Designing Solutions

Architect Ryan Senatore believes that designing is, at its core, an exercise in problem solving

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


From an early age we are taught that any problem has a solution and that problems can be approached a multitude of ways. In architecture, problems are often viewed as challenges that require creative perspectives to solve. Architect Ryan Senatore believes that designing is all about problem solving. “Each project has unique aspects of context, program, environment, and client,” he says. “At my firm we approach each project without preconceived notions of what the building or design should be, but rather research, observe, and gain an understanding of their unique aspects. Our design process results in building designs that are solutions.” MH+D asked Senatore to tell us more.

Q. A lot of your firm’s work is on mixed-use projects. How do you reconcile the very different needs of commercial and residential clients at the same time?

A. Commercial and residential uses do have very different needs and design challenges, ranging from privacy requirements to activity levels and access, to name a few. However, we have found that they can actually complement each other quite well also. The active periods of occupant use are typically balanced with commercial uses: bustling during the day when the residential occupants are at work, and then commercial use calms when the residents are home in the evening. In terms of a building’s impact on an urban environment, this situation provides an active building throughout the day and evening. In an urban environment a mixed-use project is typically more successful. Commercial uses on the street level engage the street and impact the pedestrian experience, while the upper levels provide more privacy and less noise, which is ideal for residential uses. Most zoning ordinances in urban environments encourage and sometimes require mixed- use projects, as over time they have proven to be integral to the vibrancy of the city they are within.

Q. What are some examples in your work where a problem required a creative solution?

A. Munjoy Heights is a 29-unit residential project perched on Munjoy Hill in Portland’s East End. Our client approached us about a site they were interested in and wanted ideas of how to design and build multiple multifamily buildings on the site. When we first walked the site, the design problem was quite apparent: the grades were very steep, with only a five-foot-wide level path along the cross-slope. We peered through the thick undergrowth to a spectacular view to Back Cove and the mountains beyond. The question we left with that day was “how could a building design capture the wonderful views and daylight that exist on a site with virtually no level surface?” The solution was a multidiscipline, coordinated effort that blurred the lines between building and site. The 60-foot elevation change across the site was handled in multiple steps to terrace the buildings down the hill. The uphill buildings are backed by a retaining wall to make up one story of grade, and their garage-level foundations then transition another story. The common access to the uphill and downhill buildings is via a shared-use courtyard, or “woonerf.” The downhill buildings make up another story of grade with their foundations and blend into the existing slopes’ toe with a partial-height retaining wall.

Although we knew this design challenge would require a complex design and engineering solution, we utilized the site’s elevation change to our advantage and provided five stories of glass-wall views to Back Cove and the mountains in the distance.

At West End Place, a mixed-use 39-unit residential apartment building, the context of the site was the dominant design challenge. Situated at a bustling intersection in Portland’s West End Historic District, the project site is surrounded by a diverse collection of architectural scales and forms. The neighborhood contains flat-roof structures, gable-roof structures, single-family homes, multifamily buildings, and commercial storefronts. Our challenge to integrate a large mixed-use structure into this context was not a small one. The solution we arrived at is a facade rhythm similar in scale to the buildings along the street, defined by projecting window bays. These bays create ever-changing shadows that scale the larger facade into smaller parts. The design utilizes materials that exist in the neighborhood and uses them in a contemporary way to set the building apart. The first-floor commercial uses are wrapped with an elongated gray brick that signifies a durable public base to the building with a fine scale to relate to pedestrians passing by. The upper levels are clad with lap siding, utilizing a larger scale and bright red color to reflect the residential use within and give the building a sense of lightness.

Q. Does a design “solution” to one problem ever create a different problem? And if so, how do you resolve it?

A. Yes, the design process is a very fluid process that requires testing ideas and solutions to challenges on many levels. A solution to one challenge can create a new challenge in another aspect of a project. An example of this would be designing a facade with a stepback in height along a street to meet a height restriction imparted by a zoning ordinance. The facade stepback would be a solution to the challenge but could create a facade proportion issue. We would use design as a tool to solve this new challenge: we could add projecting bays to the facade and/or contrasting material colors and textures to create a more vertical proportion. As architects we have to recognize the challenges of each aspect of the project and find solutions to those challenges that work together and result in a cohesive and successful project.