AIA-CEA’s Dialogues 2020 pursues a framework for rethinking educational architecture
By Sean O’Keefe
As 2020 laid the fabric of America threadbare, systemic disparities in access to healthcare and education among people of color communities across the country were tragically exposed in vivid undeniability. As mortality rates, economic and criminal justice indicators, and educational outcomes routinely reveal, disparities disproportionately affect huge, identifiable swaths of the population in a stream of blatantly measurable ways. To ignore this is unjust. In education, where resources and outcomes are quantifiable, research shows that some 50 million American students are learning in less than equal conditions. The impacts of educational deficiencies are far-reaching, inherently complex, and fundamentally difficult to fully understand. What we do know is that we can do better, that we must.
Architecture is an opportunity. To this point, generations of architectural acumen have concentrated on harnessing the power of design to improve quality of life and well-being in spaces of every purpose and hue.
In November 2020, the AIA’s Committee on Architecture for Education (AIA-CAE) and Learning By Design hosted a virtual symposium on the intersection of emerging research and design for education to rethink systems and reshape access to opportunity. Building on the findings of Dialogues 2019, the 2020 program invited a cross-section of collaborators in design, education, research, healthcare, law, and public policy for well-intended vivisection of education and the possibilities of design.
Thinking about educational design as a tool within our grasp that can beneficially impact lives in many ways, Dialogues 2020 proposes to strengthen connections between design, education, well-being, and equitable outcomes for all learners. The program’s goal was to begin curating an evidence- and theory-based framework of design strategies that beneficially impact educational environments to improve the human condition. This universal design guideline for educational facilities will be supported by the AIA CAE’s monthly hosted think tanks and workshops, and the newly launched Post-Occupancy Evaluation (POE) project. A POE is a structured review and critique of a design solution for a specific discipline after the facility has opened for use. The intent is to mine insights and innovations and expose incongruities between intent and success.
The big questions driving the day at Dialogues 2020 included the role of architecture in perpetuating social health and resource equality in schools; establishing partnerships; and how individual practitioners can participate. Intent on compelling an industry shift through introspection, Dialogues 2020 sought to:
- understand the state of educational architecture today,
- identify key drivers of change, and
- establish opportunities for impact.
As a first step in exploring these questions, the AIA-CAE’s POE project aims to establish a holistic framework of design indicators that architects can apply to develop learning environments. The format of Dialogues 2020 was a think-tank exploration exposing participants to researched-based understanding from expert-level speakers, complemented by group breakout sessions.
During breakouts, participants were grouped into one of five focus areas mirroring the five dimensions of ‘School’- Culture, Legal, Policy, Social, and Physical. Within this, these domains encompass five rings of influence that circle the individual to shape personal behavior. In conjunction with the thought leadership understanding explored by each of the speakers, participants were asked to integrate their topical knowledge and personal understanding into the breakout conversations around one of these five domains.
- Breakout teams concentrated on a series of action items:
- What are the indicators of human resilience, health, and wellbeing?
- What can be developed as a universal guide to future decision making?
- What are the desired outcomes?
- What would a resilience network to promote the desired outcomes look like?
- How can this common vision be applied to inform educational design?
Briefly, here is what we learned.
Speaker No. 1: Dr. Terry Huang, Ph.D., MPH, MBA
Professor and Chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management
Director of the Center for Systems and Community Design
City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy
What to Consider in Developing a Framework
Based on a long history of research and policy leadership in obesity and chronic disease prevention, Dr. Huang shared his thoughts on how to create a framework for educational design. He encouraged thinking beyond health and educational components to consider the full range of influences that shape community and individual behaviors.
“Understanding connections between learning environments, individual well-being, and learning outcomes, requires a real appreciation for the role and impact of each of the five domains,” said Dr. Huang. “Schools are complex systems and thinking about systemic solutions requires a holistic approach. Schools should not be designed just for efficient educational delivery or successful outcomes but must also consider health and well-being beyond the classroom.”
In establishing meaningful interventions at the intersection of education and public health, Dr. Huang believes the first task is to establish a common vision for reshaping thinking.
“When trying to implement systemic solutions, we must appreciate that we’re talking about real-life projects with real-life constraints,” shared Dr. Huang. “A researcher thinking only about a theoretical ideal, may not necessarily understand the practical considerations of implementing theoretical thinking in a designed environment. Conversely, an architect may understand the practical influences without necessarily tying design strategies to an established theoretical basis.”
Dr. Huang suggests the need for a common lexicon between designers, educators, and healthcare professionals to enhance collaboration.
“Research has found some very broad principles between effective design guidelines,” said Dr. Huang. “The first is to design to increase desired outcomes. The second is for design to be founded in evidence-based theory.”
Dr. Huang shared that it is not just about the hardware (the school building) but also the software (the instructional content) that activates a space. A new well-designed school cafeteria, for example, should be accompanied by a well-conceived training program so that cafeteria workers can optimize the intended benefits in their work processes.
When measuring the impacts of design on schools, Dr. Huang believes it is important to be very expansive in the mix of methods used to measure success. Understanding design’s effect on learning environments as an indicator of larger cultural changes must rely on both quantitative and qualitative measures. He believes we need more longitudinal research, not just the data available immediately after the building is built and opened. While most post-occupancy studies of schools are a one-time assessment, completed soon after the building is opened, the latent effects of a design solution may take years to emerge and study. Dr. Huang advises that researchers should be on the lookout for both intended and unintended consequences.
“There is also a need to curate more partnerships between the educational design community and the educational research community,” Dr. Huang continued. “We must capture practice-based evidence and establish metrics that can be universally applied to measure design changes. We also need a system of feedback loops where learned insights are presented back to stakeholders. This requires a platform of common communication that is trusted and understood.”
Speaker No. 2: Peter Barrett, MSc, Ph.D., DSc
Emeritus Professor, Salford UniversityIndependent Researcher
Rethinking Systems for Educational Infrastructure
As the Founding Director of Salford University’s Research Institute for the Built and Human Environment, Dr. Peter Barrett studies the effects of the built environment on the learning experience. As an independent school design researcher, he studies connections between the physical design of schools and the academic progress of students.
“One key challenge in rethinking educational systems is the level of analysis that could be done is almost infinite,” shared Dr. Barrett. “How can we streamline these insights into something actionable without losing substance?”
Dr. Barrett recommends establishing guiding principles for creating such a framework. He recommends that the framework be:
- Dynamically emergent
Dr. Barrett also pointed out the vital necessity for any effective educational framework to explicitly state the objective of improving educational facilities for the sake of improving learning. While this is a logical inference, as a researcher Dr, Barrett illuminated science’s need for specificity in task rather than supposition.
“A complete profile of the learning environment is made up of four key elements,” continued Dr. Barrett. “The learners themselves should make up the central focus of education. The learner is surrounded in equal measure by the Learning Space (where they learn); the Educators (who teaches them), and the Pedagogy (how they are taught).”
In understanding the positives and negatives of learning environments, Dr. Barrett believes the learners themselves are the key to any effective effort to improve the physical manifestation of spaces for learning. In his experience, sometimes architecture goes further than it needs to, leaving little to the imagination of the learners or their willingness to take ownership by personalizing spaces to themselves.
Beyond a meaningful consideration of the children’s point a view, well-designed schools to be holistic in their approach as well. While designers and researchers are often able to quantify sensory experiences like heat, light, sounds, smells, and appearance of a space, how much thought has been given to the opportunity for personalization of the space or the appropriate levels of stimulation within it? In his research, Dr. Barrett finds that sensory components (light, temperature, and air quality) generally account for approximately 50 percent of a learning environment’s opportunity for improvement and the levels of environmental personalization and stimulus combine to account for the other 50 percent. While sensory conditions are easily measured and levels of personalization and stimulation are difficult to quantify, in terms of improving the experience of learning, they turn out to be roughly equal.
Dr. Barrett shared his thoughts on Emergent Properties, a systems theory reinforcing the notion that everything matters.
“If you are looking at high-level outcomes for concepts like health, well-being, resilience, and of course learning, you need to consider everything that impacts them,” said Dr. Barrett. “Otherwise, it’s difficult to understand what is causing changes in systems. There is no silver bullet. There are a lot of variables that influence systems and I believe it is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”
In terms of safety, the physical condition of the school and the social conditions surrounding it can impact both comfort and concentration. Any learning environment that lacks the basics – electricity, potable water, sanitary drains, waste and garbage disposal, telephone, and good condition (especially damp/wet buildings) – are often associated with a high concentration of undesirable outcomes like limited opportunities to learn, negative teacher retention, and student/teacher absences related to sicknesses.
“What all of this means in the context of educational systems is that there is a disproportionate impact on the disadvantaged,” Dr. Barrett said. Poorly funded schools, with substandard learning conditions, will adversely impact the chances of successful outcomes for both the learners and educators within.
Influences like urban versus rural communities, climate impacts, and socio-economic factors all come into play in making design choices that feel natural and culturally acceptable. While the principles of good design are often seen as universal, the application of design tenants must consider the context to which it is applied.
Dr. Barrett indicated the critical need for a wide range of user insight and influence in any successful design process. In a study of five schools intended to represent the very latest educational design, post-occupancy evaluations found that only one of the schools actually aligned with the original design objectives. Researchers ascertained that in developing four of the schools, far too much influence on the design had been exerted by the school’s headmaster, with insufficient attention given to students, teachers, and other school participants. Consequently, four of the schools had been tailored to the expectations of the headmaster rather than intended educational outcomes and failed to meet objectives.
A well-balanced set of design influences should strive to combine the school’s leadership, the teachers’ pedagogy, the pupils and their behavior, as well as the capacity to be realized in cost and construction.
Dr. Barrett summarized. He points out that schools are built with the intent of serving many successive generations of learners, perhaps 25 to 50 years into the future. Meanwhile, changes in educational, demographics and even cultural trends happen rather quickly, and schools must be adaptable to possibly frequent change.
To address a topic as complex as architecture for education, this framework needs to emerge from a dynamic, collaborative process informed by evidenced-based thinking. Even the visual complexity of a classroom impacts how successfully it facilitates learning. Too many distractions on the classroom walls and the room will feel chaotic; too few, austere. Like visual distractions, the color of a room makes a difference as well. All white walls feel boring, and bright yellow rooms seem zany; neither is optimal for learning.
Taking the model of a learner-focused educational system as a guide to what is developed for this framework, the learner should be surrounded by the where (the school), the who (the teacher), and the what (the pedagogy). The framework must allow for a balance between these influences. It must be able to evolve, and ideally, it should be measurable. Rather than a process that strives for perfection before activation, the framework should be structured to help identify recognizable deficiencies in the educational environment that can be acted upon and improved one step at a time, whenever possible.
“Ultimately, the objective is to help people see the physical environment as a crucial element of education,” finished Dr. Barrett. “The better space is designed, the better it can be used actively and effectively to improve educational outcomes.”
Speaker No. 3: Daniel Wilson, Ed.D
Director: Project Zero
Educational Chair, Learning Environments for Tomorrow Institute
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Leaning into Learning
As the Director of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dr. Daniel Wilson’s research explores the inherent socio-psychological tensions in collaborative adult learning across a variety of contexts. His work focuses on the dilemmas of knowing, trusting, leading, and belonging and how individuals and groups use language, routines, roles, and artifacts to navigate these tensions.
Dr. Wilson’s research finds outcomes are highest when there is a connection between three factors surrounding education – beliefs, practices, and settings. Societal beliefs about what education is and means influence practices and behaviors, which further shape the settings in which the beliefs are exercised through practice.
“The beliefs we have about learning explain a lot,” shares Dr. Wilson. “Not only about the history of education, but also about the environments designed for education.”
Education is a multi-directional process. Where educational beliefs, practices, and settings are well-aligned, we will find inspirational environments. Where they are poorly aligned, attempts to intervene for positive change will meet resistance. Design for successful learning environments must accept that learning is complex, visible, social, and informal.
Learning is not a standardized experience, but rather a complex process that happens in many ways, which depend on the individual learner. The lack of uniformity in experience makes it very difficult to predict direct pathways to learning for everyone. Learning is visible and often externalized through artifacts like tests, term papers, or even artwork, which represent individual cognition of the subject. Learning is generally socially mediated, happening through relationships with peers, teachers, and the broader community surrounding the learner. It is also somewhat informal; many effective forms of learning are self-directed and happen when the individual establishes a sense of autonomy by setting goals and assessing personal progress.
“One of the challenges we face in improving outcomes lies in the tools we use to measure success,” says Dr. Wilson. “If we rely exclusively on outdated conceptualization of learning like standardized testing then we will continue to get a narrow view of success. We need to be very careful about the measurements we use and how we tie them to design.”
Speaker No. 4: Dr. Lindsay Graham, PhD
Founder, Leader: Psychology of Space Research Program
Center for the Built Environment, University of California Berkeley
The Future Measurement of Educational Spaces
Personality and social psychologist, Dr. Lindsay Graham, specializes in the ways people form relationships with, craft, manipulate, and select spaces to fit into their lives. Combining thinking from psychology, architecture, interior design, engineering, and human-computer mediated interactions, Dr. Graham shared her experience measuring educational spaces to test design, validate success, and improve outcomes.
The Center for the Built Environment (CBE) at UC Berkeley has been using a web-based occupant-survey to assess educational spaces since 1999. The database reflects the conditions of more than 1,200 school buildings and provides an understanding of how buildings perform among standardized measures to allow for comparison.
“We are investigating what’s working and what isn’t in terms of many features of the indoor environment,” says Dr. Graham. “Air quality, lighting, acoustics, temperature, furnishings, maintenance, and so forth. We can also break down environmental satisfaction; ease of interaction, organization and cleanliness, circulation patterns.”
With more than 20 years of data from assessed educational environments, the CBE’s occupant survey has become a model for post-occupancy evaluations. When Dr. Graham’s team decided to take a closer look at their tool as an internal check, the investigation revealed a combination of gaps and opportunities.
“Through the years, architects and educators have talked about creating environments that are more helpful to people,” continues Dr. Graham. “However, we found that our research isn’t trying to measure that. Our data seems to lack an emphasis on human elements.”
Where the data collected to this point focuses on environmental satisfaction, it lacks an understanding of health and wellness and social connections. While temperature, light, and air quality are readily tabulated, assessing a building’s contribution to educational creativity, emotional learning, or social interaction is harder.
“We need to start measuring what it looks like to thrive,” says Dr. Graham. “What are we doing right? What are occupant preferences, emotions, and needs of space? Why do we select a space and how do our needs for control and personalization influence environmental engagement?”
Dr. Graham also touched on the ideas of inclusivity and equality as being problematic. The majority of the 1,200 buildings in the CBE’s survey are top-tier Class A buildings, backed by organizations that have the resources to assess their space. Poor schools are rarely even involved.
“We need to push policy to support equity and inclusion. Certification systems need to become more accessible,” says Dr. Graham of ways to better measure educational architecture. “We need better tools, refocused measurements, and stronger interdisciplinary connections among stakeholders. Many measurements outside of education could be effectively applied to great benefit beyond reinventing new ways to measure old information.”
Speaker No. Dr. Annette Anderson, PhD
Deputy Director, Center for Safe and Healthy Schools
Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Education
Post Pandemic: Rethinking School Design to Maximize Success for All
Dr. Annette Anderson’s experience in educational equity and adequacy straddles the line between academic research and practical application through a variety of roles in both school-based positions and academia. She served as the chief executive officer and founding principal of Widener Partnership Charter School, which was the first university-assisted charter school in Pennsylvania as well as leading advisory services for School Administration and Supervision programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.
“Equity should be an important part of how schools are designed,” shared Dr. Anderson. “Post-pandemic, we might start to shift the perception of schools as being exclusively academic to a more holistic life space,” Dr. Anderson said. During the pandemic, especially in inner-city communities, schools have become a centralized rally point for the distribution of food, information on nutrition, housing, and public health services to people of all ages and segments of the population.
“We might also consider rethinking the role of educational facilities within the educational experience,” continued Dr. Anderson. “We have learned very quickly that schools are not the only place learning can happen. Virtual learning is now a part of the overall experience, which opens up opportunities to expand learning well-beyond the classroom to people and places around the world.”
Another long-held educational construct potentially unbound by the pandemic is the school system’s reliance on an 8:00 am to 3:00 pm school day.
“Adjusting to learning remotely, operating more autonomously, and having more individual freedom, we have an opportunity to rethink what time means in education,” continued Dr. Anderson. “Likewise, as students are living through this experience, they may become more aware of personal learning strengths. Are they kinesthetic learners, auditory learners, logical/mathematical or otherwise?”
Dr. Anderson believes the unavoidable shifts in social experience caused by the pandemic compel a larger shift in educational thinking. One that moves the focus of education away from a primarily academic perspective to a more holistic life-course perspective. The necessity for remote learning has now opened new content delivery platforms that can increase options and opportunities in learning, not previously considered. With remote learning platforms, like the constraints of place, the constraints of time also begin to dissolve.
“New thinking in educational design should consider the impact of flexible spaces and the capacity to build texture and warmth into future educational spaces,” Dr. Anderson said. “We need to balance the need for personal safety, personal learning space, and group collaboration, while also prioritizing access to future opportunities as a mechanism to grow equity for all learners.”
Education is an opportunity, of which architecture is a primary asset. Both asset and opportunity must be more uniformly distributed if we hope to achieve a more equitable society. In thinking about the intersection of emerging research and design for education, we need to reshape access to opportunity and educational, emotional, and social well-being for learners of all ages, social strata, and life prospects. Beyond gathering insight from a collection of elite educational environments, any holistic framework of design for learning environments must leverage interdisciplinary thinking to compel new measures of success in health, well-being, emotional and educational intelligence that positively advance the human condition for the greater good.
Sean O’Keefe is an architecture and construction writer who crafts stories for Learning By Design Magazine and others based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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 email@example.com 303.668.0717