Fort Worth Architecture

I recently had an opportunity to spend some time walking through the Sundance Square area of Fort Worth.  This is a unique area and well worth a visit.  Whether your interests are cultural, architectural, historical, gastronomical or shopping and entertainment, you can’t go wrong in Downtown Fort Worth!  It is one of the best downtown walking areas in the country; it even has its own website, www.sundancesquare.com.

The cultural attractions are many.  The one that most impressed me was the Bass Performance Hall.  Completed in 1998, the hall features just over 2,000 seats.  It also is an architectural wonder with its European Opera House style looks. The amazing trumpeting angel sculptures that adorn its facade are truly breathtaking!

The architectural style is mixed and runs from 19th Century cattle-town chic to Art Deco to modern.  Some of the buildings I found most interesting include the Sinclair Building (Art Deco, with its Mayan influences) to the restored brick buildings including the Knights of Pythius Hall and the Jett Building (supposedly haunted) with its Chisholm Trail mural.  The Ashton Hotel, a beautifully restored, Italianate style building with wrought iron balconies, decorative brick and stone is the only building of this style in the Fort Worth area.  Not only perfectly preserved on the outside, the interior speaks volumes about the elegance of earlier times.

Many famous Western figures spent time in Fort Worth including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as the rest of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.  This is where the famous picture was taken that led to their having to flee the country.  The spot is marked on Main Street where the photo was taken.  Others known to have frequented the area include Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and gambler, Luke Short (there is an historical marker on the building that housed Luke Short’s casino).

Many excellent restaurants and bars dot the area including Mi Cocina (great Mexican cuisine) and the Flying Saucer with its elevated outside seating area.  You will find something to excite any appetite from pastry to pasta to el pollo.  There are also many unique boutiques, shops and art galleries in the Sundance Square area where you can find anything from Western wear (the Retro Cowboy) to reproductions of famous Western art by such luminaries as C. M. Russell and Frederick Remington (Sid Richardson Museum).  Original Russell and Remington art is currently on display through May 13, 2012.

One final, and I think, bittersweet memory of Fort Worth’s historical and cultural importance is the Hilton Hotel.  Located at the southern edge of the Sundance Square area, it was the site of JFK’s stay the night before he was assassinated.  The hotel was then called the Hotel Texas.  The morning of the assassination, Kennedy delivered a speech in the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom.  Currently, a memorial to JFK is being erected across from the hotel’s main entrance.

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Architecture, Environment and H2O

What do you get when you combine environmental awareness, educational opportunities and historical understanding – The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium!  Located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa, the facility is a mecca for those interested in all things aquatic.   My wife and I had a chance to explore it when we spent a day in Dubuque during a recent fall motorcycle trip.

The center consists of two main buildings as well as an assortment of boats and other outdoor learning stations and is located in the old Ice Harbor area on the west bank of the Mississipi River near downtown Dubuque.  The first part, the William Woodward Mississippi River Center, opened in 2003.  Designed by EHDD Architecture of San Francisco, the structure houses multiple aquariums and exhibits.  According to EHDD’s website, the client wanted a structure that fit with the 19th Century riverfront and industrial architecture of the city.  Local materials like limestone and wood frame windows were chosen so the structure would blend seamlessly with the surrounding buildings.

The new portion of the facility (seen on the left side of the photos 1-3 below) was combined with the old Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works factory (the low-slung structure at the right in photos 1-3).  At the time of its closing in the 1970s, the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works company was the second-oldest ship builder in the country.  During its operational life, the company built everything from steam-driven riverboats to naval sub chasers and mine layers.

Inside the main facility are eight aquariums with fish, amphibians and reptiles from all ecosystems along the 2,552 mile-long Mississippi.  There are also many historical displays to explore.  You can step inside a riverboat, explore life on a flatboat, and view the natural habitat of the Mississippi on a boardwalk trail; these are just three of the many educational opportunities available to visitors.  There is also a hands-on learning center with a touch-tank and many animal specimens.  You can even partake in outdoor environmental presentations like a river otter show and step aboard a real Mississippi riverboat, the William M. Black, as well as a tug, the Logsdon.

In 2010 the Diamond Jo National Rivers Center was added to the campus.  While the original facility, the William Woodward Mississippi River Center, is primarily focused on the Mississippi, the National Rivers Center designed by Christopher Chadbourne and Associates, deals with a wide variety of aquatic environments from oceans and seas to other major river systems and waterways.  There are four saltwater aquariums, one of which is the 32 by 15 foot, 40,000 gallon Gulf of Mexico aquarium.  This giant aquarium contains sharks, rays and moray eels.  There are also many historical displays covering everything from Native Americans and Voyageurs to famous people associated with river transportation and exploration.

We were impressed with the number of environmental displays in the National Rivers Center and of the abundance of environmental information.   One interesting fact I discovered was how much water can be saved by using a car wash instead of a hose; a car wash can cut water usage in half!  The Center is also a research facility, the National River Research Center, dedicated to learning more about the science and history of rivers.  There is also a library of books, paintings, documents, photographs and manuscripts of America’s river history.  One final feature of the new Rivers Center is the 3-D and 4-D theater.  Museum goers get a break on tickets to the films, but you do not need to buy a museum ticket to see them.  You can purchase tickets for the theater only.

If you are in the Upper Midwest, a trip to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium complex is a “must-see” opportunity for all ages.  Make sure you set aside at least a half-day, and I believe, you will find things to see and do there even if you choose to spend an entire day.  And, as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Museums, you can be sure that you will receive a high-quality learning experience.

 

Wright and the Middle Class – The Usonian Dream

For an architect of Frank Lloyd Wright’s stature and ego, to pursue affordable architecture for the average person seems out of character.  But that was the goal of his Usonian dream.  Based on the Populist and Progressive ideas of elevating the common man, Usonian (a term pulled from United States of North America) architecture sought to democratize building.  Wright’s Usonian homes were simple, one-story homes, of modest square footage, without a garage, a basement, or much storage.  They were also modest in exterior adornment.  Like the earlier Prairie School houses, the Usonian homes usually featured low roofs with large overhangs and open living areas.  Bernard Pyron wrote that for Wright, “Nature, Democracy, Spirituality, Culture and Art all became talismans that he used to promote the ideas spawned from this worldview.”  As a result, Wright came to believe that members of the middle and lower classes might be cultivated to appreciate great art and to develop as individuals in a free, democratic culture. In Frank Lloyd Wright’s mind, to accomplish this meant developing a uniquely American architecture that was affordable for all.  All these beliefs led to the development of his Usonian architecture.

Wright’s Usonian homes aimed at using as much local material as possible, a sustainable idea that Wright had long supported, and one he used in the construction of his own home, Taliesin.  Wright also wanted these homes to be compatible with their natural surroundings; to flow from them and blend naturally with the landscape.  He wanted organic structures with lots of natural materials and lots of windows that made use of natural light, and that allowed the inhabitants to experience the land around them.

My wife and I happened to stumble on an open house at one of Wright’s Usonian homes while on a motorcycle ride in southern Wisconsin this past weekend.  I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to walk around the grounds and to take pictures of the exterior of the home.  I am not going to reveal the location of this property as it is still occupied by family members of the original owner, and their privacy needs to be respected.  For that reason, I am going to be purposefully vague on certain details.

The story behind this house is a great one, and is certainly true to Wright’s goal for a democratic architectural style.  The house was built in the early 1950s by a young professional who wanted to construct a house for his family for a maximum of $15,000.  In order to accomplish this, he would act as his own general contractor, doing some of the work himself.   Two things led to Wright’s involvement with the project.  First, the owner had attended the University of Wisconsin where a professor had fostered his interest in Wright’s designs.  Second, his wife had worked for and developed a relationship with Wright’s sister, Jane.  These two bits of fate put him in touch with the architect, and Wright accepted the challenge of designing a home for under $15,000.  After all, wasn’t this perfectly aligned with his goal of affordable architecture for the masses?  (Like many of his projects, the final costs were well above the initial $15,000, but were still modest in comparison to projects done by world-renowned architects like Wright.)

The house was designed around a core structure of limestone that juts above the main roofline.  This central structure contained the kitchen, laundry and a small bath.  To the east of this core was the master bedroom and a carport.  (The carport was later turned into more living space using a design by a Wright apprentice.  The addition blends seamlessly with Wright’s original design.)  Projecting out to the north from the core limestone tower is a hexagonal living space adorned with lots of of windows.  There is also a patio area with a partial low rock wall adjoining this portion of the house.   The bedroom wing stretches south from the hexagonal living area, and is also heavily adorned with windows on its west side.   A flower garden flows alongside the bedroom wing culminating in a man-made rock glen patio at the south end.

The stonework in the walls of the home is beautiful and intricate.  Although Usonian homes were supposed to be lacking external adornment, the walls of this house feature individual pieces of limestone that jut out creating interesting patterns and shadows, as well as lending a sense of organic construction.  Much of this limestone was actually quarried by the owner and then hauled to the building site early each day before he went to his office.

The home is a treasure, and I feel fortunate to have spent some time with it.  It blends naturally with the surroundings, and is easily missed from the street.  When first built, it had an open view overlooking a valley to the north-northwest.  Sixty years later, Nature has reclaimed much of the hilltop, but you can still see the valley through a small opening.  Wright said, “I would like to have a free architecture.  Architecture that belonged where you see it standing—and is a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.”  I think he and the owner succeeded here!

*The slideshow below was organized as a counter-clockwise walk around the property, beginning in the paved parking area at the front entry.  The walk goes towards the east, around the original master bedroom area, then around the family-main living area, along the bedroom wing then through the flower garden and back to the paved area in front of the house.

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Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture – Sustainable or Not?

A 21st Century building project will probably not get off the ground if it isn’t tied to sustainable design, and most of us would agree, “That’s a good thing!”  But building and architecture during the late 19th and most of the 20th Century were not driven by any national push to be sustainable and environmentally friendly.  So did Frank Lloyd Wright, one of that time period’s most influential architects, build sustainability into his buildings?  It really depends on how you interpret his designs.

Wright was a major proponent of organic architecture.  This school of thought believes that architecture should reflect nature, and that organic design should put humans, and the buildings they inhabit, into a harmonious coexistence with nature.  Wright’s love for nature came, at least in part, from growing up in rural Wisconsin.  His designs sought to incorporate nearby, natural materials when possible, and to use them in a way that allowed their natural beauty to show through.  Wood wasn’t covered with paint; stone shouldn’t be plastered over; let buildings appear to be emerging from the land where they are situated.  Many of his projects, including his own home, Taliesin, used local material.  Taliesin, located on a hill overlooking the Wisconsin River, features locally quarried limestone and plaster made with sand from the banks of that river.  By using natural material obtained nearby, transportation costs and fuel use were greatly reduced.  By limiting what was painted, fewer chemicals entered the living space. both of these are sustainable practices.

Another sustainable idea Wright incorporated into many of his buildings was thermal mass walls.  This practice aims at reducing heating and cooling costs because a large volume of masonry material has the capacity to store thermal energy for extended periods of time.  Wright also used a lot of glass for natural lighting.  He combined this use of glass with a large overhang on the roof.  This large overhang did two things that align with sustainability.  First, they shaded the windows so that the building would stay cooler in the summer, and they moved moisture (in the form of rain) out and away from the windows and walls so that there was less external moisture penetration of the building envelope.

Not everything Wright designed turned out to be a study in sustainable perfection.  Often the windows designed to let in and utilize natural light, also let in the wind, cold and rain.  This happened because the union between the wall and the window was not taken into account by Wright’s design nor by his instruction and supervision; it just wasn’t that important to him.  Projects like his Freeman House, where concrete block was manufactured on site, often turned into disasters of cost overruns and product failures; good sustainable design, but poor sustainability from a supervision and implementation standpoint.  Even his architectural gem, Fallingwater, literally fell apart because of poor material and bad engineering of the cantilevered decks.

So what can we conclude about sustainability from a study of Frank Lloyd Wright?  In my opinion, he was a true architectural genius, and many of his ideas were and are good, environmentally sound, sustainable practices.  Where he failed in the realm of sustainability was in his lack of supervision and follow-through.  I get the impression that at a certain point his mind became bored with the mundane world of follow-through and follow-up.  His genius was racing on toward the next great design.  We can all take away something from this that too often rears its ugly head, even today.  All parties involved in a building project need to be involved at all stages of a project.  Everyone’s input is necessary and important, and we can’t walk away from the building process just because we are done with the design.  Does the design translate from the conceptual to the practical?  Are we on the project looking to see that our design works and is it being followed correctly?  Is the supervision on the jobsite ever-present and effective?  Are the materials we’ve specified working together properly and doing what they were marketed to do; and if not, are we making the necessary changes?  These nuts-and-bolt, mundane issues are as important to sustainability as the design itself.

Resources:

Frank Lloyd Wright:  His Philosophy of Architecture

Building Envelope Design Guide – Masonry Wall Systems

Wrights Taliesin Showcases “Organic” Architecture

USA Home and Garden:  Fallingwater

Frank Lloyd Wright overhang above many windows.

Restored Frank Lloyd Wright Park Inn Hotel Opens

101 years after it first opened, Wright’s Park Inn Hotel is back in the lodging business.  While work is still taking place, guests can once again make reservations to stay at the renovated hotel, and a Grand Opening is planned for September 5-11.

I spent some time last week walking around the hotel and adjoining bank building, and the architectural detailing is amazing.  Spend a little time around this structure and you will begin to realize why it was worth the nearly $20 million that was spent restoring it.  Words cannot do justice to the mix of stained glass, rich woods, brass, copper and brick that have been blended together by Wright’s masterful touch into an architectural symphony.  I have included some recent photos below to help tell the tale, and more are available on our Facebook page.

The original bank and adjoining hotel were designed for James E. Blythe and J. E. E. Markley, two Mason City attorneys.  They wanted a building that could compete with the new, eight story bank that was being constructed across the street.  Markley was familiar with Wright because his daughters attended a school in Spring Green, Wisconsin, that Wright had designed.  The original Blythe and Markley structure contained a bank, the law offices of Blythe and Markley, and the 42 room hotel.  It opened in 1910.  It remained the area’s premiere hotel until 1922 when a more modern, upscale eight story hotel opened nearby.  From that point on, the story of the Park Inn was one of decline.

The Wright on the Park organization has overcome many obstacles to bring the Park Inn Hotel back to life.  Their website, wrightonthepark.org, has numerous photos covering the renovation process as well as background information on the building, the community and Frank Lloyd Wright.  Anyone with an interest in Wright should make a visit to see his only remaining hotel as well as the Stockman House, a private residence designed by Wright.  There are also several other homes designed by Prairie School architects in Mason City.   If you enjoy Prairie School architecture and the Arts and Crafts period, a trip to Mason City is well worth your time; and now you have a place to stay that epitomizes these styles.

Saving the Environment – One Digital Business Practice at a Time!

Although digital meeting and digital publication options for business have been around for some time, many businesses don’t take full advantage of them.  At MTI we realized several years ago that the old ways of doing business weren’t sustainable.  We also realized that if we were touting products that made buildings more sustainable and more environmentally friendly, we should probably be doing business the same way.

Technology is not going away.  While it certainly has negatives, the communication possibilities are so great, it needs to be embraced by businesses of all sizes.  The digital communication practices that follow are sustainable business practices we firmly recommend.

Minimize print matter.  There is no reason to maintain a binder full of product catalogs in the 21st Century.  PDF versions of product catalogs and product flyers are easy to search and easy to store, and they are much more environmentally friendly.  We have all been to major tradeshows and conferences where we’ve witnessed volumes of discarded catalogs, brochures, etc. packed into overflowing trash receptacles.  If we feel compelled to hand out some print matter, why not a business card with our URL?  Or better yet, let’s just put our QR code on a sign and let interested parties take a digital image.  The QR code reader on their smart phone can take them to our electronic media when they have time to look at it.

Digital media can do so much more than print media.  PDFs aren’t just about sending print and images.  They can also contain video and audio.  My document written in English can contain links to translations in other languages or explanatory movies with narrations in other languages.  The possibilities are endless, and they can be delivered in seconds around the world at little cost and on demand.  Utilizing email for product updates and company newsletters is also much quicker, much more economical and much more environmentally responsible than the postcards and brochures we used to rely on for getting the message out.

Rethink business travel and training.  Web meetings can and should supplant sales calls and business meetings.  Most of us complain about the cost of gas, the hassle of airport security checks, the threat of bedbugs, etc., but are we still heading off to a meeting in some other state or some other country?  Sure there are times when we have to be there in person, but many times we don’t; and the savings to the bottom-line and to the environment are huge!   There are many ways we can do meetings online, and the costs have come down tremendously because of the number of services competing for your business.   Not only can you hear and see each other, you can even work on the same documents online, and the down time involved with travel can now be used more productively.

Web conferencing can also be used effectively for training.  Most web conferencing software has a record function built in so that people who are unable to attend can get a rebroadcast of the session.  This saves on the instructor’s time and expense, and it makes the content available in the same format so you’re confident everyone received the same message.

Old habits die hard, but businesses large and small can benefit greatly from adopting 21st Century digital communication practices.  They are sustainable, economical and effective.

Creating Sustainable Rainscreen Building Envelopes: It’s Like Motorcycles and Rain Suits!

Sustainable building isn’t possible without moisture management.  And for those forced to live or work in a building without moisture management, life becomes a health and safety nightmare.  Bold statements, but totally supportable.

According to the HUD’s Path Project, “Moisture, in all of its physical forms, is commonly regarded as the single greatest threat to durability and the long-term performance of the housing stock.  Excessive exposure to moisture is not only a common cause of significant damage to many types of building components and materials, it also can lead to unhealthy indoor living environments.  A long list of serious adverse effects can result from moisture problems in houses.  There is wide agreement that successful management of moisture in its various forms is essential for houses (buildings) to be durable, safe and energy efficient.”  In its 2004 report, the Path Projected listed the following outcomes of uncontrolled moisture in the building envelope:

  • Decay of wood and corrosion of metals
  • Infestation by termites and other destructive insects
  • Negative impacts on indoor air quality
  • Growth of mold, mildew and other biological contaminants
  • Reduced building material strength
  • Expansion/contraction damage to materials
  • Reduced thermal resistance of wet insulation
  • Premature failures of paints and coatings
  • Damage to building contents
  • Negative effects on building aesthetics

Enter the key phrase sustainable rainscreen building envelope into Google and you will get more than 18,000 results, including MTI’s “Drainable is Sustainable” presentation delivered at last fall’s technical meeting of the Sealant Waterproofing and Restoration Institute.  A key point of the presentation is that a moisture management solution for the rainscreen building envelope requires a systemic/holistic approach.  There is no single magic bullet; it takes a well-thought-out, coordinated system of products and processes designed and implemented by a team of professionals working collaboratively at every stage of the project to reach a successful outcome.

To illustrate the importance of a coordinated system in moisture management, I used the analogy of a motorcyclist riding towards an approaching storm in that presentation.

“It’s a nice sunny day, so I decide to go for a motorcycle ride.  Being an experienced motorcyclist, I always have raingear in my saddlebags because it’s summer and anything is possible!  As I move through the countryside, I notice that the sky is darkening and a storm is imminent so I pull over and put on my rain suit.

In a matter of minutes, the rain starts.  It’s light at first but soon becomes heavy, and it’s coupled with a driving wind.  Rain is forced around my windshield and into my eyes greatly limiting my ability to see the road.  Water cascades off my helmet and runs down the back of my neck soaking my shirt.  The water on the highway flies upward leaking into my boots through the seams and around the tongue.  To make matters even worse, it’s a hot, humid day so beads of condensation start to form on the inside of my rain suit making for an increasingly miserable ride!  Obviously, even though I thought I was prepared for rain, I hadn’t looked at all possibilities.”

Even though I had a collection of items designed to keep me dry, I hadn’t thought out the outcome fully, and I hadn’t properly combined the items into a functioning system.  If I had used goggles or a helmet with a visor, I could have seen the road better.  If I had used the hood on my jacket and worn it under the helmet, I wouldn’t have gotten rain down my back.  If I had used a rain jacket with vents, air could have moved around inside the system and reduced the condensation. Finally, had I worn rain boots with my rain pants lapped over the top of the boots and fastened snugly, I wouldn’t have got wet from the water spraying up from the road.

So what can be learned from this analogy about the importance of a system in solving the building envelope moisture management problem?  It takes many products, put on in the right order and at the right time, to create a positive result. We need to look at how many factors are in play and then employ several moisture management solutions as part of a system to solve the problem.

This same idea of a coordinated, multi-component solution can be applied to the people designing, specifying and constructing a building.  Gone are the days when designers, specifiers and contractors could successfully do their jobs in a vacuum.  There are just too many new products, processes and complex codes for the “Lone Ranger” approach to work.  Everyone must collaborate and communicate if a sustainable, healthy building is the goal.

Those are my thoughts; I welcome yours!

HD Big Twin