Design Harmony

Rob Tillotson, AIA president and licensed architect and professional engineer

 AIA Maine President Rob Tillotson on the importance of collaborative design.

AIA Design Theory

In MH+D’s continuing collaboration with AIA Maine, we present to you each month a design concept from an architect’s point of view.

As both a licensed architect and professional engineer, Rob Tillotson has been a longtime advocate of integrated design, which he says is the keystone of sustainability. As the current president of AIA Maine and founder and president of Oak Point Associates, a full-service, multidisciplinary firm, he believes in bringing together what may have once been opposing forces—architects and engineers—into a collaborative, harmonious group of professionals with many views and backgrounds who share a common goal. “Instead of the architect as ‘rock star’ with engineer ‘roadies,’” says Tillotson, “it’s more of a supergroup, or orchestra, with the architect as musician/conductor, bringing out the best from the ensemble of designers.” MH+D asked him to tell us more.

Q. How do the disciplines in your firm collaborate?

A. Our design studios are specifically set up for collaboration, and from the beginning of a project I encourage people to think outside the box, to bring any and all thoughts to the discussion. Sometimes significant architectural ideas come from folks who aren’t architects, and architects have come up with some very innovative solutions for the engineering team. The design conversation begins with the owner and architect. We like to add our other designers and engineers to that conversation early on and take a team approach to the design, evaluation, and modeling of every project. All of the designers—architects, interior designers, landscape architects, and civil, structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers—play an integral role in the project. Balancing first cost with long-term efficiency, and ultimately savings, is something that we strive for, and we provide our clients with life-cycle information so that they can make more informed decisions on building options.

Q. What are the benefits to this kind of approach?

A. The result is a building that functions on many different levels: beautiful architecture enhanced by thermal comfort, good acoustics, healthy ventilation, natural daylighting, and proper lighting, on a site that works programmatically and sustainably. Rather than hiding the structure of the building beneath a skin, why not show off what’s holding up the building? The interplay between the structural engineer and architect can result in interesting details and rhythm of structure, rather than just hiding this important and expensive component of the architecture.

Q. What is an example of integrated design?

A. Lighting design incorporating daylight is a critical facet of integrated design, which is developed by the architect and in-house lighting designer. Natural light is something that humans are hardwired to respond to, and one of the most important factors I consider when siting and designing a building. We do a lot of school design, as well as workspace design, and the benefits of natural daylighting to comfort, student performance, and productivity (not to mention energy conservation) are well documented. It’s so important to incorporate daylighting in a way that minimizes glare and thermal stress, and through modeling, we do that very well in our designs. I love the connection to the outdoors in all of the seasons.

Q. How has the idea of integrated design played out in your work?

The site drives and informs the design of the building. We’ve worked on some really challenging sites over the years, but have always managed to turn that into an opportunity rather than a limiter.

We recently designed a project whose program would have normally been on one level with a large footprint. The previously undeveloped site had numerous environmental, access, and topographic constraints that would have required significant alterations and limited the program for a single-story building. Instead, we used the challenges as an opportunity to design a three- story building with at-grade access on all floors. This was accomplished through the collaboration of the owner, architect, landscape architect, and civil, structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers. The result was a smaller footprint that kept the noisier, transportation-related functions on the lower level off to one side; the entrance in the front, with the more public functions on the main level; and the offices and classrooms on the upper level with rear access adjacent to a wooded area. Nearly all of the work areas and public spaces have daylight and views. Vegetated roofs reduce the storm-water-treatment requirements while providing habitat potential.

We incorporated many features into the building that reduce the project’s impact on the environment, like geothermal heating and cooling, photovoltaic panels, and LED lighting, and the project is expected to receive LEED Gold certification. The result is a beautiful building that “just works,” belying the countless hours of collaborative design that went into it.

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