A Boat in the Snow by Wright Sherman

Public transit and skiing trips. Two things you wouldn’t normally think of together. Who wouldn’t rather just throw their skis in the SUV and head off for the trails? Why take a bus?

Well, if you’re talking about Tahoe, traffic in the winter months can be a hassle around the ski resorts. Add to that the challenge of finding parking nearby, and taking a bus that will drop you off right in front of the resort starts looking very desirable.

Tahoe didn’t have an intermodal transit center, and passengers who needed to change buses were having to cross State Route 89, close to the intersection with busy State Route 28. There was no park-and-ride lot nearby, either.

To make it easier for people to get out of their cars, the county asked us to create an intermodal transit facility. The designated site on USFS land has a long history and has served a variety of purposes, including a trailer park in the 70’s and an elaborate turnaround for the old Truckee Railroad before that. Thirty years ago, members of the community planted trees there, and they were very concerned about saving those. So we sited the facility to impact the fewest trees possible and planted many new ones as well.

The idea of treading lightly on the site became our mantra for the design, driving every decision that we made. We minimized the facility’s footprint as much as we could by configuring the bus loop with passenger loading on both sides. Of course, that meant the roof couldn’t shed snow in any direction—the building has no back to it. People and vehicles would be moving all around the perimeter.

To relate to the natural setting, we wanted the roof to create a long, low horizon line set among the tall trees. To reinforce that, architecturally speaking, we wanted the structure to float, so it wouldn’t obstruct views of the landscape. We were inspired by the idea that the roof could literally be built like a boat, with long wooden slats along the underside. Supporting the roof on just a few stone pillars, allows views of the landscape to pass underneath. Then to maximize openness, we enclosed the waiting room with large, sliding patio-doors–set on a stone plinth, between tapered timber columns.

Tahoe has one of the highest snow loads of any place on the planet. Since the idea is to hold the snow all season, the roof is designed for 250 pounds per square foot. In the spring, the roof actively melts the snow, collects the water in gutters, and delivers it to a 4,000-gallon storage tank for irrigation and toilet flushing. Pervious concrete in the parking areas allows stormwater to pass directly back into the soil, while other areas are connected to an underground infiltration gallery that cleans the water before it goes back to the earth.

The building itself is simple, with a small office, an enclosed waiting area large enough for 40 people, and two unisex restrooms. Bicycle lockers are integrated into the wall of the facility. The parking lot is big enough for 130 cars.

Continuing the theme of treading lightly on the landscape, we aimed to reduce energy use as much as we could. Laminated solar cells are integrated into the roof, and handle most of the facility’s peak load—generating a little less in the winter, a little more in the summer. The roof is designed to enhance natural ventilation as well, with a clerestory that encourages warm air to escape during the summer season. The broad eaves of the roof provide shade in the warm months, but are situated to capture direct sunlight, filtered by the trees, in the cold months. Efficient heating is also provided by a radiant slab. Bronze plaques grouted into the granite walls of the building explain the sustainability features of the design.

Although it is strikingly modern in form, this building is intended to be wholly of Tahoe. The stone used in the battered walls and columns comes from the Sierras, and the timber is local as well. Interpretative graphics integrated into the windscreen at the outdoor waiting area tell the history of transportation in Tahoe, starting all the way back to the time when this part of the country was inhabited entirely by Native Americans.

The Tahoe City Transit Center has won national awards including the 2013 AIA Small Project Award, a Top Honor in the 2012 Western Red Cedar Architectural Design Awards, and one of the American Public Works Association’s Public Works Projects of the Year for 2013.


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Wood and Straw: A Tale of Two Ranger Stations by Pauline Souza

A few years ago, the U.S. Forest Service asked us to design two new ranger stations in Los Padres National Forest, which stretches 220 miles from Monterey to Ventura. Although the two stations are nearly identical in size, program, and budget, they occupy completely different types of sites, requiring very different design responses. One is built of wood—pretty traditional for ranger stations. The other, however, is built of straw bales.

The wood-framed station is the new Chuchupate District Ranger Station, which occupies a rural, hilly site in the unincorporated village of Frazier Park, Kern County, to the south. The straw-bale one is the new Monterey District Ranger Station, located within the forest’s northern portion in a residential neighborhood of King City, part of Monterey County. Both stations provide administrative space for the district forest ranger, fire marshal, and law enforcement, recreation, and other administrative officers. About half of each building accommodates fire management.

For the Monterey District station, the Forest Service needed a building that would be a good neighbor to the single-family homes across the street and to the nearby Monterey County Fairgrounds. As our project’s designer, Adam Woltag, describes in his blog post A Conversation on Style, the Forest Service felt a Spanish-style building would be appropriate.

We got out our Irving Gill and Rob Wellington Quigley monographs to see how other architects have interpreted the Spanish style in ways that feel contemporary. I think we surprised our clients at first when we proposed straw bale construction. Straw is probably the last material most people would think of when building a structure dedicated to fire management. And we don’t know of any other federal building that has ever taken this approach. But it gave us the thick walls (more than a foot and a half) with recessed windows that characterize California Spanish missions.

Plus, we were using a local, renewable resource that was inexpensive (typically, straw is considered a waste product and is burned) and has an extremely small carbon footprint. It provides significant thermal mass, keeping the inside temperature cool even on very hot days. The bales are so densely packed that there’s hardly any oxygen in them to burn, so the walls have about the same fire resistance as wood.

Our clients became very enthusiastic about it the more they learned about straw bale construction as it fit with their values. And it was much easier and less costly to build than wood-frame or steel-frame would have been.

We had the good fortune to work with David Mar of the Berkeley structural engineering firm Tipping Mar. David has a long history of working with straw bale buildings, having served as structural engineer for the house of composer Lou Harrison at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, among others. While most other large-scale straw bale buildings use straw as infill material, David helped us use it as the primary structural material. This strategy substantially reduced the amount of wood framing and steel required. David figured out how to enable both sides of the straw bale walls to take lateral loads by tying a welded-wire stainless-steel mesh on either side of the straw bale. We then sprayed one and a quarter inches of gunite over the mesh. This solution allows the wall to handle most of the lateral stresses. Essentially it functions the same way a concrete tilt-up wall would.

We pushed the straw bale envelope a bit, with a building that is taller than usual and has parapets, which are not typical with this type of construction. The Berkeley-based design and construction firm Skillful Means, which has rare expertise in this area, stacked the bales as a subconsultant to the design-build contractor, Plant Construction. And as it turned out, the Plant supervisor on the project is from Andalusia and grew up in homes that were built from adobe and straw. For him, it was a wonderful experience to see this traditional process applied in a new way.

For the Chuchupate District Ranger Station in Frazier Park, we chose wood frame construction because the site is on the slope of Mount Pinos, offering spectacular views that we wanted to capture with large windows. The stained cedar siding and galvanized metal roof blend in with the forested surroundings. In addition, the San Andreas Fault is only about four miles away, and wood frame offers better seismic performance in that situation. Both buildings are targeted to achieve a minimum of LEED Silver with optimal solar orientation, operable windows for natural ventilation, high-efficiency mechanical systems, and bioswales that treat stormwater on site.

Because the buildings are both about 8,500 square feet, we’ll be studying how they both perform. Given the construction cost savings of using a straw bale structural system, not to mention the extremely low carbon footprint and great insulating properties, we’ll be looking for more opportunities to use this overlooked building material. Often considered insignificant, straw holds a mighty potential.

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Building Information Modeling by WRNS Studio

Pushing the Envelope with BIM

Building information modeling (BIM) promises architects, contractors, and clients greater efficiency and coordination, but at the same time, BIM is relatively new, and the AEC industry and its clients are still refining ways to realize that promise. At the 2011 conference of the Pacific Coast chapter of APPA: Leadership in Educational Facilities, one of our designers, Jason Halaby, delivered a presentation on BIM with Warren Jacobs, university architect for California State University, and Kevin Lew, design manager for McCarthy Building Companies. We convened Jason and Kevin to talk about the potential and the challenges of BIM.

Q: What efficiencies does BIM bring?
Jason: The efficiency comes from the fact that the whole team—consultants, engineers, contractors—is working on a digital model that has all of the information about the building embedded in its database. We benefit from the coordinated approach that BIM provides, rather than having different documents that describe different parts of the building in a disjointed way. The team can share information much more efficiently and accurately by simulating the building in a 3D model than by representing it with 2D drawings.

Kevin: Also, all of the design models have a high level of detail. When you combine that with the level of detail that subcontractors provide, coupled with their knowledge of what actually happens in the field, you get very rich and constructible solutions, a very efficient process. The traditional design-bid-build process, by contrast, limits the interaction between the architect and builder, making for a less efficient process.

Q: What are some of the drawbacks of BIM?
Jason: The biggest drawback I see in the current practice of BIM is that the models are not regularly identified as contract documents. We still have to produce 2D drawings as contract documents and to submit for permitting. Software is getting better at converting our models into 2D drawings for this purpose, but the richest source of project data will always be the model.

Kevin: And although mechanical/electrical/plumbing subcontractors adopted 3D modeling early on, a lot of subcontractors in other disciplines aren’t as sophisticated with the technology yet. So although we want to rely on the digital model for everything, a lot of content is still represented by 2D details from those subcontractors. It’s challenging to integrate the two.

Q: A lot of clients as well as consultants don’t have much experience of BIM. How do you cope with that?
Jason: Almost every project we do begins with a kickoff meeting where the team develops a BIM execution plan. We talk about the goals and establish when each member of the team starts modeling and what level of detail the model will have. Because each project has different requirements and uses for the model, we have to decide these things on a project-by-project basis.  We see client education as an important role of our profession, many of our clients are not aware that our models can be useful to them long after construction has been completed – for operations and maintenance, renovations, and facilities management.

Q: Do you think BIM can still offer efficiencies in the traditional design-bid-build process, even without the upfront coordination between the architect and the contractor?
Kevin: There’s always value in having a BIM  model, because it’s so visual and rich with information. If we’re in a low-bid situation, it enables us to understand the project a lot more easily. I can look at the model with our field operations team and say, hey, this is a pretty high-quality design, we’re not going to have a lot of requests for information. So we can be more certain about our schedule and more certain about our low-bid price.

Jason: This process of sharing information via the model benefits the design team as well, regardless of the delivery method. We can check our structural engineer’s design against our architectural design and say with confidence, “This ceiling doesn’t work with the beams here” or, “The openings don’t quite fit between the bracing.”  Because we are simulating the building, we can provide our clients with realistic visualizations, allowing them to better understand the design through every design phase.

Q: Because of the advantage of involving the contractor up front, are more clients likely to move away from the low-bid public process to a construction-manager-at-risk method using BIM?
Kevin: In the current low-bid public process, the owner’s selection of the contractor has to be based mostly on the price. But public procurement codes are changing. We’ve seen design-build setups that include a qualitative aspect in the selection process. The General Services Administration is spearheading this.

Q: Have you seen the BIM process used beyond construction and fabrication yet, for such things as facilities management?
Kevin: The GSA is pushing forward with formatting models to take advantage of facilities management software. The information is embedded in the model, so why not leverage it? Locally, the facilities group at the University of California, San Francisco, is taking a look at that.

Q: What are some of the best examples of projects you’ve worked on employing BIM?
Kevin: We’re currently joint venturing with Clark Construction on the new Stanford hospital project with Rafael Viñoly Architects and Lee, Burkhart, Liu. The entire AE team, from the medical planners to the plumbing engineers, is on an all-Revit design platform.

Jason: Recently I worked on the new campus for Adobe in Utah, which WRNS designed, where every consultant – except Landscape and Civil – was modeling in Revit. All of the engineers produced extremely good quality models fairly early in the design process, which allowed for much better coordination and a better building design. The models also enabled our contractor to do constructability reviews of the project before we were done with construction documents, which allowed us to find some of the issues that would have become problematic in construction and deal with them earlier. It gave us a much better understanding of a very complex building and site.

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A Conversation on Style by Adam Woltag

Occasionally, clients come to us with a particular architectural style in mind, such as Spanish Mission, Craftsman or Modern. In the past, we’d cringe at the thought of a design conversation centered on stylistic elements, or decoration, as opposed to the more meaningful dialogue we might have about use, construction, and most importantly – place. Over the years, we’ve found a way to engage our clients in a productive dialogue about the essence of a given architectural style, what it means to inhabit a style as owners and users of the building, and to draw inspiration from it as architects.

In 2010, the U.S. Forest Service commissioned us to design two new ranger stations in Los Padres National Forest. One of them is located in a residential neighborhood in Monterey County. Our clients wanted a building that would be a good neighbor, one that fit in with the residential fabric of the neighborhood, and felt that a “Spanish-style” structure would be right for this site. Our client provided reference images that ranged from large, suburban stucco mansions to the Mission San Antonio, the commonalties being red tile roofs and smooth white plaster walls. Wanting to push the “style” conversation deeper, we dove into an exploration of how Northern California Spanish architecture functions, how it is made and how it might manifest on our site. We began by looking at the California Spanish missions.

In Northern California, the missions were built in response to climate – typically hot dry summers and wet mild winters. They were built with thick adobe white washed walls and recessed windows that regulate temperature within the building. If you remember what it felt like the first time you stepped in one, you’ll recall a space that was comfortably cool in both the summer and winter months. They also have courtyards, gardens, and walled patios at the entrance to welcome visitors and establish a sense of entry. Because the Forest Service wanted a highly sustainable building that embraced the community, these design precepts connected with their values and led us to propose straw bale construction—a method not typically associated with Spanish missions or federal buildings.


The resulting ranger station has many of the hallmarks of the missions: landscaped entry courts, walled patios, generous eaves, thick white plaster walls, and recessed windows. It even has a clay tile roof. Yet the design avoids stylistic ornamentation and instead looks at space, light, and landscape as the primary experiential definers of the architecture. Special attention was paid to making simple, well-lit, comfortable spaces with views to gardens and patios. The straw bale, with its thermal mass and exceptional insulating capacity, enabled us to achieve a high performance building envelope that helps regulate internal temperatures. Only minimal-high efficiency HVAC systems were needed to provide for thermal comfort year-round.  By recessing the exterior windows deep into the thick bale walls, we were able to protect them simply and elegantly from excessive solar exposure without compromising on light and view.

We had a similar experience designing the City of Watsonville Water Resources Center. Our client sought a building that drew on the Craftsman-style homes of the area. Craftsman-style architecture exemplifies a certain warmth. They look like they come from the earth, they use simple and natural materials like stone and wood, and their spaces are scaled and tailored to the human frame. However, to design and build something that truly evoked the quality and detailing of Craftsman-style homes, with their exposed wood joinery, built in furniture, and rich glazed tile accents, would have pushed up construction costs way beyond the project’s budget. We also had questions about the appropriateness of applying such a specific architectural reference to a program containing a water quality laboratory and operations center.

As we explored ideas with our client, we focused on the experience of moving through and inhabiting the space, the possibilities for incorporating daylight and fresh air to the interior building, and the opportunities for shaping vistas to the surrounding agricultural landscape from within.  The inherent resources of the site — water, wind, and sun — became the driving design elements that eventually developed into architecture of place.

We chose a simple material palette to complement the coastal and agricultural sensibilities of the site: a standing seam metal roof, ground and polished concrete floors, exposed structural wood framing and decking, resin panels, and a locally milled California redwood rain screen cladding system.  These materials are durable, honest, and designed to age gracefully in their context with little maintenance.

Our client’s desire to exemplify water conservation shaped the design significantly, too. The long, sloping roof allows rain to flow down rain chains and into swales, where it is carried to retention basins and treated prior to infiltrating the groundwater system. The building tells the story of water visibly—important, given its educational role during the frequent visits of school children.

When we imagine older buildings we love, we tend to see them in our mind’s eye as if from a helicopter, looking down at them from the outside. The surface details stick in our memories. But we’re always responding to other qualities about those buildings that may be less easy to name, but which will resonate more deeply.

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Silence by Molly Thomas

Music, Claude Debussy once famously remarked, is the stuff between the notes, an observation that resonates, pardon the pun, from the flawless spacing of a Billie Holiday tune to the deletions—whether generous or cruel—in our daily lives. Essentially neuter, neither balm nor curse, silence, like light or love, requires a medium to give it meaning, takes on the color of its host, adapts easily to our fears and needs. Quite apart from whether we seek or shun it, silence orchestrates the music of our days.

– Mark Slouka

A confluence of messages about silence recently reminded me that doing “nothing” is ok sometimes. I was reading Mark Slouka’s Essays from the Nick of Time, and Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad.  Then I was sitting in a courtyard watching the sea make diamonds with the sky.  Anything seemed possible.


…if it’s true that all symphonies end in silence, it’s equally true that they begin there as well.
Mark Slouka

What comes from reading in a park, diving into a De Kooning colorscape, or pondering the hard verses below a Kanye West lyrical high note?  Story.  Dissonance. Possibility.  Understanding.  Plots untangle and coalesce to the pat pat of an isolated redwood run.  Questions formulate in the pause between sentences; they are nourished in contemplation.

In “Listening for Silence: Notes on an Aural Life,” Slouka asks how we make room to dream amidst the cacophony of modern life:

As silence disappears, the world draws tighter, borders collapse, the public and the private bleed and intermix. Victim to the centripetal pull, the imagination crackles with the static of outside frequencies, while somewhere in the soul-listen!-a cell phone is chirping. Answer it quickly, before someone else does.

For Slouka, it’s not just creativity that’s at stake; civil society depends upon the ability and willingness of people to think critically, and to do this, we need quiet.  But we are rarely quiet these days.  A screen constantly flashes messages of varied import.  We follow threads and answer calls.  Perpetually distracted, we seem to be, more and more, living in a state of response.

Much of cable news depends upon this state of response, or worse (though directly related): the passive intake of noise by uncritical minds.  As a result, fact and science are rendered elusive.  Monolithic messaging abounds.  True dialogue fights for a place.  Will democracy too?

Back to art and happier things

I almost didn’t read A Visit from the Goon Squad. It starts with a seemingly vapid millennial character who shoplifts out of anxiety or boredom.  But Egan’s San Francisco punk scene dangled a clove above my 80’s neon head and I found myself running with her characters through time and space, landing, finally, in New York sometime in the future.

Egan devotes a chapter (actually a PowerPoint) to “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” delivered by twelve-year-old Sasha.  Her brother, Lincoln, is autistic (I’m assuming) and obsessed with pauses in songs.  He likes “Bernadette” by the Four Tops and “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix.

The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, AND. THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL

Lincoln talks about pauses in songs because in them he finds meaning.  He does not know how else to communicate.  As the family spins around him, their record skips, scratches and warps, but it also fills the desert night with hope.  In trying to understand the pauses, they create narratives for the songs and their family.

There are also slides devoted to:

The Relationship of Pause Length to Haunting Power
Proof of the Necessity of Pauses
Discoveries about Pause Timing (In Bubble Form)
The Persistence of Pauses over Time (from 1960 to 2010)

“Great Rock and Roll Pauses” comes at physical place in the book where the storyline typically peaks, and I’m usually snapping through the pages in anticipation.  But I found myself pausing on the Squad, (experiential mimesis!) wondering what was going on. What’s Egan doing?  What’s this all about?

Anything is possible

Then I was at the Salk Institute studying immunobiology and microbial pathogenesis.

Fine, I was on a tour. If you’ve been to the Salk you know how this place is like a house of religion that lifts your eyes in reverence or a hidden mountain lake with the sun on your neck.

I peeled off from the tour group when they decided to walk through the plenum (I’m not an architect and the geekery was reaching a crescendo).  On the travertine interstice, I walked toward the ocean and down the steps to the falling terminus of that magical courtyard water-streak.  My bag was heavy and I set it down.  I stared at the sea and the sky.  There were other people around and we were, all of us, silent.

I felt first of all joyous…it was the essence of creativity, the force of creativity.  I realized that if I were a painter about to paint a great catastrophe, I could not put the first stroke on canvas without thinking of Joy in doing it.  You cannot make a building unless you are joyously engaged. – Louis I Kahn

Or write a novel or compose a song or discover a cure.

Sitting there I felt the force of the possible.  There are other emotions in creating, but I like Kahn’s Joy.  It gets lost in the process of making things that you care about, but it’s always there in the silence.  Waiting for you to find it.  Pause.  There it is.  You.


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Sam’s Letter to the President by Sam Nunes

Dear Mr. President and Mr. Vice President:

I write to thank you.

I am a small business owner with offices in San Francisco and Irvine, California.  I am one of 12 owners of a 58-person architectural firm, WRNS Studio, in business for just over six years now.  We have grown our firm by an average of ten percent annually during this very difficult economy.  By far the most difficult time for us was late 2009 and early 2010.

It was during this hard time that we were fortunate enough to win, through a Design-Build competition, two US Forest Service Ranger Station projects in the Los Padres National Forest.  These projects were made possible by monies available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

They allowed us to continue to employ four architects for a period of twelve months.  We would have had to lay them off otherwise.  Today, these projects are in construction, supporting the good work of dozens of local trades people.  The four architects are still with us, working on new projects.

I do not understand why some in politics and others in the media continue to assert that ARRA failed.  We are one small example of its success.  I’m sure there are so many more.  For us, ARRA was essential –ARRA helped us sustain our small business and, even more importantly, it secured the jobs of four young architects, and the income and benefits that they and their families needed.  Now these same critics in politics and the media rise to derail the American Jobs Act and once again I find their rhetoric and behavior beyond understanding.

Our two projects will be completed by the summer of 2012 and the US Forest Service will have two new – and much needed – ranger stations.  Energy efficiency and resource conservation drove every aspect of design. The ranger station located in King City, California, will have walls constructed from straw bales, chosen for their ability to reduce the amount of energy this building will require to operate.  Bioswales, berms and native plants will capture and treat storm water onsite, reducing the impact on King City’s infrastructure.  The projects will achieve USGBC LEED Gold certification and will serve as models of sustainability for their communities.

I will forward you photographs of the completed projects next summer.

My partners and I are grateful to you both.


Sam Nunes, AIA
Partner, WRNS Studio


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