PRB Articles


Blending In

City administrators, college trustees, park authorities, and independent school-board members who are planning to build a large facility often find themselves in a bind. They want their new building to excite people—to really stand out. But they also have a competing need to create a building that is harmonious with its surroundings. In some cases, a historic district commission that must grant the final approval for a project will place extreme limitations on scale, color, or material selection. These restrictions sometimes cause problems for designers—particularly when the building in question is of a larger scale than the surrounding community.

As specialists in large athletic facilities, Stanmar, Inc., faces these issues regularly, but designers of all types of buildings utilize many of the same techniques, which in recent years have helped owners achieve their goals.

Ancient Wisdom

Like many independent institutions, Miss Porter’s School—a private, college-preparatory school for girls, located in Farmington, Conn., and founded in 1843—is steeped in a traditional architectural style. The feel is similar to that of an Ivy League campus, except that the Ivies—being much larger—are able to absorb more eclectic styles. Porter’s alumni go by the name “Ancients,” which gives an indication of the importance of their history.

Brick is the predominant material used in campus buildings, but the administration had fewer concerns about materiality than it did about the insertion of the large-volume Squash & Swim Center into a residential neighborhood. Achieving the same human scale as in the surrounding community began with minimizing the apparent mass of the two-story natatorium and utilizing a common two-pronged design technique—placing the larger volume on a regraded slope (in this case, to the right of the entry), and burying half of the front wall into the hillside. This is a standard treatment when the site topography is conducive, and it drives the design of the rest of the building plan around this first move.

The Squash & Swim Center visually integrates this volume into the rest of the building through extensive exterior detailing. Because the building volume to the left of the entry houses squash courts, colonnades that align with the arched colonnade at the entry are used to conceal the lack of window openings on that wall. The roof eave on that side is dropped lower than it ordinarily would be on a two-story building; the slope of the roof falls from an elongated clerestory; and the arched entry is similarly stepped forward from a barrel-vault clerestory behind. When combined in sections, the building presents itself as being two stories, but when viewed in elevation, it looks like one story with a dormer on top.

Viewed from the front, the building appears to be all of one height, with both volumes scaled down by using the site and ornamentation to conceal the reality. The low roof line, liberal use of trim, and arrangement of shapes bring details into the foreground, making the exterior more human-scaled—comparable to that of a residential feel.

A Historic Project

An interesting question at this juncture might be: What about the back of the building? After all, the use of site topography to conceal the true height of a building only works for half of the structure.

The 20,000-square-foot expansion of the Nantucket (Mass.) Boys & Girls Club, which involved the construction of a state-of-the-art gymnasium, had even tougher requirements set by the island’s Historic District Commission (HDC). The HDC has available on its website for download not only a 184-page set of guidelines but also separate appendices and documentation that offer drawings of chimneys, cornices, fences, front doors, windows, timber frames, and stoop railings.

Building on Nantucket means utilizing specific wood products, such as shingles, and adhering to rigid specifications for the slope of roofs, while also ensuring the commission that a gymnasium won’t appear out of scale with other nearby structures. In the case of the Boys & Girls Club, the front elevation utilized some of the same techniques as those of the Squash & Swim Center at Miss Porter’s, beginning with the decision to bury the front of the building into a hill and having patrons enter a lobby that sits on the building’s second floor.

From the rear, the visual impact of the gym’s long, two-story wall is mitigated by dividing it into five equal rectangles, using extra-wide white trim, and shrinking the apparent size of each section to approach the look of the adjoining, smaller portions of the club. A centered window high within each rectangle brings daylight into the gym, and positioning each in a line with the building’s other windows further accentuates the ways in which the building’s largest volume matches its smallest. Although the gym’s pitched roof is much larger, the eye reads the building’s aligned volumes as being of similar size.

These techniques are greatly aided by one of Stanmar’s key advantages with regard to consistency of scale: As a specialist in athletic facilities, the firm can place large-volume spaces, such as gyms and arenas, alongside athletic fields, where the distance serves to guard against architecture becoming imposing or intimidating.

Classical Treatment

Few communities impose the level of restrictions that Nantucket does, although one college campus comes close. Samford University's campus is defined by a uniform Georgian architectural style, based on Colonial Williamsburg, and rigorous application of the style is expected. Prior to Stanmar’s arrival in Homewood, Ala., to design and build a sports and special-events center featuring a 5,000-seat arena, several architecture firms had been rejected for either straying too far from Georgian architecture or presenting too large of a budget.

Georgian architecture is a staple of many older university buildings, evoking permanence and grandeur—and, in fact, luxury. These buildings are meant to feel solid and expensive, like a Rolls Royce. But whereas a house designed with classical adherence to proportion, solid materiality, and symmetry—brick and limestone, columns, sloped roofs with dormers, and massive chimneys on both sides of the roof—will look grand, those same details utilized on a 5,000-seat arena might make it look like a 15,000-seat venue from the outside.

The eventual design of The Pete Hanna Center reflected these unique challenges and utilized some common methods for achieving harmony. Burying one end of the building into a hill hid some of its mass, with further concealment accomplished by wrapping the perimeter of the building in smaller volumes. These contain the 12,000-square-foot fitness center, locker rooms, team-meeting rooms, a student-athlete academic center, offices for coaches and administrators, and a chapel. But, on the whole, the designers celebrated the building's mass and sculpted it in the Georgian language, including a hipped roof with dormers, facades with temple-like repetitive columns, limestone surrounds for every window, and dual chimneys rendered (like the rest of the building) in brick. At the same time, Stanmar made a few material choices to keep within the firm’s guaranteed fixed price, such as using high-relief, architectural-grade asphalt shingles instead of slate (with the bulk of the roof 75 feet above grade, the difference isn’t immediately noticeable).

Proportionality is a key precept of Georgian architecture, and the design of the building keeps the historical formulas that prescribe width to height ratios. The base of exterior columns seems large from close up, but viewed from a distance (such as from adjacent athletic fields), the scale of the columns can be seen as being in synch, relative to the width and height of the building. In this way, the Center looks like no other modern arena (where glass curtainwall is the dominant material), but blends seamlessly with the existing architecture on the Samford University campus.

Style And Substance

Architects, engineers, and builders are all problem-solvers, and restrictions on materials, styles, or building scale offer designers a particular challenge to bring the excitement of the new to their buildings, while keeping their artistic impulses tightly focused. A proven track record of projects successfully completed within clients’ or local jurisdictions’ stylistic requirements should be a prerequisite of any city or institution seeking professional design and construction services.

Oliver Snider (osnider@stanmar-inc.com) is director of business development and David Rose is director of architecture for Stanmar Inc., a Wayland, Mass.-based design-build firm specializing in multipurpose athletic facilities.

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