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the horizon is relentless in markets fueled by high-end appetites

By Sean O’Keefe

Mai Olaussen loves her work. She is the Director of Development for Greystar, a global blue-chip leader in multifamily rental housing that focuses on developing and operating beautiful living environments tenants are happy to call home. After 10 years on the operations side of the business, Mai convinced Greystar’s leadership that she’d be a good fit for development. Five years later, she is leading multiple projects across the country just as the finishing touches are being put on the first project started when she took the helm.

“Parq on Speer is my golden child. The quality of the living experience will be exceptional,” says Olaussen confidently. Located on the east edge of Speer Boulevard just north of 8th Avenue, Parq on Speer will be a 16-story residential tower that seeks to set itself apart from an abundance of competition by targeting the upper end of the rental market. The luxury units will range from 546- to 3,478- square feet and are designed and finished to for-sale condominium standards. Quartz countertops, hardwood floors, rain showers, and soaking tubs are joined by KitchenAid/JennAir cooktops, and walk-in closets to making these apartments live lux. Units also feature Lutron smart home systems that provide integrated voice-activated control of temperature, audio/visual, security, and lighting.

To stand-out as luxury on the rental market, like the units, the amenities package must be next-level. The building will boast 24/7 lobby concierge services, a sky lounge and private dining area, an elevated dog park and grooming spa on level three, and a well-appointed fitness center. The anchor of the building and center of resident community gathering will be the resort-inspired sixth-floor outdoor pool lounge. A covered outdoor kitchen, a collection of cabanas and fire pit lounges and the pool deck combine to offer 14,275 square feet of entertainment space facing Rocky Mountain views to the west.

“The project team has been amazing, great teamwork and communication the whole way,” says Olaussen. “From the high-end design to the smooth execution through two years of construction so far, everything is coming together beautifully.”

Putting the project team together, Greystar selected Ziegler Cooper Architects of Houston and local General Contractor, Milender White, to execute the project through a Construction Manager/General Contractor (CM/GC) delivery model. Unifying the design and construction team during preconstruction services is a proven way to decrease construction complexities and increase speed to market without jeopardizing design intent or finished quality. While Greystar’s office proximity to Ziegler Cooper in Houston facilitated the design relationship, ironically it was Milder White’s proximity to the property through a competing product that started the relationship on the construction side.

“When Greystar bought this property, Milender White was building a similar multi-family high rise on the next block,” says Shane Fobes, Construction Executive and Senior Vice President of Milender White. “We were delighted to give them a tour and the relationship blossomed from there.”

Parq on Speer, like the project Fobes was working on, sits just a hundred yards or so from Cherry Creek, which cuts a swift path along downtown Denver’s southern edge. One of the earliest preconstruction conversations Milender White had on the project centered around the commonalities in purpose and proximity of the two properties and reaping the benefits of lessons learned on the previous job.

“This close to the creek there will be a lot of groundwater,” says Fobes. “Going below-grade with the parking would be typical in a building like this but dewatering this particular site made doing so cost prohibitive. Putting parking in a podium reshaped budgeting early and influenced design substantially.”

At roughly 800,00-SF, Parq on Speer will be nearly double the size of what many would consider a large, single-building multi-family development in Denver. With the parking going vertical through the center of the block-long development, Parq on Speer’s design emerged to position the sixth-floor roof-top amenity deck as the focal point of the 302-residence apartment community. Looking out on the Front Range from a perch above Speer Boulevard, the pool deck is circled by units in the ten stories of tower rising above on three sides.

“Greystar is developing the building around a lifestyle that hits the upper threshold of the market,” says Fobes. “One of the advantages of the CM/GC process is it gives us a deep understanding of the owner’s vision for the finished spaces and their expectations for quality. This sets us up to secure the right subs for the work.”

During a year of preconstruction services, working with Greystar and Zeigler Cooper, the team dissected challenges large and small, typical and uncommon. On the common side, Fobes points out that the cost and criticality of a building’s structure are impossible to ignore on any project. In the case of Parq on Speer, post-tensioned cast-in-place concrete floor plates allowed the design great flexibility and readily accommodated the building’s curvatures. The Milender White team scrutinized the design documentation and solicited the support of several local structural subcontractors in a design-assist process to help ensure the solution would meet local means and methods. At 60,000-SF, the concrete pour sequencing for each floor plate had to be balanced with available manpower. To facilitate the swarming workforce required to build at the anticipated speed, a pre-cast redi-stair system was incorporated into the design that allowed construction labor walkable-access to the level two deck while at-grade work progressed at full speed.

“The focus has been building condominium-quality homes at apartment-quality speed,” says Fobes. “A simple thing like adding two flights of pre-cast stairs eliminated hundreds of workers climbing up chutes and ladders every day to get to and from the main construction deck for six or seven months.”

Though the cast-in-place concrete structure is typical for high-rise multifamily construction, the cladding system chosen has been a bit more of an adventure. Using Aluminum Composite Panels, known as ACM, the high-performance exterior panels interlock to form a sleek metal shell of skin that must be precisely aligned.

“The building is immense, the reveals along the panels have less than a half inch of variability, which has to be consistent vertically for 193 feet,” shares Fobes of the complexity of the exterior. “At this square footage, we believe this is the largest residential project ever clad in ACM and the manufacturer required us to guarantee panel production sizes eight months out from delivery.”

As construction approaches the final stretch, the clatter of men, machinery, motion, and anticipation of something big seems feverish on the job site. Fobes and Olaussen are both eager for the finished product but continue to relish the process.

“We were in preconstruction for a year and we’ve got a thirty-month construction schedule,” says Fobes with a smile. “We build a lot of great relationships on a project like this, between ourselves, with our clients, the design team, and subcontractors. It takes a lot of committed people working together to build something like this and when it’s done, everyone will be very proud.”

About the Author
Sean O’Keefe is an architecture and construction writer who crafts stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen. He can be reached at sean@sokpr.com.

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Looking ever toward the horizon, Shea Properties’ The Quincy typifies a development legacy

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
– Winston Churchill

Affable and understated, Peter Culshaw is a hands-on leader who understands why there is no “I” in team. As Executive Vice President of Shea Properties, he oversees more than two million square feet of commercial space along with roughly two thousand apartment homes in Colorado. While well-known sustained successes like the Denver Technological Center, Meridian Business Park, and Village Center have already cemented his status among the best to ever do it in Denver development lore, for Culshaw the horizon itself remains the thrill.

Shea Properties’ latest reveal, The Quincy located at 1776 Curtis Street, is a 28-story residential tower offering the best-in-class amenities expected of high-end, downtown living delivered in the premium quality of a build-and-hold, legacy asset. 359 luxury homes composed of studio, one- and two- bedroom units are expected to stand out for their generous proportions, extensive glazing, and the amenity plaza on level 8. A large community room, cyber café, and game room are joined by fitness facilities and an exposed rooftop lounge featuring multiple hot tubs, grilling areas, and fire pits. The property’s signature element will clearly be the pool, featuring a fully transparent exterior wall visibly perching swimmers eight-stories above Denver’s Central Business District along Curtis Street.

The amenity deck sits atop eight levels of parking, totaling 550 spaces, which is joined by ground floor retail to round out the mix of components. The Quincy represents Phase I of a two-phase site build-out. To complete the block, Phase II (now underway) will deliver Prism, an office cube in glass boasting a unique sculpturally cleaved prismatic exterior along 17th street. Combined, the two properties will offer a live, work, play lifestyle while also brilliantly illuminating Culshaw’s absolute conviction that conscientious people applying proven processes is ultimately what makes projects successful.

“The secret sauce is in getting it right,” says Culshaw when asked to consider how he measures success on The Quincy or any other development. Multi-family and office projects tend to be build and hold assets for Shea Properties, so building with high-quality materials and minimizing long-term operational costs are the basis for decision making rather than economizing development. “This opportunity is a ground-up high-rise, on a tight site in sensitive surroundings,” continues Culshaw thoughtfully. “Success in development is a team effort. We rely on in-house professionals, financial partners, and, of course, creative architects, smart contractors, and an awful lot of skilled craftsmen on the site to make it happen.”

While on-time, on-budget is a universal expectation among clients, few design and construction teams are ever tasked with delivering a single building over more than a decade from first draft pricing to ribbon cutting. Led by architects Davis Partnership, and, construction manager, GE Johnson Construction, the team working on The Quincy and Prism has been engaged continually since 2007. The site master plan, initial designs, and estimates were presented just before the 2008 recession compelled Shea to put the project on the shelf. Scott Miller, the Construction Manager at GE Johnson reflects back on what a long strange trip the project has been.

“We started the project in late 2007 during an economic peak, which shapes pricing. Then we entered big recession and market uncertainty,” says Miller. “Denver comes out of the downturn relatively quickly and enters a booming building market and suddenly there is a significant subcontractor and skilled labor shortage. Fortunately, our relationship and genuine friendship with Davis Partners is very strong. The collaboration between our firms allowed us to work through the details and manage challenges rather than problems.”

Miller notes that GE Johnson’s acutely detailed estimates accounted for as many exact quantities as possible, which increased Davis’ ability to keep the design on track. Managing many very small detailed changes rather than a few big ones were the focus of design-to-budget and market alignment when it was clear the project would finally break ground in 2015. To make the best use of a very limited site and maximize construction cost efficiencies, GE Johnson engaged a number of Lean construction strategies including pull planning and pre-fabrication.

“We’ve got a cast-in-place structure supporting a pre-cast exterior skin,” says Miller. The combination allows a lot of design flexibility for varying floor heights and minimizing column locations to create large internal spans and open units while also contributing to a cost-effective, buildable solution. Since GE Johnson self-performed the cast-in-place concrete they were able to control the critical path through the project using their own labor force and equipment, reducing the impact of subcontractor shortages on cost, schedule, and quality. For the pre-cast components, GE Johnson and Davis readily engaged key subcontractors in a design-assist capacity to ensure on-site efficiency in limited operational space. “We worked with the precast and glazing contractors to figure out ways to pre-assemble complete exterior wall panels on the ground before hoisting them up as ready-to-install sections. This saved time, money, and space to everyone’s benefit.”

Miller reports with pride that at 28-stories, The Quincy will be the tallest building completed in GE Johnson’s 51-year history. With the limited footprint and tightly controlled regulations related to vertical and overhead movements, early construction logistics centered on tower crane placement. The crane had to be able to pick materials up from two different ground locations and lift and swing them across the top of the site to the rising structure. Public safety and efficient egress for large truck access including setting up a site-internal throughway down 18th street were closely coordinated with the City of Denver.

“My job is to manage the healthy, necessary tension between the designer and the builder,” says Culshaw thoughtfully while acknowledging that despite the long road to fruition, The Quincy was relatively complication free in actualization. Shea Property’s original pro-forma was adjusted up to account for current market conditions when the project was ready to resume, but Davis’ design and GE Johnson’s estimates essentially moved in tandem with the recalculated budget. The Quincy adds a thoughtful, destination living environment for Denver’s downtown renter. When The Prism is complete in the fourth quarter of 2018, the completed vision will finally take its place in the Shea Property portfolio.

“Getting it right means conceiving a high-quality, market-appropriate asset, delivering it on-time and on budget and then stabilizing and refinancing it for the long-term,” finishes Culshaw. “However, it also means repositioning surface lot parking as a vibrant, new mixed-use microcosm of what makes Denver great. The credit here goes to a team of true professionals who stuck to it and made good on their commitments. That’s what success in development is always about.”

About the Author
Sean O’Keefe is an architecture and construction writer who crafts stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen. He can be reached at sean@sokpr.com.

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DTC’s sparkling new node emerges from an ensemble voyage like none other

“Architecture is the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods, and men.”Frank Lloyd Wright

Shimmering in glass and granite and inspired by the experience of sailing the open ocean, 50 Fifty rises in DTC.

The combination of exceptional design and premium quality always emanates a certain sense of luster that’s hard to deny and easy to appreciate. In 2018, 50 Fifty, a new 185,000 SF office building joined the DTC skyline hoping to establish itself as a premier property among the area’s abundant competition. Conceived as a 12-story office tower about a block from I-25 and Belleview, building’s name is a clever double entendre. The street address also eludes to the functional dichotomy of six stories of parking capped by six floors of Class AAA office space skinned in an unusual mixture of shimmering glass and speckled granite. Two additional levels of parking reside below-grade; city/mountain views and plentiful access to daylight are accentuated across more than just four faces of 50 Fifty.

“Great architecture is an investment, a worthy one indeed,” says Michael Komppa, president of Corum Real Estate Group. Komppa’s 32 years of experience with Corum have been about putting together commercial development investments that turn a profit by carefully managing the process to create value well in excess of costs. The firm’s portfolio includes more than three million square feet of office space, five thousand apartments and five million square feet of industrial properties in both Colorado and Chicago. Komppa, however, doesn’t mind admitting the thrill of developing speculative office buildings is his favorite part of the job. “50 Fifty, in particular, offered a high-visibility opportunity to express a strong sense of style, and to produce a completed building with a value significantly greater than the sum of the costs.”

Expecting the investment to deliver substantially more than merely leasable office space in a desirable location, Corum hoped to set course for something special and took a bold tack in choosing their architects. Enter Clutch Design Studio, a young Denver design practice ambitious to create the incredible and whose largest-completed commission is the one you are reading about right now.

A curtain wall entrance of floating glass joins the deftly illuminated porte-cochere in welcoming users with a sense of bespoke elegance.

“We’re proud to share 50 Fifty as the studio’s largest-completed commission to date,” says principal Robin Ault, who previously spent 18 years working at Fentress with Denver starchitect Curt Fentress. There he worked on everything from airports and offices to laboratories and academic buildings. Ault ultimately rose to the Associate Principal level while learning a great deal under Curt’s tutelage before embarking on establishing his own legacy in 2013. “The design brief was direct,” continues Ault. “Corum asked for a product that feels extraordinary at an affordable cost. Our job is to translate that into a market-ready solution that joins its surrounding with a sense of prestige.”

Asked what 50 Fifty adds to DTC, an edge-of-urban and edge-of-innovation office park more than 40 years in the making, Ault smiles and nods confidently before answering.

“Where land is more plentiful, suburban office buildings are typically supported by detached parking structures or surface lots,” Ault says. “We’ve seamlessly integrated the parking structure within the frame of the building envelope. Externally both office and parking components read as a single-profile without distinction.” This integrated envelope strategy is common in denser urban areas where below-grade parking structures often go down several stories in deeper, high-rise foundations. Ault believes 50 Fifty will be the first such property within DTC. The building’s dynamic exterior combines curtain wall glazing covered with a high-performance, low-E coating selected specifically for its level of reflectivity and hand-selected sierra white granite from a quarry outside of Fresno, California.

With ambitions of an evaluated experience for premium suburban office space, 50 Fifty was designed to wow both users and investors. 

Inspired by nautical nuances, looking at 50 Fifty from a distance, a pixelated pattern emerges to reveal a spray of sea foam lapping against the bow of a yacht cutting across the deep blue wild of open ocean. To add contrast, depth, and dimension, raised aluminum caps spaced strategically across surfaces provide shade and cast ever-changing shadows as the sun traverses the sky. Select fins with integrated LED illumination will add sparkle and response to the building at night. A line of black metal paneling skims the edge of an internally illuminated cabin in the form of a transparent porte-cochère, tucked beneath a series of elegant v-shaped structural members. The exterior’s subtle suggestion is further developed within, as interior treatments represent slightly more deliberate translations of a refined sailing experience.

Merging the parking and office profiles into a single envelope required extending the office floorplates beyond the preferred 45-foot lease span to match the wider dimensions required by vehicular movements on garage levels. This was a challenge the Clutch team quickly turned into an opportunity.

“45-feet is about as far as natural light can penetrate into a building before spaces become dark and kind of lifeless,” says Ault. To account for the additional floorplate widths on the garage levels, the six floors of office space feature dual 20’ x 30’ open air lightwells joining lavatories on each floor and elevator cores as the tower’s spine. “The lightwells allow for the natural animation of interstitial spaces deep within the floorplates, daylighting restroom banks and core-facing spaces on every floor.”

Two lightwells within the core of the building bring natural light and the elements deep into the building’s office floorplates and add accessible courtyards to tenant amenities.

The challenge of assembling the design was awarded to Hensel Phelps, a firm that began in Greeley, Colorado in 1937 and has since grown to become a national leader in commercial construction. Project Manager, Thomas Dooley, who has been with Hensel Phelps for 18 years enjoys the physicality and mental agility required to assemble complicated structures like 50 Fifty.

“Best-value decision making required engaging specialized subcontractors to pre-think the building envelope,” says Dooley. Curtain wall engineering, manufacturer, and installation subcontractor Harmon was brought in during the preconstruction process to help develop a specialized clip system capable of supporting both glazed and granite panels equally. Five unique granite panel patterns were developed so when interspersed among glazing, the panels read as harmonious yet distinct rather than static and redundant. Mechanical and electrical integration were also early action items. Hensel Phelps engaged Mtech Mechanical and Hunt Electric in a design-build capacity to help develop holistic solutions to the constructability challenge posed by the unusual dual-surface curtain-wall.

“Countless hours were invested during preconstruction in planning the configuration and assembly of this exterior skin,” says Dooley. “Five different panel types; two different floor-to-floor heights with sloping elevations on the garage levels; making it all align correctly on the outside; and work functionally on the inside has all presented a lot of fun challenges to figure out. In a lot of ways, this is going to be a landmark project.”

As 50 Fifty joins the DTC office market, Komppa, Ault, and Dooley each take special pride in what they have developed together as a team. From the visionary engagement of an emerging design practice and the practical wisdom of entrusting the execution to an established industry giant, with the launch of 50 Fifty, Corum Real Estate Group establishes elevated expectations for exceptional office space in suburban markets.

About the Author:
Sean O’Keefe writes architecture and construction stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen.

He can be reached at sean@sokpr.com    303.668.0717

Originally Published in Building Dialogue/


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having a hand in the restoration of the Colorado State Capitol is more honor than obligation

Originally Published in Colorado Construction & Design

First opened for use in 1894, the Colorado State Capitol Building has stood sentinel over the legislative affairs of the people of Colorado for the last 125 years. Designed by architect, Elijah E. Myers, and constructed of Colorado white granite, the Capitol Building is intentionally reminiscent of the United States Capitol. Its distinctive, shimmering dome is covered in real gold leaf, which was added to the original structure in 1908 to celebrate the Colorado Gold Rush. On the interior, the building incorporates white Yule Marble and an abundance of Colorado Rose Onyx, an unusual rose marble. Taken from a quarry near Beulah, CO, the Rose Onyx is so rare, the stone used in the building represents the world’s entire known supply. From the precious, time-worn building materials to the intricate details of design and craftsmanship that went into construction, protecting The Colorado State Capitol’s historic integrity for generations to come is worth the investment.

Glimmering in gold, the dome is easy to spot.

Lance Shepherd is the Manager of the State’s Capitol Complex Architects, a team of dedicated professionals committed to overseeing the preservation, restoration, ongoing operations, and future rehabilitation of the Capitol and associated complex assets. He has been with the state for 20 years and the challenge of preserving the state’s most important piece of architecture is more of a thrill than a chore.

“It’s a dream job,” says Shepherd. “This is the most important building in the state. When it was built, construction started new industries in Colorado. Granite and marble mines opened, railroads pushed further out, and all of Colorado benefited from increased connectivity and commerce.”

Unfortunately, the building’s legacy hadn’t always been held in such high regard. When Shepherd started working for the State in 2000, the Capitol’s longevity had seemingly been taken for granted. A hundred years of service over a century of significant change with little investment in the building’s preservation led to a litany of critical building needs that would only continue to compound if left unchecked.

“Preservation was almost a dirty word in the 80s and 90s,” says Shepherd with a grin. “Back in 2000, a proposal to restore the Capitol in the hundreds of millions of dollars was turned down by the state legislature. That left us to fund rehabilitation projects independently in competition with other state agencies. Step-by-step, we’ve moved incrementally through many different phases to get where we are today.”

The first step was taken when multi-phase life safety upgrades were made to make the Capitol more compliant with modern code and ADA accessibility standards. A fire suppression system was installed and many of the building’s mechanical, electrical, security, and other systems were thoughtfully improved over seven years of work, led by GH Phipps Construction and Fentress. Just as the upgrades were reaching the final push, the building suffered a setback. After more than 100 years in Colorado’s punishing weather, water infiltration and decay had taken a toll on the Capitol’s dome. In 2006 fasteners holding a cast iron piece on the inside of the dome failed and the large piece fell onto the public observation deck, fortunately without incident. It was another four years before a funding mechanism was developed and the state could begin addressing the issue in 2010.

On the design side, the State selected a multi-faceted design team that included local and national experts. Led by Denver-based structural and civil engineering firm, Martin/Martin, architectural and historic preservation expertise from both Quinn Evans Architects and Humphries Poli Architects (now RATIO | Humphries Poli Architects) was united with Historical Arts & Casting, Inc. among others to assess the structure and develop achievable solutions. Two years of intense forensic analysis and preconstruction planning with GH Phipps took place before the team was ready to begin the restoration in earnest in 2012.

Iconic inside and out, the People’s House stands for all of Colorado, past, present, and future.

“The dome was a complex project. We repaired the damage, restored the tower, and re-gilded the gold dome without closing the building,” says Shepherd of the construction process that stretched into 2016. The gold leaf used to restore the dome was derived from the same Teller County, Colorado source that produced the gold used in 1908. The generous material donation from the AngloGold Ashanti’s Cripple Creek & Victor Mining Company was estimated at $125,000 including the cost to mine, refine, and transport approximately 65 ounces of .999-pure gold. The dome project itself stretched over four years, through multiple phases of funding, finally wrapping up in 2016. In the meantime, Shephard and the Capitol Complex Architects have had their hands full with several other restoration efforts running concurrently.

Noteworthy for being the nation’s first LEED Certified Capitol, in 2013, the building became the first state Capitol in the country to be cooled by geothermal power, when wells were installed. Three-phases of restoration on the House and Senate Chambers began in 2014. The building’s library, Senate and House committee rooms, and the old supreme court chambers have all been meticulously restored, contract-by-contract, area-by-area, meeting-by-meeting. Always working around, among, and in delicate consideration of ongoing governance. 

Today, the biggest scope of work consuming Shepherd’s team, their time, and the building is a comprehensive Window and Stone Restoration project. Being delivered through Design-Build contract with GH Phipps and RATIO | Humphries Poli Architects, the project involves a full restoration of the building’s exterior stone and each of more than 300 windows.

“It’s vital to understand the importance of the Capitol as a mile marker in our history,” says Melanie Short, an architect, and preservationist with RATIO | Humphries Poli Architects. Short is managing design services on the Window and Stone Restoration project and shares that she loves the hands-on necessity of her work. “Restoring the windows, the stone, and the whole building as close to original condition as possible is what preserves a sense of place for future generations. We can’t do it from behind a computer, we’ve got to get out there and get our hands on the parts and pieces of the building.”

In the case of the Capitol’s exterior, the parts and pieces are many. Consisting of four phases over five years, all the work is being completed between mid-May and the first week of January, while the legislature is out of session. Restoring the exterior means accounting for everything seen and unseen within the stone. A mortar analysis conducted on the original materials ensured replacement mortar matched in color, hardness, and texture. Iron interior fasteners embedded in the stones a 125 years ago in many cases have long since deteriorated; the rusted material migrating through the stone around it. Precise selection of appropriate cleaning agents involved a lot of trial an error, continually striving to do no harm while finding solutions that effectively address a consistent set of circumstances across all four faces of the building. Reoccurring issues in ancillary items include lead abatement in the joints between the granite blocks and asbestos abatement under pigeon deterrents installed on the building through the years of unconsidered use.

Care and craftsmanship combine to preserve one of the state’s most cherished assets. 

The Capitol’s window restoration program exemplifies the spirit of historic preservation in hoping to make-like-new what has already been in use for more than a century. Restoring the 300+ windows means removing each window along a face and shipping sets of roughly 40 at a time to a restoration shop in Kansas City. There the original wood is sanded, patched, repaired, and repainted to a dark blue color that was forensically matched to a hue of existing paint used previously. Some six to seven weeks later, the refurbished windows return and are and reinstalled in their original openings.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, for sure,” says Blaine Dodgion, Manager of Special Projects for GH Phipps Construction. Dodgion has been actively involved at the Capitol for a significant portion of his 14 years of experience. As a guy who has lived the restoration in detail through estimates, CPM schedules, BIM models, subcontractor meetings, and the daily grind, he’s still somewhat in awe of the ionic structure. From the initial survey of existing conditions to the many hearts and minds that fight the battle for funding, to the coordination and execution of the work, everyone who touches it feels special energy from the building.

For all who work on it, the opportunity is special.

“GH Phipps is a proud Colorado builder of more than 67 years, so we have a personal investment in the state’s success. This is the people’s house and we are the people. More than any other, this building deserves the extra level of commitment and attention it inspires.”

About the Author:
Sean O’Keefe writes architecture and construction stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen.

He can be reached at sean@sokpr.com    303.668.0717

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thought leadership from the front lines of smart building technology, implementation, and long-term performance

Smart technologies of every sort continue to seep deeper into our lives, putting information, services, comfort, and convenience at our fingertips where ever we are. In today’s smart buildings seemingly, anything and everything can be automated. From individualized thermal comfort to supplemental lighting that responds to ambient daylight and increasingly untethered global connectivity the limits of technology are all being integrated to the point of becoming conventional. In a Round Table conversation, Colorado Construction & Design was delighted to discuss the amazing present and super bright future of Smart Buildings with a group of dedicated professionals committed to smartly engineering, efficiently building, and acutely commissioning technology-infused facilities in Colorado and across the country.

Our Panel

Renée Azerbegi, Ambient Energy

President and founder of Ambient Energy, Renée Azerbegi loves making a positive impact in the commercial building industry and on the environment through personal determination and her firm’s collective depth of experience. Ambient Energy offers a suite of services focused on building and system analysis to optimize new construction projects for operational efficiency and longevity; evaluate and improve the performance of existing buildings; or commission either as a third-party engineer. Utilizing fault-detection diagnostics and monitoring-based commissioning, Ambient Energy strives to ensure buildings operate as efficiently as possible through the whole of their lifecycle.

Bret Roberts, P.E., Control Solutions Inc.

Co-founder of Control Solutions Inc. Bret Roberts relishes the thrill of making things work, planning and seeing a complex building together from start to finish is both his business and his gratifying reward. Along with partner, Ed Welch, Roberts established Control Solutions, Inc. in 2007 by merging a wealth of experience in building automation service and installation. Gary Bales became a partner in the practice in 2013. Control Solutions Inc. contends for smart system installation projects from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins and works with clients to update and retrofit existing buildings with more advanced systems as buildings age. The firm represents Honeywell Building Automation products such as Tridium/Niagara, Honeywell WEB’s, Spyder Controllers including the new CIPer product family of controllers and I/O Modules.

Ryan Sobeck, Siemens

A Territory Sales Manager at Siemens, Ryan Sobeck began his career in electronics working on M1 Tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles in the Army before getting into building automation systems implementation, design, and products 24 years ago. Today as a representative of Siemen’s Building Technologies, Control Products and Solutions, Ryan’s territory spans from Colorado north through Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and up to Alaska. Siemen’s showcases technology that integrates HVAC, lighting, shades, and plug loads from a single, ethernet-connected, terminal controller. Within the Building Technologies division of this global giant, Siemens is using integrated smart building technologies to optimize space and improve people’s lives.

Our Conversation

While integrating systems and technology to enhance the user experience is fundamental to smart building design, bells and whistles alone aren’t enough to make a building smart. What does?

“It starts in design,” says Roberts. “If the design is well thought-out, the rest of the project will follow that path, but if you start with a poor design it’s almost certain the finished building will underperform.” Roberts and his firm Control Solutions Inc. are among those responsible for installing the systems that have been selected and as such often feel the brunt of any bad decision making related to systems chosen in design. The technology of controlled systems has changed significantly, and everyone involved needs to be thinking holistically about smart systems, smart design, and smart installation.

“Having an owner who is driven, experienced, and knows what they want in terms of building performance almost always sets the stage for success,” adds Azerbegi, whose firm, Ambient Energy, can find itself in both pre- and post- construction roles depending on the project. “Smart design isn’t just technology, it’s holistic strategies like envelope modeling and commissioning to determine if the building is well-sealed. If it’s not, the best systems in the world won’t make it a smart building for long.”

Azerbergi points out the need for better documentation on the intended sequence of operations from mechanical and electrical engineers in the design stage to eliminate the possible risks of misinterpretation during installation. Ambient Energy likes to incorporate a series of controls integration meetings both in design and during construction to ensure efficient systems are being implemented and everyone involved is speaking the same language. Roberts is excited to share that common language has arrived.

“ASHRAE’s newest guideline, issued in July 2018 establishes a set of standardized advance sequences of operation for common HVAC systems,” says Roberts with a copy of the new standards proudly at the ready. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers or ASHRAE, has been devoted to the advancement of indoor-environment-control technology since it was formed in 1959. ASHRAE Guideline 36-2018 provides uniform sequences of operation for HVAC systems that are intended to maximize energy efficiency and performance, provide control stability, and allow for real-time fault detection and diagnostics. “I’ve been wanting something like this for a long time,” continues Roberts. “We need more of a common language around buildings systems and this guideline establishes a starting point that will still allow for individual and situational customization.”

The advantages of high-tech digital connectivity, functionality, and comfort have been realized in office environments and homes for some time. Where are we going next?

“Individualized controls and data harvesting are starting to be integrated into smart-phone platforms,” says Sobeck of Seimens, a technological pioneer of electrification, automation, and digitization systems and products. One such system called Comfy Comfy allows users to request heating or cooling changes, via a smartphone app, directly to the building automation system. This data can then be used to tell individuals which spaces in the office best suit their needs at any given time, ideal for free-address offices on the design desks today.

The ability to gather an immense volume of data on a smart building is what allows it to be customized around the user experience. However, analyzing and appropriately reacting to that same abundance of information is central to ensuring a smart building operates effectively day-to-day. The ability to detect, identify, and individually correct faults within a smart building system is an advantage that is easily mitigated if the building’s operation team isn’t actively monitoring and fine-tuning the system. Operators have to wield the building’s technology to save effort, expense, and all three of the Round Table participants agree there is definitely a cost of doing nothing.

“Buildings will drift upwards in energy consumption by some 2- to 3- percent a year if they aren’t actively managed,” says Azerbergi, whose role in commissioning buildings has her firm on the front lines of evaluating long-term operational expectations as the building comes to life. Though commissioning is generally required by code, most owners would probably be surprised to know that typical commissioning processes actually only test a sampling of unitary equipment rather than 100%. Perhaps more importantly, commissioning of a new building does little to account for the building’s performance once commissioning is complete unless the building operator actively monitors and controls it. “Monitoring-based commissioning integrated with fault-detection diagnostics is what we recommend,” continues Azerbergi about the need stay on top of what is happening as users occupy and make spaces their own. “Continual monitoring has been shown to save 5 to 15 percent on annual energy costs, eliminating energy drift, improving performance, and increasing user comfort.”

The average building is estimated to drift upwards in energy consumption every year unless it is actively managed. Monitoring-based commissioning put the pulse of the building at the operator’s fingertips at all times.

What does the integration of all these technologies mean for designers and builders?

The answer, it seems, is the need for yet more and better integration among the industry’s diverse range of professionals to match the requirements of changing technologies.

“For the last forty years or so, controls were the responsibility of the mechanical and lighting was the responsibility of electrical engineers,” says Roberts of a dichotomy that feels needlessly siloed, occasionally detrimentally. In today’s smart buildings’ just as systems need to talk to each other and be monitored holistically and individually, the design, implementation, commissioning, and operations processes also need to be more seamlessly integrated.

“Investing an afternoon in making sure the sequence of operations meets the owner’s objectives and the designer’s intent is essential with the systems going into today’s smart properties,” says Sobeck. Azerbergi agrees, adding that a commitment to collaboration on the technology choices and expectations will greatly reduce issues found during the commissioning process. Pre-thinking challenges together focuses the whole team on developing the best possible building for the owner’s investment. 

As user expectations of workspaces have grown beyond simply hot or cold and on or off, product manufacturers have continued to push toward integrated solutions. Siemen’s DXR Controller is a single-source, remote-monitored control unit for the building’s temperature, lighting, window shades and electrical loads. On the building side, more complicated systems don’t necessarily mean more complicated construction, as long as advance coordination and an appetite for new knowledge are fundamental to the builder’s goals.

For Siemens, preparing buildings for tomorrow’s digital innovations has led to total-room automation systems like the DXR Controller capable of controlling shades, lights, loads, and comfort in response to changing conditions.

“Owners have been installing two, three, and sometimes four different control systems in a single building,” continues Sobeck, adding depth to the need for better integration in all aspects of the industry. “Single-system solutions mean one product, one installation subcontractor, and a more integrated, informed understanding of systems for optimal performance.”

Control Solutions Inc. competes for systems installation opportunities and also represents Honeywell building automation products including the CIPer product family of controllers and I/O modules. As a subcontractor helping designers understand smart systems, install, program, and start them up, Roberts sees a commitment to continuing education as essential for his firm and staff

“You can’t have too much education on all of this,” says Roberts of the continued trend toward more integrated systems requiring highly specialized and multi-faceted experts. “The systems are getting so complicated that finding enough skilled people capable of putting these systems together is my biggest challenge.”


Control Solutions Inc. is proud to represent Honeywell Building Automation products including Niagara 4 software and the new CIPer product family of controllers and I/O Modules.

Roberts nudges the green ASHRAE Guideline 36-2018 on the table forward as a next step that can be taken, immediately, industry-wide to facilitate better communication and collaboration. The complexity of systems and what is required of the professionals who design, sell, program, install, commission, or operate them will continue to increase as smart buildings and smart people get smarter out on the edge of technology and convenience.

About the Author
Sean O’Keefe is an architecture and construction writer who crafts stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen. He can be reached at sean@sokpr.com.

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Challenged to activate an undevelopable parcel, Goettsch Partners delivers

By Sean O’Keefe

The City of Chicago lives a legacy of architectural excellence derived from an insistence on pushing boundaries through experimentation and innovation. Long viewed as a design laboratory, Chicago’s unique architectural heritage owes much to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which left the decimated city ripe for redevelopment. Chicago has also had the fortune of being home to more than a few 20th Century architectural giants including American-icon Frank Lloyd Wright; father of skyscrapers, Louis Sullivan; and modernist pioneer, Mies van der Rohe.

Famous for what he called “skin and bones” architecture defined by a minimal framework of structural order to achieve open unobstructed space, van der Rohe established his Chicago practice in 1938. Today that practice lives on as Goettsch Partners, a firm more than willing to take on some of the world’s greatest design challenges. Among Chicago’s latest legacy assets, one of Goettsch Partners’ newest additions to the cityscape, 150 North Riverside, stands out as an immediately obvious example of the incredible made possible.

150 North Riverside is located along Chicago’s famous loop on a fantastic site where designing something buildable was considered next-to-impossible,” says Erik Harris, an Associate Principal with Goettsch Partners. Hemmed in by a combination of barriers including the City’s set-back zoning requirements along the Chicago River and a bustling, seven-line Amtrak right of way spanning more than 140-ft, the developable parcel offered only a small sliver land just 55-feet wide upon which to build. “Meeting the challenge of building a cost-effective high-rise on this site came down to delivering the required floorplate area with a 45-foot lease span supported by four-story trusses on either side of the 39-foot-wide core.

While the striking geometry of 150 North Riverside will always make the perched structure remarkable to the passerby, the site’s incredible landscape is an almost equally impressive engineering accomplishment that will likely go largely unnoticed.

“From the hard edge of the building, we were able to secure the Air Rights over the Amtrak right of way,” says Harris. “We decked over it to create two and a half acres of public greenspace that conceals the parking structure, lobby area, and loading dock enclosing about 28% of the site. Though the building is extremely vertical, the site is quite horizontal – both presented equations to solve.”

Filling the horizontal void and creating beneficial pedestrian connections to the urban fabric surrounding 150 North Riverside was a multi-disciplinary effort involving every aspect of civil, structural, and mechanical engineering integrated within the unique landscape. Craig Soncrant, a Principal with Wolff Landscape Architecture led the firm’s work on the project, relishing the challenge.

“Complicated green roofs and innovative plaza design is where we thrive,” says Soncrant, relaying that Wolff had some 21-such projects under construction in 2017 in Chicago alone. Soncrant himself led 15 separate high-rise landscapes last year and believes that providing effective green space for tenants is a must-have amenity in Chicago’s post-recession development. “150 North Riverside is a showstopper, an incredible building with a wonderful investment in city beautification that repositioned an inaccessible, eye-sore site as a convenient pedestrian thoroughfare, entry plaza, and river walk.”

The investment was certainly significant and stretching every dollar to improve pro forma is rarely a waste of time. Goettsch Partners originally planned to employ hollowed slab-on void construction to build-up the site topography, but when value engineering analysis revealed the complexities of that much site concrete was cost-prohibitive a new solution was sought. Wolff Landscape Architecture’s experience with an alternative, lightweight, structural-fill was extensive, and Soncrant proposed Geofoam as a very workable surface substrate substitute.  

“EPS Geofoam has been a go-to product in our designs for many years,” says Soncrant. “We use it whenever we need a light, strong, durable material to fill voids and make architecturally-contoured surfaces.” Bringing the design strategy to Goettsch Partners meant providing examples of previous Chicago-area, decked plazas successfully built with Geofoam and introducing the design team to ACH Foam Technologies.

“We only work with materials that we know will perform,” says Harris regarding the Geofoam value engineering proposition. “Performance, in this case, means supporting the pounding it will take from heavy pedestrian use in Chicago’s harsh weather; being easier, faster, and less expensive to work with; and, most importantly, feeling confident in the material’s capacity to meet loading requirements.” Wolff Landscape Architecture’s previous projects with ACH Foam Technologies have included a lightweight rooftop amenity deck on the eleventh floor of Chicago’s Prudential Plaza and at 222 South Riverside Plaza Renovation, also located over railroad tracks and along the Chicago River. Geofoam has also solved technical challenges beneath highways, bridge embankments, levees, and other large civil infrastructure applications where loading requirements are substantially greater than anything required by 150 North Riverside.

Developing a pedestrian-friendly site solution meant responding to elevations as low as the river and as high as the roof of the parking structure, a transition of some 15 vertical feet. Animating the long, horizontal site meant creating a multi-level green space connecting 150 North Riverside and the parking structure immediately to greater Chicago in many different directions.

“Building with Foam-Control Geofoam allowed us to create a two-tier park system that addresses vertical movement on site through a combination of ramps and stairs,” continues Soncrant. Since single blocks of Geofoam can be large enough to fill sections eight-feet long by four-feet deep, they make building multi-level terraces, ramps, stairwells, and planter boxes easy. As importantly, working with Geofoam enables designers to create a custom contour of substrate material in the exact depth need below specific panting areas. Since a tree may need a soil depth of several feet, a shrub some 18 inches, and grass just 6 inches, building a Geofoam base that accommodates appropriate soil depths decreases the overall dead load on the structure and supports controlled, positive drainage across the site.

The task of installing the overall landscape and the Foam-Control Geofoam blocks was won by Twin Oaks Landscaping, Inc. a Chicago-area firm with a national practice dating back to 1983. Steve Jungermann was the man responsible for overseeing the firm’s efforts.

“The project was a challenge simply because of where it’s located,” says Jungermann in relation to the complexity of the surrounding cityscape and the site’s abundance of elevation changes. “On something as complicated as this it’s imperative to get expert guidance.”

Jungermann details the challenges of developing material Take-offs that account for the quantities of Geofoam required to respond to the site’s many grade changes, soil depth-profiles, and architectural contours. Working with ACH Foam Technologies’ product representative Twin Oaks was able to develop an accurate purchase order and devise a finely-tuned delivery sequence for the material. With limited lay-down space and intense coordination required between site work, electrical, plumbing, and landscape construction, maintaining constant communication and just the right amount and types of Geofoam on hand was critical. Though large, the lightweight Geofoam blocks are easily maneuvered by two laborers and can even be customized to virtually any shape with a hand-held hot wire cutter.

“Though this building is both bold and dramatic, when it comes to material selection we are not looking to be risk takers,” finishes Harris. “Like the design for 150 North Riverside itself, Foam-Control Geofoam provided a confident approach to a unique engineering problem and contributed greatly to an overall wonderful building solution.”

About the Author
Sean O’Keefe is an architecture and construction writer who crafts stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen. He can be reached at sean@sokpr.com.

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More Than A Garden

architecture writer
The Freyer-Newman Center for Science, Art, and Education at the corner of 11th and York will showcase the full depth and breadth of the Gardens’ collections, capacities, and outward ambition of changing the world.

Originally Published in Colorado Construction & Design
Fall 2018
By Sean O’Keefe

The vibrant spirit of Denver is in full bloom at Denver Botanic Gardens, a place where a palatable sense of rejuvenation is evident around every corner. From the Mordecai Children’s Garden climbing the hill to the York Street parking structure, through the Bonfils-Stanton Visitor Center and Gift Shop to Hive Bistro and the Science Pyramid’s scale-like skin, seemingly every angle of the property has been reinvigorated over the last decade. As members and regular garden visitors will attest, despite a steady drumbeat of change and near-constant construction since 2009, the process, though systematic, has felt organic and largely unobtrusive.

“Denver Botanic Gardens has thoughtfully invested $113 million on about 60 different projects in the last decade,” says Brian Vogt, CEO. As measured by visitation, the investment is paying off. Today the Gardens welcomes 1.3 million people a year, making it a close second to Longwood Gardens outside of Philadelphia for the most visited Garden in America.

Denver Botanic Gardens’ history, which Vogt shares succinctly, stretches back to 1940 and includes a stop in City Park before settling on what was then Denver’s oldest cemetery along the eastern edge of Cheeseman Park in 1959. Since then a campus of exceptional architecture has emerged. Based largely on mid-century modernist principles, the designs integrate built and natural spaces and promote open-span spatial proportions through post and beam structures.

Having previously served as president of the South Metro Chamber of Commerce for 14 years, Vogt was a key figure in the founding of the city of Centennial in 2000 and understands the importance of big-picture thinking. When he took the reins of Denver Botanic Gardens as CEO in 2006 he immediately set about applying his experience corralling people and resources to achieve a grand vision through common objectives.

“We undertook a strategic master plan; launched a massive capital campaign; added several new pieces of architecture; and revitalized the existing buildings in this amazing collection,” continues Vogt. Ranging from minor to major, visible to unseen, the improvements made on Vogt’s watch have all been folded into the Gardens experience with as little disruption to visitors or services as possible. “The Freyer-Newman Center for Science, Art, and Education will be the grand finale of a tremendous community commitment to the Gardens’ sustainability for the next 50 to 100 years.”

Anticipated as a public-facing gem enticing passersby from the corner of 11th and York, the new 50,000 square-foot building will be the only space in the Gardens’ portfolio that doesn’t require a ticket to enter. The two-story, prairie style influenced design posits the building as the backdrop for the Gardens landscape, giving the natural order the reverence it deserves. Stout tulip-tree structural columns straddle the entrance behind the landscaped entry plaza, which will greet visitors with a handsome handshake and calm confidence.

The building seems to defy a simple programmatic descriptor, its contents a collection of functions. It will house a combination of research, laboratory, office, educational, gallery, exhibit, and public gathering spaces all connected by a common core. It is designed to showcase the many varied activities of the science of botany and horticulture. Due to the sensitivity of laboratory and research components of the herbarium where plant samples are tested, studied, dried, and stored, ironically, it’s the only building on the campus that won’t have any living plants in it.

architecture writer
Davis Partnership’s design draws upon the abundant inspiration found in the Gardens’ mid-century modern architectural assets. The structural columns designed for the project reference the tulip-tree lights along the Conservatory’s promenade.  

“Programmatically, this project was like putting together a puzzle with all of the pieces upside down,” says Patrick Lee, the design team’s project manager and an associate with Davis Partnership Architects. Lee, who has been a Denver Botanic Garden member for more than 15 years, shares that he really didn’t understand all of the things the campus had to offer before starting the project because so much of it was hidden away. From the Gardens’ rare book library, classrooms, conference rooms, botanic illustration instruction and collections, galleries, and a 270-seat auditorium, the Davis team was tasked with packaging a multi-dimensional building program within a framework of intuitive navigation and high, public visibility.

“The circulation and adjacencies are organized around the large, central atrium, a day-lit space dappled in shadow created by wooden slats latticing the skylight overhead,” continues Lee. “The user experience and sequencing are bound together through transparency and biophilia.”

Like those outside, the tulip-tree structural columns within the atrium mimic the Gardens’ original tulip tree lights and, along with the 50’ x 90’ skylight, respond to the innate human tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. In imparting this sense of spatial accessibility and the power of biodiversity, Davis was able to draw on abundant inspiration from the Gardens’ varied tapestry of landscapes, the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory, and many other campus assets.

The connections within the design extend beyond the building, figuratively and literally, with the new facility establishing an axial relationship through the Boettcher building and south on a direct line to the Waring House at 9th and York. The second floor incorporates a pedestrian walkway passage from the Boettcher building, which concludes with the ellipse gallery. The oval viewing room will pantomime the ellipse found in the Waring House courtyard at the southern terminus, which prominently displays a prized sculpture by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly.

“The building is stitched into the site, integrated yet distinctly independent in public accessibility,” says Daniel. “We are continuing the Gardens’ legacy of referencing the campus’ wonderful preceding architectural accomplishments.”

Delivering the established design intent on the ultra-high-profile project within budget and on schedule is a task that fell with honor to GH Phipps Construction in a Construction Manager/ General Contractor role. GH Phipps delivered the original Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory in 1966 and has been a mainstay in the Gardens’ construction over a long, sustained relationship.

“GH Phipps is extremely proud of our 50+ year history with Denver Botanic Gardens,” shared project manager, Adam Tormohlen. “I started my first project here in 2008 and have been engaged in one project after another ever since. I live in the neighborhood and walk here with my children. The opportunity to intertwine all of Gardens’ programmatic and architectural diversity into a single facility is incredible.”

architecture writer
The grand atrium gallery at the level one entrance offers more than a glimpse into the many facets of the Gardens’ programs, professionals, and the scientific pursuit of connecting people with plants.

Tormohlen and GH Phipps teamed closely with Denver Botanic Gardens and Davis Partnership through 18 months of preconstruction services. The team invested in three rounds of constructability and value-engineering reviews to give the owner what they wanted without sacrificing design intent. A key change occurred in the size of the skylight, which was originally designed to be approximately 30 feet longer. The reduced volume was strategically subsumed without diminishing the volume of light reaching the ground level from above by reducing coverage over second-floor overhangs.

As construction begins to go vertical, Tormohlen and the GH Phipps team are looking forward to many more exciting months of building. Exacting detail in site logistics and subcontractor sequencing are essential with limited laydown room and a steady stream of concerts, events, deliveries, and public passage taking place just steps from the site. Construction must also, of course, account for to sustained protection of every single tree on the site, each a cherished asset in the museum’s living collection.

“Denver Botanic Gardens is working in every county in the state of Colorado, and globally, connecting people with plants, especially those native to the Rocky Mountain region for the delight of all,” says Vogt with well-earned enthusiasm. “There are important messages about the natural order and the world that we need to convey to as many people as possible. This building will be the centerpiece of our core function of changing the world.”

About the Author:
Sean O’Keefe writes architecture and construction stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen.

He can be reached at sean@sokpr.com    303.668.0717

 

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Architectural writer, Sean O’Keefe gathers keen insights on the intersection of place and possibility from a few in the know 

HeronPond_HeaderPlacemaking – A Round Table Conversation

Originally published in Colorado Construction & Design
Spring 2019
By Sean O’Keefe

Architecture begins with three fundamentals, defined by Roman architect, engineer, and builder Vitruvius as “Commodity, Firmness, and Delight” or said another way – Purpose, Structure, and Pleasure. Placemaking strives to take those ambitions a step further by celebrating the public spaces that connect us to our homes, our work, our fun, and to one another. From imagining the possibilities to helping others realize them on the grandest scale, placemaking is about people. Colorado Construction and Design was pleased to convene a roundtable discussion to learn more about the triumphs, challenges, and state of placemaking in Colorado through an esteemed panel of professionals.

Placemaking Panel

Charlie Nicola – Brookfield Properties

A Senior Vice President with Brookfield Properties, for the last 18 years Charlie Nicola has been a leading figure in the redevelopment of the former Stapleton International Airport into a thriving community of 12 neighborhoods. Prior to that he had a hand in the development of Coors Field and takes pride in the possibility of place as a social stimulant. Despite the risk and responsibility of development, Charlie truly enjoys the collaboration and comradery of the creative processes that are the foundation of placemaking. The greatest rewards of his work are in seeing spaces becomes places when they are ignited by people and purpose.

Laurel Raines – Dig Studio

A founding partner at Dig Studio, landscape architect Laurel Raines has positively shaped the exterior public realm of neighborhoods throughout Denver and Rocky Mountain communities for over thirty years. After working as a Design Principal with the international landscape architecture firms of EDAW and AECOM, Laurel formed her own firm, Dig Studio, in 2012. She has spearheaded project initiatives which have changed community perceptions of the role parks, plazas and streetscapes play in evolving a Western landscape aesthetic. Today Dig Studio is leading transformational redevelopment projects that are positively reshaping Denver’s urban fabric.

Mitch Black – Norris Design

Mitch Black will tell you that storytelling is central to placemaking. He’s been on the front lines of placemaking for the last 25 years as a planner and landscape architect at Norris Design, where he is a principal. He enjoys helping to lead a firm with a strong and diverse portfolio and seeing the cross-pollination of ideas that come from many different approaches to landscape design, planning, and real estate branding. From corporate settings to highly-animated community gathering, T.O.D., sports and streetscape projects, where the built environment meets the natural one, Black and the Norris Design team help clients plan a vision and bring it to life.

John Buteyn – Colorado Hardscapes

John Buteyn was 18 when he became the first person the owner of Colorado Hardscapes hired after his own two sons. Forty-seven years and a few job descriptions later, John and everyone at Colorado Hardscapes still apply curiosity and commitment to building the hardscape features that are the infrastructure of place. Building on three generations of both utilitarian flatwork and decorative concrete, Colorado Hardscapes’ expertise also includes water features, sculpted concrete and rockwork, and interior concrete. Noteworthy landmarks include Denver Union Station, the Streets at Southglenn, and the massive, new Gaylord Rockies Hotel and Convention Center.

CoorsField-EDAW-02What makes a design more than design, what makes it a place.

“Every place starts with the site,” says Mitch Black. Design influences start with the site’s attributes, context, audience, and purpose. The positives and negatives of the physical environment surrounding the project all have an important role in shaping the initial concept. Amazing view planes must be preserved and framed by the site. Accounting for rough edges in gritty urban or industrial settings can be done through buffering or embracing those attributes, but decisions must be holistic, with long-term objectives in mind. “Placemaking is about storytelling, every site that becomes a place must tell a story and the story must have meaning to the people who use the site.”

Charlie Nicola agrees, suggesting that the public’s embrace of place happens when design fosters human interaction and the place becomes a conduit for social connectivity.

“There has to be some there, there,” says Nicola succinctly. In order for a place to attract sustained social attention and become a routinely popular destination, it needs to have some meaningful gravity of its own. From the development perspective, placemaking is often about finding the path of least resistance to the critical mass. Nicola’s work on Coors Field centered on capturing a postcard corner at 20th and Blake Street in front of the ball park. Working with Laurel Raines, placemaking gestures begin building anticipation for the excitement of gameday several blocks away. A combination of street lighting, landscape features, and artistic elements help bring the massive building down to human scale. “Effective placemaking happens when the site’s positives spread beyond the original boundaries, allowing that sense of place to grow positively beyond the site as it has in the case of the Ballpark neighborhood.”

Making a positive contribution that extends further than aesthetics is fundamental to Laurel Raines’ work at Dig Studio.

“Communication, collaboration, commitment, community, and care,” she shares. “These are the fundamentals of effective design, in placemaking they must converge to produce a space that makes life better for all.”

There are many competing and, occasionally, contradictory factors that drive decision making in commercial development. How do you keep the importance of place alive in that conversation?

“From an investment point of view, we have to understand the importance of place as part of the commitment we make to the communities we are working in,” says Nicola. “If it matters, then it matters.”

Effective development is about getting more for your investment, not less. Nicola relies on the thoughtful expertise of firms like Norris Design, Dig Studio, and Colorado Hardscapes to give him the raw, honest realities of what he is asking for and what it costs.

“Certain things, like sidewalks, have to be built, and there are any number of design treatments that can be applied to a sidewalk to bring it to life,” says Black. “We model design solutions and costs concurrently and identify key features of the landscape design and site ornamentation that establish it as a place.”

Echoing Raines’ sentiments on collaboration, communication, and commitment, all agree designing something that can be built and maintained is the result of distilling lots of good ideas from lots of determined professionals into a cohesive whole. Advance coordination with a decorative concrete contractor or other acutely specialized contractors in the design phase is the surest way to eliminate cost-cutting measures that can diminish the presence of important components somewhere between concept and completion.

“I really love watching children run through the water features we created at Denver Union Station and Stapleton,” says John Buteyn. “In everyday use, you can see which elements engage people and make them want to stay.” Elements that make people want to linger are essential, but owners and designers must also have an appreciation for the fact that water jets and fountain features have long-term costs. Annual maintenance on a complicated water feature can be as much as five percent of the construction costs, a financial reality that must be understood from inception. If not, the risk is a white elephant, an undesirable possession that is simply too expensive to maintain in proportion to use but difficult to discard profitably.

What is the state of placemaking in Colorado today?

“In multi-family housing developments plenty of non-public green space is being accounted for,” says Raines. “The more interesting opportunities to me are in urban settings where the integration of parks and green space has not kept pace with the influx of new residents – a challenge Denver Parks and the Downtown Denver Partnership are actively addressing.” Indeed, a 2016 study by University of Denver graduate student Ryan Keeney while working with Denver Infill found that a total of 237 acres were exclusively committed to surface lot parking in downtown Denver alone.huron

The Heron Pond / Carpio-Sanguinette Park Master Plan + Design commissioned by the City and County of Denver aims to revitalize a series of isolated parcels along the South Platte River as the largest natural area in the Denver park system. 

Dig Studio is currently in the midst of an urban reclamation project for the City and County of Denver. The Heron Pond / Carpio-Sanguinette Park Master Plan + Design aims to unify multiple City-owned properties trapped along a forgotten stretch of the South Platte that have fallen victim to neglect and environmental misuse. The plan envisions more than 80 acres along this blunt edge of industrialization as the largest natural area in the Denver Park System.

“In many urban projects, we are seeing smaller landscaped spaces that are more densely amenitized,” says Black. The trend is indeed evident in many of the office, mixed-use, and multi-unit living projects taking over Denver’s surface lots as they are redeveloped, each bedecked in a collection of outdoor lounges, pool decks, plaza entryways, and terrace overlooks. Bringing the outside in, planters, irrigation, drainage, year-round vegetation, and Colorado sunshine are also prevalent in today’s well-developed commercial properties.

In Colorado’s smaller communities, the Round Table participants generally applauded municipal clients for getting ahead of future congestion by effectively incorporating green spacing in governmental development and encouraging it in the commercial sector. Norris Design is working on Miller’s Landing, a mixed-use development intended to connect the town’s newly developed Phillip S. Miller Park with Castle Rock’s downtown core. The project seeks to remediate nearly 100 acres of former landfill with a mix of uses like office, hotel, entertainment, and retail joined by a series of interconnected public spaces. Big or small, urban or remote, placemaking requires a team of professionals able to work effectively with the community to understand the local concerns, needs, and wants that should beneficially influence the place they create.

“Building community buy-in is an important part of placemaking especially when change is on the table,” says Raines. Community outreach processes implemented by designers and developers often help residents understand how vibrant public spaces can improve human connections and quality of life.Millers landing 2

Miller’s Landing in Castle Rock is a positive example of sustainable suburban forethought and encouraging greenspace development in stride with commercial investments.

What are the challenges of placemaking?

“The honest answer is entitlements,” says Nicola, a statement that is greeted by a palatable sense of agreement around the table. Beyond his leadership in the creation of Coors Field and Stapleton, Nicola was the Construction Director and Owner’s Representative for the Denver Bronco’s $400 million stadium and he’s spent decades on projects with the highest levels of complexity the field has to offer.

“Placemaking is about establishing a vision and achieving it. The beneficiaries of better places are communities,” continues Nicola. “I solve the problem of red-tape by hiring the best consultants I can find and asking for a lot.”

Black and Raines nod knowingly and the group discusses recurring entitlement and approval process problems that design and construction projects of every magnitude and purpose seem to face. Many in the industry are fatigued by continually having to routinely build new relationships with individual personalities at several entities with potentially subjective and, occasionally, contradictory interpretations of building codes and regulations on every project they undertake. Many suburban municipalities also seem to share a certain sense of stubbornness on collaboration. A municipality’s unwillingness to move much further than their own initial understanding can lead to a repetitive, formulaic expression of place. Even routine requirements like a road closure can feel contentious on the consultant’s side of the counter, where it’s best to simply try to follow the rules and be proactive with permitting when possible.

“Once you get the place designed, the work isn’t over,” says Black of the process of turning his drawings over to a contractor for execution and then shepherding it for many months while the work is realized. Projects remain under pressure throughout construction – affordability issues, schedule, entitlements, approvals, logistics – each of which can degrade a design, if not properly managed. “One of the biggest challenges is making sure the design lasts throughout the process; that the story and design intent are clear in the finished product.”

Buteyn agrees and as the contractor at the table, understands the importance of achieving the owner and designer’s vision down to the smallest detail wherever possible. When the intent is achieved in placemaking it’s usually fairly easy to see if the original vision for a place is successful.

Colorado Hardscapes was involved in the redevelopment of Denver Union Station, and there is likely no better example of effective placemaking in all of Colorado. Where only just a few years ago there was a large neglected property whose only purpose was to serve the nearly-nonexistent Travel by Train crowd, today Denver Union Station is a place filled with people, food, spirits, smiles, profit, possibility, purpose, and play inside and out. An entire new epicenter of the City has emerged in the new heart of Denver, and on a warm summer’s day with nothing to do it’s definitely a special place to be.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to be involved in helping make these places come to life,” finishes Butyen. “Special places are worth the work and worth the investment because special places are where memories are made.”

About the Author:
Sean O’Keefe is an architecture and construction writer who crafts stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen.

He can be reached at sean@sokpr.com    303.668.0717

 

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