February 5, 2013, by John Noble

Limits and Boundaries Make Better Projects

In the heat of the moment, while struggling to discover a solution to the latest setback, it is easy to complain about the strictures placed on our creativity. “Our budget is too small”, “our client is VERY traditional”, “the setbacks leave us no room in which to operate”, “it’s hard to meet the design guidelines.” While each of these parameters offer significant challenges, I think there is a case to be made that, in the end, limits and boundaries make better projects. In fact, I would suggest that good design, like great wine, grows best in the toughest soil, but it requires a fundamental adjustment in the way that one views the work.

Recently we had the good fortune to work on a new building for Western Campus at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Western has a rich history, having originally been constructed as a regional offshoot of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts (which explains why it is called “Western” even though it is located on the eastern side of the University). Unlike the main campus, with its uniform pallette of georgian red brick and detailing, the buildings on Western are diverse in terms of style, age and materials, and so our charge was somewhat different from the usual Miami design commission. In addition, our building is a utility building which will house the equipment and controls for a new, state of the art geothermal heat pump system which will provide heating and cooling for the entire Western campus, including three new dormitories and a new dining hall. In light of the innovative nature of this project, the design charge was to create a “showcase” for the technology within, that reflected the contemporary nature of the project but also sat comfortably within and complemented the surrounding historical buildings of the campus. Also, in light of the fact that it was after all, a utility building, it needed to be economical to build and simple to maintain.

So those were the rules: fit-in to a historic context, express the program’s contemporary function, demonstrate the university’s commitment to green design, showcase the technology within, and be cost effective and durable with minimal maintenance required. Also, the new building had to fit between a one-story child-care center, a three story dormitory (yet to be designed), a lake and some soccer fields.

By starting with an acknowledgement of each of these factors, we ultimately identified a strategy that relied on basic structural systems (steel frame with masonry veneer), typical materials and finishes (ground face concrete block in shades to match the neighbors’ stonework, aluminum storefront) and simple masses. Our opportunities for improvisation were found in the details - varying the depth of the mortar joints to introduce a variety of scales within the masonry walls and offer an homage to the stonework of the nearby (SOM designed) Art Museum; changing the color of each of the primary masses to break down the scale of the building and highlight the functions contained within; calibrating the overhang between the masonry veneer and the foundation and playing with the line of the foundation with respect to window and door openings to emphasize the planar mass of the walls and the openness of the glazing; carefully calibrating the rhythm and proportion of columns and window mullions to mediate between the human scale of the participant and the larger masses of the adjacent dormitories. And moments arose in which to play, as in the planter along the front of the building, which draws the casual passer-by close for a view of the inner workings of the plant, controls roof run-off during a rain-event, establishes a visceral connection between the green roof above and surrounding nature of the campus and offers a comfortable pause point - a sitting place for a conversation or an al-fresco read.

I once had a mentor who told me that every problem that arises in the course of creating a building is an opportunity for design, a chance to make the project better. It is fundamentally frustrating to keep running into roadblocks just when you thought you were finally in the clear, but it can be helpful in those situations to take a deep breath, let go of the frustration and embrace the challenges, secure in the knowledge that the finished product that will be far better for having had to navigate and incorporate the realities and challenges of a complex world.