Accolades for Architecture

04-House-on-Casco-Bay-North-Elevation-Night FEATURE-June 2010 by Rebecca Falzano

The 2010 AIA Maine award winners

In early 2010, in the opposite corner of the country, four Seattle-based American Institute of Architects members convened to deliberate on the best architectural design in the state of Maine. This meeting happens every two years, when the Maine chapter of the AIA solicits the best of Maine architecture for a design competition juried by a group that includes a nationally prominent peer from outside the state. To be considered for the 2010 AIA Maine Design Awards, projects had to be from 2006 or later and designed by architects whose primary offices are in Maine (although projects do not have to be located in Maine; in fact, one was in New Hampshire this year). Commercial and residential projects were both considered, and the 2010 competition saw a healthy mix of the two.
Bruce Norelius, an architect in Maine and California and AIA Maine chairperson for the Committee on Design, uncrated the entries at Olson Kundig Architects in Seattle in preparation for the jury. “As long as I’ve been in Maine, I’ve seen a consistent, healthy investigation by architects seeking to design buildings that respond to the very special context in which we work and live. The simple question for us always is, ‘How do we respect the natural and built landscape of Maine?’ Everyone answers that question differently, and it changes all the time, but my sense is that the solutions are becoming more sophisticated, nuanced, and complex, and this year’s entries reflect that brilliantly.”

Maine Home+Design is honored to announce the winners of the 2010 AIA Maine Design Awards.

From a field of thirty-four entries, this year’s highest award went to a house on Casco Bay in Freeport designed by Blue Hill–based Elliott & Elliott Architecture. Lead juror Tom Kundig called it “a superb, disciplined home that explores the idea of a sensitive reference to historical building precedent in a modern language of appropriate building tectonics in a current cultural context.”

Architects Matt Elliott and Corey Papadopoli say the project reflects two seemingly disparate ideas: the memory of a nineteenth-century Cape Cod–style house that stood on the site for more than 100 years and the desire for a minimalist spatial expression. These ideas are connected by the use of glass interstitial elements that link traditional wooden skins. The glass allows the space to expand beyond its boundaries to engage the landscape and gardens, blurring the line between interior and exterior. The materials further merge the traditional with a more modern style: white clapboards, wood shingles, and wood flooring for the wooden boxes; high-performance glass, stainless steel, and stone slabs for the glass prisms. Fellow juror Jim Dow admired the precision of the design and construction. “Tight—everything was tight,” he says. “There was no wasted, added-on fluff. The design is disciplined, edited, and the team (owner included) honored that approach all the way through.” Matt Elliott summed up the design, “The project is clearly of Maine and yet the idea that you can take a very familiar form, tweak its details, and then combine it with something that is clearly from a different time and yet feels comfortable with the old fabric is a powerful exploration of how to relate past, present, and future while respecting all of those things. This house has a sense of history, a sense of place, and a sense of purpose.”

Following the Honor Award, the jurors selected two Merit Awards, two Citation Awards, and two Doing the Right Thing Awards, a new category introduced to reward architectural design with good intentions.

Merit Award: Weir Residence, West Bath

Architect Carol Wilson of Falmouth designed this home for a New England couple who had lived in the South for thirty years before deciding to return to Maine. Wilson’s charge: to create “a simple setting for eclectic furniture and crafts.” The design, however, was anything but simple. Contradicting an essential Maine requirement for south-facing glass to provide warmth and light, Wilson designed the house with views of Mill Cove that face due north. These conflicting needs were reconciled by tall, south-facing glass looking toward future gardens and a band of horizontal, north-facing windows framing Mill Cove. “The simplicity and clarity of the exterior form seem perfectly matched with equally successful interiors,” says juror Annie Han. “Of particular note are the many great details and design decisions, such as the clean eave and roof transitions, the barn-red exterior color choice, and bold approach to fenestration that invites the panoramic landscape into the house.”

According to Wilson, this kind of unconventional approach to design can encourage a type of freedom. “For all of the progressiveness in this part of the world, people still hold on to their allusions to architectural history. Perhaps they feel more comfortable in that realm, or perhaps they have not spent time in a modern house, or maybe they think there is less risk building a ‘traditional’ house,” she says. “I think once a person has lived with a house that responds to the environment that it would be hard to return to a conventional house.”

Merit Award: Foster Student Innovation Center, Orono
As the site of the new innovation engineering program at the University of Maine at Orono, this space designed by Biddeford-based Oak Point Associates was meant to inspire innovation and entrepreneurship. The goal was to balance minimalism and comfort, public and private spaces, and areas for creative work and formal business interactions. Nestled into a wooded site, the 6,000-square-foot LEED Silver-certified center blends into its surroundings with stone, copper, and a low roof. The architecture and interior finish—wood, steel, glass, and polished concrete—convey casual functionality, as well as professional sophistication.

The project itself served as a learning lab for students—plans and specifications were used to teach estimating, drawing, and engineering review; forestry students had hands-on experience with tree removal; and a student managed the manufacture of the university-designed experimental roof panels. “Using a relatively simplified palette to display the workings of a very worthy institution, the rigor displayed in the organization of the elements was noted by the jury,” says juror James Cutler. Project architect Rob Tillotson adds, “The special challenge was to design a building appropriate for the name of the program: the Innovation Center. We needed to design a small, flexible space with a small budget that would make a statement for the program, while fitting it into one of the remaining wooded areas on the university’s core campus.”

Citation Award: 123 Middle Street, Portland

The team at Harriman Architects & Engineers gets to enjoy their award-winning project every day. The Portland firm was recognized for the conversion of their own office space housed in a building constructed in 1867. To integrate a below-grade lower level with the upper level of the two-story space and make it suitable for occupancy as a design studio, a large opening was cut in the floor framing of the upper level. Support spaces such as meeting areas, offices, and mechanical and electrical rooms were located at the perimeter of the lower level so work stations could be located in the middle of the space with access to natural light from above. “The jury very much appreciated the way in which the old structure of the building was revealed with the new simplified glazing,” says juror James Cutler. With a desire to employ sustainable practices, but a budget of only $30 a square foot for construction, the team salvaged floor framing, unfinished steel rebar, and wood flooring. “We are thrilled to be recognized for the design of our office, which we love working in,” says architect Patrick Costin. “Our goal was to weave historic fabric with contemporary materials of varied texture and color to make the space energizing and visually rich.”

Citation Award: Hebron Academy Athletic Complex, Hebron
This athletic complex at the 200-year-old Hebron Academy was designed by Portland-based firm SMRT not only as a space for team sports but as a fitness center for the greater community. By carefully controlling views within the building as well as from the building, the design team connected the design to the bucolic surrounding landscape. And to enhance the academy’s philosophy of combining athletics and academics, SMRT came up with a design concept that is rich with mathematical references: exterior panels arranged in the numeric sequences of pi, phi, and Euler’s Constant, glazing proportioned to the Fibonacci Series, and a floor plan that also follows the Golden Mean, to name a few.

“As the first new building on the Hebron campus in forty years, it was a special honor for us to be working on a campus that had a number of buildings designed by our firm founder John Calvin Stevens,” says architect and SMRT principal-in-charge Paul Stevens. “Being ‘back on campus’ gave us the opportunity to connect and reference our design heritage.” Juror Jim Dow says, “This space is so inviting, bright, and fresh that you’d be drawn to it and look forward to working out! I liked the separation of the entry and administration space from the actual athletic areas and the creative use of a big, simple, inexpensive building to accommodate a large amount of gymnasium and workout space.”

Doing the Right Thing Award: Bright BuiltBarn, Rockland
When the jury came across this LEED Platinum-certified project designed by Kaplan Thompson Architects, they couldn’t help but recognize it. The 756-square-foot home was documented Net Zero for 2009. Not only does it generate all the electrical and heat energy it needs (through solar hot water and photovoltaic panels), reducing its annual carbon footprint to zero, it also generates substantially more electricity over the course of a year than it uses. Over time, the surplus energy will erase the “carbon debt” incurred during construction.

The team, led by architect Phil Kaplan, used a variety of local materials: white pine, small-growth laminated spruce timbers, Baltic birch interiors, and reverse board-and-batten pine siding with cedar details. Homeowners can track the building’s energy performance through an exterior LED light skirt that glows green for net energy production and red for net energy consumption. Juror Tom Kundig said the project had “a clear and well-done agenda of sitting lightly and modestly in the beautiful larger landscape with carefully studied sustainable technology and practical configuration strategies.” While Kaplan notes that Maine’s climate has always seemed to be a source of stoic pride, he believes the glory of suffering is losing its luster. “Many new homes we build are for people from away who love this place but not always our tough winters,” Kaplan says. “Couple this with the increased cost of fuel, more widespread acknowledgement of our dwindling resources, and greater accountability for the reliability of our investments and you come to an obvious conclusion: we can no longer build homes in Maine with the same walls they use in Berkley, California. Reliability and comfort have moved closer to the top of our list.”

Doing the Right Thing Award: The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire, Dover
The jury awarded Kittery-based ARQ Architects for giving new life to an outdated museum occupying a former armory building in downtown Dover that was built in the 1920s. The project achieved LEED Silver certification for its sustainable site development, water and energy savings, recycled and locally sourced materials, and improved indoor air quality. One of the goals was to feature accessibility as a central component, so ARQ created a design that revolves around a central ramp that helps organize and define the exhibition areas, while connecting the main exhibition floor to other exhibits in the renovated upper-level balcony areas. The ramp even became an exhibition space where visual arts are displayed on a rotating basis.

“While in need of improved and expanded space for exhibits and classrooms, the museum wanted to retain the hands-on feel of the former space in Portsmouth, so all of the exhibits were designed by museum staff,” explains architect Paul Bonacci. “Our challenge was to make all of this happen with a fixed and extremely limited budget.” According to juror Annie Han, “The jury was keenly aware of the effort it takes to preserve great old buildings—historic and otherwise. The design team is to be applauded for keeping the exterior in its original simple configuration and in allowing key features—such as the industrial trusses—to stand out prominently.”