect Park where they dump tree trimmings. That was an incredible source of fresh wood, mainly Sycamore. But lately, I’ve been sourcing branches from the woods at Dead Horse Bay.


I’ve been buying and reselling stuff since I was 18. In the beginning, it was mainly high-end vintage bicycles and items from Craigslist. One day, I was perusing the garage sale section and saw a mirror for sale; the photo of it was stunning. I wondered if more amazing photos of mirrors existed on Craigslist, so I searched for them in different cities all over the country. I started a Tumblr account for the images I’d gathered and it got quite popular. Then, Jerry Saltz tweeted about it, and it went viral. I started the Instagram and then did a book with TBW.





AT THE PATRICK PARRISH GALLERY, PARTICULARLY THE CATAPULTS? I love art that transcends art. Art can be pretentious and out of reach for a lot of people, but as soon as it becomes kinetic, moveable, playful, whimsical, anyone can appreciate the work, including kids. And that’s something I really love to see and provide. The catapults and trebuchets were something I’d always been fascinated with since I was a kid. I thought they were incredible then but didn’t have the skill to construct any, so it was really just a few years ago that it came to me when I was half asleep, which is such a trope but I was in a dream-like state when it hit me. I woke up the next day and made a catapult out of a rat trap that sat on top of a structure made of branches. I then made torsion catapults and then figured out the mechanics/physics behind trebuchets, which was incredibly rewarding, and still is.

Barret had made for his home. It was all incredibly crude, poorly built and sloppily covered in house paint and most of it sold for very little money. (I didn’t see the auction until after everything had sold). I just loved it and it gave me license to make a chair, something that I had been building up the courage to tackle for quite some time. So I went into my studio and made a chair out of what I had on hand and was pleased enough with the result.

The physical requirements of functional objects, like a trebuchet or a chair, force my hand. I have to make physical decisions so that they can be functional or support weight, but the method with which I execute those requirements has to be aesthetically minded too because ultimately, I am making an art object. It’s my favorite kind of problem-solving

The chairs in the exhibition were the first chairs I had made. The very first was titled “Chair for Syd Barret”. There was an auction a few years ago of furniture Syd

Right: One of Oglander’s Trebuchets

Opposite page: One of Oglanger’s pieces




GALLERY? I had made a very similar form out of splitting cat briar, which is this invasive, very thorny vine. I had been clearing that from my boss’s property in Long Island and noticed that it could bend into these beautiful forms and dry that way, so I tried splitting it and saw that it had incredibly straight grain. I split it in four and wound up bending those four splits into legs that stood. It was beautiful, but also incredibly delicate. I wanted it to make it feel less delicate and more substantial, but I also wanted it to be confusing for the viewer. I was already painting them white, so one would first think it’s just a painted white branch. It’s not until picking it up that you realize it’s metal, cold to

the touch, and heavy. I loved that trickery.

That was with help from my girlfriend at the time and Patrick Parrish; they were both pushing me to explore bronze, and I’m glad I did. I asked my coworkers, expert mold makers, and casters, how to go about doing this and they told me to take it to the jewelry district to have them do it. It had never occured to me that I could pay someone to help make my work. I brought the piece to J.M. Moldmakers and they did a beautiful job of turning it into bronze. It took a lot of finishing to make it how I wanted it and I had to bend it afterward into the desired shape, but I was able to go from having an idea to having a finished product in just a few weeks, which was amazing.

DO YOU THINK THAT THE NEGATIVE ASSOCIATION WITH FOUND OBJECT ART EXISTS BECAUSE IT’S COMPARED TO MORE TRADITIONAL FORMS OF ART THAT RELY ON EXPENSIVE SOURCE MATERIALS, LIKE PAINTING? I would say yes. People want to see effort and value in the work that they buy, so they probably look at found object art and think that they’re buying a pile of garbage, but I think that trickles into sculpture in general. Paintings are the single most valuable objects in art world history. They’re status symbols. Not all of them, of course, but that’s why I love anonymous painting so much.

EXPLAIN THE PREVALENCE OF FOUND OR VINTAGE OBJECTS IN YOUR WORK. I try to obscure or utilize these objects in such a way that it doesn’t read as vintage, found or assemblage. I gravitate towards it because it already exists and it’s already beautiful. I just have to recontextualize these pre-existing, aesthetically charged objects that otherwise go unnoticed, like I did with the Craigslist mirrors project. I have an interest in the inadvertent, the unseen. That’s why I loved dealing and hunting for antiques so much. When they’re recontextualized into a more formal environment or onto Instagram, these curated settings, people have an opportunity to appreciate them for what they are.

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