Christopher Brown is a local architect who’s work speaks for itself. The recently completed 426 A Street Project located at the corner of 3rd and A Street has literally stopped people in their tracks, compelling them to ask “who created this amazing space”. It was recently awarded the ‘City of Ashland: Historical Compatibility Award for New Commercial Structure’, and is currently in the process of receiving LEED Gold Certification. Christopher Brown takes a modern and sustainable approach to architecture, making sure to utilize relevant green technologies compatible with aesthetics, functionality, and budget. I met with Christopher Brown to learn more about this process, his work and his approach to creating great spaces.
Christopher thanks for speaking with us today. To begin with, give us a little background on yourself and your training.
Hi Shields, thank you for the opportunity to speak with LocalsGuide. I completed my studies at Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) in 2005, and in the process also studied architecture internationally in Kyoto, Japan (2002), Istanbul, Turkey (2003), and Copenhagen, Denmark (2004). I was married and had my first daughter in 2004, and after graduation moved up north to Ashland, Oregon to raise our family and progress towards fulfilling my licensure requirements. Ray Kistler gave me the first opportunity to work in the architectural field, and I began work with Kistler Architecture in 2006. Ray taught me a great deal regarding the profession and practice of architecture and in 2007 the collaborative firm kistler+small+white was formed and I worked alongside Jerome White & Matt Small, both great architects and teachers, up until the formation of my independent practice in 2012.
You are one of the Valleys LEED certified architects. Can you say more about this and what it means?
LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is an internationally recognized certification standard that focuses on the practice and implementation of sustainable measures in architecture and design. Although not perfect by any means, it has created a standard and furthered the progress of mainstream design and construction methods, furthering awareness in the relationship between site-impact, water run-off/usage, power generation, and transportation. I currently hold active certification for Building Construction & Design (BD+C) and LEED Homes.
Can you talk about how your studies abroad have come to influence your work?
Traveling the world provided experience and perspective not only in the tangible aspects of the built environment, but also in understanding how different cultures and people live. It is easy to summarize architecture as just four walls and a roof, however it extends much further than that and I believe provides direct reflection on the values and identification of society. I did not realize the extent to which I would carry those lessons, however have come to revisit time and time again lessons in simplicity and refinement, which have furthered the approach to my work.
What were some of the criteria for the project at 426 A Street?
The 426 A Street project was interesting in the sense that it required a very efficient program based on the demands of a relatively small site with big hopes and aspirations. The intention was to design a mixed-use hub, allowing for three retail and office spaces on street level, while providing two residential suites on the second-story. The client wanted to bring a level of sustainable design to the project that is not very common in many speculative development projects, and pursued a LEED Gold certification goal, which has created both increased demand in tenant interest as well as providing for a very efficient and educational building envelope.
You like to focus on a niche of architecture you identify as modern and sustainable.
Yes, although it is not often you hear the words modern and sustainable used in the same sentence, I find that the two terms are very complementary as opposed to exclusive. A lot of the feedback on the 426 A Street Project has been, ‘How did you get away these modern forms?’, or ‘How did the Historical Commission ever approve this?’ and it is interesting to find that there is a subtle fascination with how we perceive form and its place in the context of time. To me personally, a modern design approach is simply reducing a problem to its most basic elements. From there you can begin to understand the relationship of these elements and how to resolve them into a solution. Sustainability is essentially the same method of thought, identify the prime elements in the system (natural or man-made) and utilize them in a process that creates a natural inertia, one that sustains itself.
Can you show a few specific highlights of you work on A Street and then tell us why you choose to do what you did?
A primary focus of the design was to create a public plaza that would allow for an ‘open’ corner at 3rd & A Street. The First Friday Art Walk & increased pedestrian traffic on A Street were motivating factors to create low concrete benches, accessible stairs, and utilize shade from the existing cedar trees on site. Greg Covey (Covey+Pardee) did a great job on integrating the landscape and site design with the architecture to create a seamless transition between the two.
A major incentive of the 426 A Street Project was to utilize as much solar energy gain as possible, there is a 7.8kw photovoltaic array that provides energy to both of the second floor residential suites, and powers all of the exterior site lighting, etc. There are also (4) domestic hot-water panels (2 for each residential suite), which provide all basic hot-water needs for both residential suites. Seaira Safady of Alternative Energy Systems (Photovoltaic) & Luke Frazer of Solar Collection (Solar Water) come highly recommended for their excellent consultation and installation of each system.
In designing the second floor residential suites we wanted to create an open floor plan, similar to a loft or studio you might find in urban setting, allowing for natural day-light to reach far into the space and take full advantage of the prime view over the train-tracks towards Grizzly Peak and the surrounding foothills. The 9’-0” coffered ceilings have interior duct runs providing heating and air-conditioning, which help to define areas of the living space as well keeping the insulated envelope tight. Jeff Sentle (Sentle Construction) was the builder on the project, and really brought the entire vision into completion, with efficiency both in construction budget and timeline delivery.
In addition to the Photovoltaic and Solar Collector panels on the roof, there is a 500 sf extensive green roof installation as well. Primarily planted with Dragons Blood, a type of sedum that is well adjusted to the climate of the Pacific Northwest, these low-weight planting trays help to filter and retain rainfall during storm events, as well as protect the membrane roof from UV exposure. Ted Loftus Landscaping and Jeanine Sturm of This Season’s Color have done an excellent job both on the installation and maintenance of the predominately native low-irrigation landscape.
Talk about your process and how does architectural design come to take form?
A basis for my process when approaching and evaluating a project is that design in its essence is a mode of limits. In understanding what the specific limits of a project are (financial, regulatory, spatial, etc.) you can begin to perceive the indeterminate potential a project may hold. Limits are not necessarily imposed upon a project by outside forces, often times limits themselves are a result of the values that a client or community may hold as valid, and therefore begin to take form as city planning regulations or a clients desire to achieve a certain view or a desired standard of building efficiency. I approach each project as a unique set of circumstances, no matter how large or small, which ultimately will find a solution based on the degree of clarity achieved throughout the investigative design process.
How do you find that line between good and great in the work that you do and then how do you know when you are done?
That’s a good question, I don’t really believe that I have found a linear definition yet that separates ‘good’ from ‘great’. After a project is complete, I can often identify aspects of a project as ‘successful’ and others perhaps as not so ‘successful’, however this is all determined in relation to time and place.
Architecture in a vacuum, devoid of life, would just be a static monument, relating to light and space with no variable or change. The other half of the story is the poetry that takes place in the human experience of the built-form; this in my opinion becomes true architecture. The forces of nature, life, and humanity interacting directly within and without, are what ultimately create the measure of success or failure.
You talk about the idea of a space starting to take on a life of its own. This building on A Street has really done this for you. What has the reaction been and how have you seen it come to life?
The building itself is inanimate material; stone, concrete, wood, steel. We do not expect to see these materials when combined suddenly take form and become living. However to see the life imbued in a concrete bench when suddenly it becomes a place for someone to sit and take a rest, is a satisfying reward. Somehow the intangible is found in these small acts, and as the materials begin to soften and age over time it is inevitable that the truth or honesty of the material itself will be revealed. Often the reaction I have heard to the 426 building is along the lines of, ‘It looks like it has always been here’, to me that is the greatest compliment possible, and a real measure of success.
I would love for you to talk about how you perceive beauty. You originally began your career path as an engineer, then artist and eventually transitioned into architecture. How do you work with and create beauty in the work you do?
Oftentimes we have a very segregated view of society and how we relate professionally in that regard is defined by our degree of achievement in one certain field or the other. I think that our culture in the west has often struggled with the resolution of a very scientific analytical perception of the world on one hand, and the non-linear creative holistic viewpoint on the other. In my own personal journey, Architecture has provided a field-of-study where both these forces could be harnessed and seek resolution with one another. As I have begun to experience the real-world demands as a practicing architect, these abstract concepts have become more tangible and fluid with one another through the lessons and experience of each project. I would not say that I strive to create beauty as so much that I work to create a harmony in proportion, scale, and material. Similar to a musical composition, each element has a specific voice and character; it is the successful coordination of each according to their strength that creates a complete vision.
What type of project are you currently taking on and how can clients go about working with you?
I am currently working on several different projects varying in degree and scale, I have an associate Martin Lee who has been contributing on several of the more recent projects, including a LEED residential project outside of Jacksonville, several custom residential projects in the Railroad district of Ashland, The Free Source Media Exchange/Metaphysical Library on Ashland Street, and a craftsman residential project in the Helman Springs Development. There are currently several potential projects on-the-board including another mixed-use development and a custom residence at the Running Y Resort in Klamath Falls. Kailee Bell is a recently hired intern and has made great progress in assisting in the office and coordination in scheduling and phasing of projects. I am open to any potential clients, no project is too large or too small, and encourage a stop-by and visit approach at the office on 426 A Street, Suite 101, or to visit the website: www.arkitek.us and send an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for the interview Shields, I appreciate speaking candidly with you, and wish LocalsGuide success in the future.
ARKITEK: Christopher Brown