The Big Idea



Edited by Rebecca Falazno
Photography Trent Bell

Architect T. Scott Teas tells us how buildings come alive.

Architect T. Scott Teas, principal of TFH Architects, would argue that design does not become architecture without employing the artistic values of scale, proportion, rhythm, and progression. He believes that design excellence evolves from the intelligent selection and interrelationship of all the materials that make up and go into a building. “Combined with the thoughtful employment of structural, mechanical, and electrical systems and available technology,” he says, “a building can literally be made to come alive.” Each component reinforces, or as architects often say, ‘talks to,’ the other components. This interaction is the glue that reinforces a “central theme” and holds the design together. MH+D asked Teas to explain more.

Q: How do you collaborate during the design process to reach that “big idea”?
A: My prime focus is always to meet the client’s needs and expectations. However, my goal is to create a meaningful and memorable experience for the building’s users as well as for the community at large. The process always begins by listening carefully and absorbing all the nuances both of the program and of the site. Our designs typically evolve from collaboration among the client, my associates within TFH Architects, and our engineers and consultants. On smaller projects the collaboration may be just between the client and me. With most of our commissions, however, one or more associates, and as many as eight consultants, jointly contribute to the development of the design. My objective is to always identify and embrace as many meaningful and relevant ideas as we can early in the design process.
Subsequent to this interaction, and after extensive and often lively discussion with team members, I attempt to seek a place of mental solitude. Usually this happens in the early morning before being bombarded with the issues of the day. Most often it is here when the “central theme” of a design emerges. I believe that, in order to be effective, this theme or, as it is sometimes referred to, the “Big Idea,” must embrace the essence of our objective, give strong clues as to the building’s form, and be able to be expressed in several simple gestures.

Q: Can you give us examples of central themes in your projects?
A: For our addition to the nineteenth-century Patten Free Library in Bath, it was the cultural context that played the major role in the development of the theme and, in turn, the design language. The overriding geometric “move” was inspired by the curvilinear lines of the numerous sailing ships that have been launched along the banks of the Kennebec River over the last two hundred years. In turn, a fan-shaped stack configuration provided natural wayfinding that terminated at study carrels where readers can look back at the river. The end result is a civic building with a unique connection to the history of the community that it serves.
I also believe that architects have a responsibility to be stewards of the natural environment as well as all resources associated with a project. At the Child Care Center on the USM campus in Gorham, we exceeded the campus goals for sustainable design through a holistic approach to the building. Our client, with no fewer than five individuals representing many aspects of campus life, from childcare to maintenance to sustainability, along with our engineering consultants played a huge role in developing the “Big Idea.” The south face of glass windows and doors effectively link the children’s indoor and outdoor play spaces. Light shelves were employed in conjunction with the expanse of glass in order to control unwanted summer solar gain and to bounce natural light deep into activity spaces. Designed of composite wood and fiberglass and fabricated by a local boatbuilder, these character-defining elements provide a warm, inviting, and an intimate scale to the space, while providing a learning tool for teaching kids about sustainability.

Q: Orson Welles once said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Do you find that is true with architecture?
A: It is rare that a client comes to us with a budget that is adequate to accomplish all his or her objectives. I firmly believe that restricted budgets have often provided the basis for some of our most creative design solutions. Economies can be found by accomplishing several objectives with one “design move.” When that duality begins to interact with the other building components while reinforcing the “Big Idea,” even greater efficiency can be realized. When the requirements of a client’s program have been met, when we have acknowledged and respected a project’s context, when there has been the opportunity for individual contribution and team interaction, when a central theme is created that embraces the essence of the program and site, when all the design decisions are interconnected to and reinforce each other, and when we have been mindful of the use of natural resources, I like to say that the design has achieved “a sense of rightness.”