This is the second of a series of posts exploring the ideas underlying the design of the New Belgium Brewery in Asheville. I was the lead architectural designer for the project while working at the architecture firm Perkins+Will.
The room was dark. I stood illuminated by a cone of light projecting images onto a large screen. Being an introvert I had to force myself to look into the shadowy faces all around. The conference room was quiet as I started to present the updated design for their new brewery.
My throat tightened as the image of an automobile and a motorcycle appeared. The image seemed absurdly foreign to a presentation about architectural design. Would they think I was wasting their time with unrelated philosophical B.S.?
“There seems to be a fundamental difference between the design of this building and most other buildings,” I said.
The head of engineering leaned forward. His ever-kind face contorted with concern. He was our client contact and would have to answer to the founder if the design team had gone completely astray.
“What we are designing is more like a motorcycle than an automobile,” I said. “An automobile can be design by detached teams. It’s possible for the exterior look, the interior finish, and the mechanics of an automobile to be designed independently.
“Buildings can be designed in the same way,” I continued. “The exterior form and interior spaces can be developed independently of the structural systems and machines that will service the spaces. But a craft brewery is different than most buildings in that the machines cannot be hidden away. The machines for brewing are what people come to see. Maybe more than any other building type the engineers of the machines and the architects of the spaces must work together.”
“Our design challenge is more like the design of a motorcycle than an automobile. The mechanics and aesthetics of a motorcycle are one and the same. Its impossible to consider the architecture of a motorcycle without simultaneously considering the engineering. The engine is what makes the motorcycle move and it is a critical element of its appearance. The tanks and pipes of a brewery are critical to making beer as well as a primary element of the architecture of the building.”
I switched to the next slide and continued. “The raw engineering of a motorcycle is on display not hidden away behind a designed surface and yet there is still design. A motorcycle, at least a good one, is not a random collection of parts and forms it is a carefully organized and designed set of parts. Together, in this way of thinking, we can design a brewery that respects the machines, the structure, and the people who will inhabit this place.”
The head of engineering leaned back and his face relaxed, I knew the gamble had paid off. As I had hoped this analogy became a bridge that allowed the various members of the design team to work together and better understand the need for holistic design solutions.
As the brewery developed it became a living machine. I saw a thoughtful conglomeration of parts in our drawings, yet the design leaders of the firm criticized. The design lacked unity, they insisted.
Ultimately, I realized the general tendency of many architects is to create formal and unified buildings and spaces. Architects usually want to control every element. Architects cannot tolerate the visual noise of nuts, bolts, and pipe hangers randomly arranged by others. Architects want the quiet of a perfectly ordered space where much of life is hidden away. Architects often embrace life as a symphonic performance.
But life is often messy and art need not be formal. I realized the unity we were trying to create would not be a single simple gesture. The unity of this place would be a conglomeration of elements created by like-minded individuals. The unity of this place would be authenticity and complexity. I realized this architecture could live with noise. I realized the architecture that truly reflected the craft brewery culture had more in common with a rock concert than a symphony.
This is the beginning of a series of posts exploring the ideas underlying the design of the New Belgium Brewery in Asheville. I was the lead architectural designer for the project while working at Perkins+Will. Start to finish it was almost a four year process. Life goes by so fast.
It was midmorning around 2013 at the very beginning of the project. The rustic modern conference room was bright and my headache clouded concentration. I was feeling the craft beers the night before and the altitude of Fort Collins Colorado.
We, the outside designers, were trying to understand what the client needed while I wanted to know their dreams. The team was searching for quantitative information like the number and size of rooms needed. I was thinking about aspirin and subconsciously waiting, searching, and listening for the spark.
As an architectural designer I have my interests and they create a thread of consistency throughout my work. But each project can have its own soul beyond my tendencies if I am open to the specifics of the context, community, and people involved. I know the soul will form if I can see the spark. I fear the spark won’t come but it always has and never when I expected it. Maybe the most important skill a designer can learn is the ability to listen like a monk.
“We’re going to be an elephant in Asheville,” someone said and the leader of the meeting moved on with the agenda.
“Wait! What was that,” I said a little too loudly.
The meeting stopped as the clients explained something they thought should be obvious. Most craft breweries in Asheville are somewhere around 15,000 square feet in area. In fact all the buildings in the River Arts District surrounding the brewery site were about that size. The building we were going to bring to that context was 150,000 square feet.
Our elephant was ten times the size of its future neighbors. The clients worried that the bigness of their brewery would undermine their efforts to be part of the community. It would be like building a house ten times the size of your neighbors and wondering why they didn’t like you.
The meeting went back to the agenda and I fell into my thoughts knowing I had seen the spark. I doodled a dozen small boxes and next to them one huge box. This would be the conceptual challenge of the project. How do you make something huge fit into a context of small?
After weeks of work and contemplation the design team realized we needed to find other words to define this brewery. The word brewery is singular and leads one to think of a singular expression, a big brewery, a big box.
In the quiet of the studio our ideas solidified. This project should not be a box it should be more like a collection of buildings, an industrial village. This new definition better fit the context and would embrace the landscape of the seventeen-acre riverfront site.
This, I began to realize, would not be a diamond building. We had designed some award winning diamond buildings. However, a single form, a diamond, was not appropriate for this place. The profound realization was that this project was asking me to adjust my tendencies. I knew the design team should create a conglomerate of buildings that would be beautiful in their own casual yet complex nature.
These are two beautiful little videos of rain falling off our house. I guess these images are precious to us because we built this house with our own hands.
However what is more important than the beauty of these particular images is recognizing the need to slow ones state of mind enough to see them. I hope you slow your mind enough to see something beautiful today.
The way of Ignorance – Wendell Berry
The word ignorance feels a little like a slap in the face until you begin to see. I am learning to embrace my multifaceted ignorance allowing openness of mind. With that openness I have greatly enjoyed this group of essays. This is the beginning of a personal journey into Berry’s work.
For many years I’ve been evolved in conversations regarding the state of our environment. As an architect I have worked on LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) projects. This organization and so many tireless proponents have improved the way we make buildings.
Yet I have felt incompleteness in the conversation. To often materialistic solutions are proposed to problems created by rampant materialism. Wendell Berry is far more holistic in views that are broad and deeply rooted.
Isn’t it interesting we so often need to get into something for some time before we become interested in the fundamentals?
I guess its just the fast pace or our lives that lead us to believe we don’t need good foundations under our work. I find myself in this unfortunate situation often like everyone else. If you are into woodworking Jeff Miller has made the book you should have read at the beginning. But it’s never to late to build good foundations.
Jeff is a musician and clearly a meticulous guy. The simple and undeniable wisdom in his book brings an almost moral perspective to working carefully and correctly in the woodshop. The book is full of simple stuff that is also profound if you are open to see it.
Why is there a gap in the joint of my otherwise beautiful project? I have often asked myself. It may be as simple as fundamentals. Maybe I did not stand directly over the measuring tape when I made the mark. Maybe the angle of my eye created an accurate mark that ultimately created that unfortunate gap. As with so many things these lessons are far more universal than woodworking.
This is the latest outdoor chair made of tigerwood. No relation to Tiger Woods Greg...
I still might explore refinements to the front legs by tapering them. What do you think?
The side panel may have openings in future chairs.
Sometimes I get negative feedback about branding my logo on chairs for sale. Does the logo bother you?
The weekend started as I thrashed at the ground on a sunny Saturday morning. I didn’t much like that sort of work but there was something timeless about digging holes to start a project. This was the beginning of a two-story entrance porch tower. A tower that strives to climb up into the trees begins with the search for a solid footing.
At the home improvement store I stacked, paid for and loaded bags of concrete into my truck. I felt my truck after empty rush hour commutes was happy in the sunshine loaded down with bags of concrete. It was doing what it was built to do. It’s good when we live as we were intended.
On the job site I lugged bags of concrete up the hill, heaved them into the mixer, gashed them open, mixed the concrete with water, and poured it into the ground. Concrete never seems to fill as much area as you think it will. But it’s best not to dwell on that. It’s better to go get another bag of concrete.
Estimating the amount of concrete needed is a volume calculation but it never seems to work for me. Complex numbers aren’t as helpful as we believe. Ancient man had three numbers, one, two, and many. When it comes to bags of concrete I find ancient numbers more useful.
The job would take many bags of concrete, that’s all I really needed to know. After the work, if I cared to count, I would then know it took seventy-three bags of concrete to build the foundation. Confronting that fact first thing in the morning would just be a downer.
It was slow, dirty, exhausting work. I often questioned why I was doing it. Why not pay someone else to do this thankless work that will mostly disappear into the earth. It was the weekend a time when most sane people relax after a weeks work. But I choose to spend the weekend pouring concrete. What the hell is wrong with me?
Sunday evening as my pleasantly exhausted body melts into a chair and a glass of wine I know my time was well spent. We have a foundation that in the morning will be as solid as rock. I will stand upon it as I leave for work and delight in the knowledge that we made something lasting. Reaching for the stars is only possible with a good foundation.
One day my wife and I will sip morning coffee up in the trees with the squirrels. The tiny grin on my face will be the only clue that below us is a good foundation.
It was a cold wet morning. My mood was melancholy. The sun had not yet come out. I was setting up the woodshop for the work of the day when I tripped over a stack of cedar scraps on the floor.
“Damn, I need to get that crap out of the way,” was my first thought.
I took a deep breath, felt the crispness of the air and allowed my self a second thought. The strips of cedar were not crap they were beautiful. It seemed wasteful to break them up and stack them on the woodpile to be burned. This was especially true because we found our ability to make wood scraps far outweighed our rate of burn. The woodpile had gotten out of hand.
“What do you guys want to be?” I said to the cedar scraps assuming their gender was male. I took a sip of coffee that had been neglected in order to keep the pace of work. Slowing down is hard. My thoughts departed upon a new path. What had been waste moments before now had value.
I opened my sketchbook and turned to a new page. Stacking some of the small scraps made a prototype something like a child’s log cabin. Light came through the spaces between slats. As my mind imagined my hand marked the page.
“Light and wood are great friends,” I thought bounding happily into the design logistics of making a lamp.
The first attempt was to drill holes in each slat after they were cut to length and use vertical dowels to align all the pieces. This proved to be tedious and unnecessary but errors are the bedrock of design. Then I devised a three-sided jig that would allow the slats to be glued and stacked vertically. After stacking, the entire lamp could be compressed with clamps to bond the glue. Design is often as much about how to make, as it is what to make.
Larger scraps of cedar are used for the base and top. A simple light socket is screwed to the underside of the base and can be unscrewed to replace the bulb. That simple solution to replacing the bulb that is otherwise not accessible took a long time to figure out. We so often underestimate the difficulty of doing something simply.
One of my favorite tools in the woodshop is the badass one and a half horsepower belt sander. She’s a beast! Apparently it’s a female belt sander.
Once the glue is dry the uneven ends of the slats and the blobs of glue visit the belt sander. The operation is great fun because something rough becomes clean and refined in a few dusty minutes.
120 and then 220 sanding follow the rough shaping and the lamp is smooth to the touch. My fingers revel upon the monolithic surface made of many cedar slats.
The last and most rewarding step is to rub pure Tung oil into the lamp. The oily cloth makes the colors and patterns of the wood jump and pop. All that’s left is to wait until evening to turn the lamp on and watch the light play with the wood. A glass or two of wine helps with the wait.
Making something beautiful out of material that was destine to be waste is a wonderful way to spend a day.
These places of thinking and making draw closer every day.
This is the beginning of a collection of thoughts and experiences encountered during a lifetime of designing and making things. These words and images are a travel log documenting the journey of a simple guy seeking to create good things and live a good life.
I am an architect and find joy in designing things. I also find joy in making things. Integrating these modes of thought and action into one harmonious endeavor is my passion.
But that’s the deep end of the pool. Most of the time the words that follow will come from the shallows. This is about making a design discovery or sanding a beautiful piece of wood while slowing down to appreciate the joy of life.