Monday, February 15, 2010

Mod Minn(ies): Modern Industry

Left: Peter Behren's AEG Turbine Factory | Right: Herzog & de Meuron's Ricola Storage Warehouse (Photo: Margherita Spiluttini)

Many architects aspire to design modernist mansions and ground-breaking museums, forgetting that incredible work can be accomplished with less seductive structures. We must remember that simple industrial structures propelled the Modernist movement forward in the first place. If it weren't for Peter Barren's AEG Turbinenfabrik (Turbine Factory), designed at the turn of the last century, Modernism may have never begun. More recently it was Herzog & de Meuron's simple storage warehouse for Ricola in Basel, Switzerland, that refocused architecture away from literal ornamentation and exaggerated pediments towards explorations of modern materiality. In this same spirit of doing the most with what you are given, HGA's Steven Dwyer recently received an AIA Minnesota Honor Award for a wonderful and precise design for the Biomass Facility at the University of Minnesota–Morris.

The building is a simple yet elegant addition to the university's original power plant by the celebrated firm Cerny & Associates. HGA was initially selected for the firm's engineering expertise, to be led by principal Doug Moss, PE, seven years ago when the bio-mass facility project began. The building is not meant for human habitation. It houses a corn stove, used to grind and efficiently burn agricultural waste to capture heating energy for the campus. This requires a complex mechanical choreography of processing and gasification. Despite the ground-breaking technology housed inside, the building's design was intended to be a basic brick box to match the campus's design guidelines. When the project landed on Steven Dwyer's desk, at that time a junior designer, he knew it had more potential.

Inspired by the building's industrial purpose and the rural setting immediately beyond the facility, Dwyer advocated making the biomass facility a modern wood box. He felt strongly that the texture of that material would create the contrast necessary to play against the existing power plant's brick and make it possible to acknowledge the agrarian material fueling the campus's energy needs within. Because the building had strict sustainable design goals and a very limited budget, wood was also an affordable alternative to the original brick selections. The taught horizontal wood skin of the building changes texture at times to become vertical grill framed in galvanized steel, featuring the important crop material within. Other parts of the building need to be exposed the outside for safety and ventilation purposes; and here Dwyer used a finely-woven galvanized chain-link (see detail below) stretched in a matching steel frame that exposes the steel structure and complex mechanics within. The overall play of opaque to open makes this simple wood and steel box eye-catching. The playfulness of simple architectural composition becomes even more noticeable with a galvanized steel box window which penetrates from the western side of the building, a trick not typically possible in conventional buildings in Minnesota because of thermal issues.

HGA has realized a tailored work of architecture shaped from a decidedly industrial project. The lesson from it is that rich symbols of architectural culture can be fostered from the simple everyday elements of the industrial landscape. As architects we need to remind ourselves of those brief moments in our professional history when great works were invented from the most minimal building projects. We as designers need to try to help our clients see the potential in their everyday structures. Only with our diligence can these simple industrial boxes become experimental elements of culture.

If you're interested in learning more about the project, please check out Philip Koski's article in this months Architecture Minnesota Magazine.


Anonymous said...

Can you explain the details? What are they showing? Interesting project.

-Nick, Assoc. AIA

Colin said...

The left detail shows the section through the steel box window on the Western wall. The right illustrates a section through the top of the wall where the steel cornice is exposed and the chainlink screen that displays the mechanical components inside. The steel cornice is one of the details which won over the jury for the Honor Award.

Koski, AIA said...

My favorite part of the project is the selection of wood siding for the exterior. When the siding needs to be replaced, it can be chipped and fed into the biomass feeder - resulting in true net zero carbon energy generation, since the material won't have to be transported more than a walk around to the backside of the building. Now if only the University would plant a stand of cedar trees on the side yard to replace the lumber in 20-30 years!