AIA Awards Spark Conversation about Design in Denver

At a time when it's all the rage to deride design in Denver, AIA Colorado's 2016 Design & Honor Awards showcase a wide range of compelling architecture in the city.
In October, AIA Colorado presented its annual Design & Honor Awards in Copper Mountain. A jury of four Boston-area architects selected 47 award winners out of hundreds of submissions. Denver firms and projects made up a sizable chunk of the recipients.
The awards "highlighted projects that were executed in the same fast-paced, profit-driven environment that we are all aware of, yet these projects manage to successfully respond to their neighborhoods and contribute to the fabric of our city," says Dan Craig of Shears Adkins Rockmore Architects, president of the board of directors for AIA Denver.
The winners "represent a lot of really good work happening in Denver," he adds. "I found that a refreshing and invigorating idea. What this showed all of us architects, there are lots of projects representing teams that care a great deal about contributing to the urban fabric."
Craig highlights Meridian 105 Architecture's dual awards for projects in LoHi: Avanti Food & Beverage and Tejon Mixed Use and Residential.

Of the latter, he says, "That project represents a really elegant yet modern way the neighborhoods in the city could be developed."
It's successful because of its activation of street level. "Some projects don't do it well. This one does it very well."
Texture, color and vents (or lack thereof)
Founded by Chad Mitchell in 2010, Meridian 105 is based in an old pre-fab Texaco service station in Northeast Park Hill.
"We bought this building because it has a lot of property," says Mitchell. "We use that space to do stuff." Such stuff has recently included some shou sugi ban, the Japanese art of charring exterior wooden siding for a distinctive look, and building a large sculpture for a project's atrium.
Meridian 105 won an award of excellence for its Tejon Residential Mixed Use project.When it comes to good design, Mitchell says the devil's in the details. One of his big keys for a people-friendly environment: minimizing the visibility of mechanical systems. The Tejon project is a prime example. "If you look at that building, you won't find any vents for washers and dryers, hoods or water heaters. That in my opinion is a large part of the success of that building," he says. "The effort we put into MEP design is a big differentiator. That's a focus on every project."
Mitchell says some of the criticism of new construction in LoHi is deserved. "They don't take into account the people environment on the sidewalk," he says. "You have to be more thoughtful."
Small infill projects "are not set up with a mechanical engineer on board," he adds. "[Systems] are figured out in the field. It takes a lot of control out of the architect's hands."
At Avanti, Mitchell says he benefited from "the quality of the materials that are already there." The century-old building had a solid structure, good bones. "You can't replicate it."
"It was really set up to be a good people environment -- we just brought that back," he adds. "Just walking around the building, there's a lot of texture and color to look at."
Brad Tomecek of Tomecek Studio Architecture was part of another winning team for a residence in the Black Hills of South Dakota. "It was a house and a guest house and a barn and a chicken coop," says Tomecek.
Tomecek says the awards reinforces his opinion that "the quality of design has really risen exponentially in Denver," noting that an influx of talent is a big contributor. "[Architects] are starting to choose Denver over New York City and San Francisco. They want a work-life balance and still do good design."
His own path is a perfect example. After graduating from the University of Florida (in the same class as Mitchell), he moved to Colorado. "I chose where I wanted to live," he explains. "What I saw in Denver was an openness about what things could be. . . . It seemed people were open to new ideas."
He notes that that projects that are "only about meeting needs or the pro forma" are a byproduct of most any development boom. "That's the battle we're facing right now," Tomecek says. "We don't want to be facing failing buildings in 20 years for the lack of thought put into them."
Growing pains
Ben Blanchard of Anderson Mason Dale Architects in Denver took home the Honor Award for Young Architect of the Year, for his work on DIA's transit center CU Denver's Student Success Building and other noteworthy projects.
Anderson Mason Dale's Ben Blanchard was named "Young Architect of the Year."
The airport transit center "has certainly been on the front page of architectural criticism," says Blanchard, noting that he takes pride in catalyzing "a passionate conversation” about a notably public place. "It's fun to hear all of the different voices."
"Denver has a very specific scale to it," says Blanchard. That means "a definite growing pain" is accompanying its evolution to a more vertical city. In RiNo, it's less painful. "It's more of a blank slate."
He says he was impressed by many of the Design Award winners in Denver, including the Gensler-designed MOTO apartment building in Capitol Hill. 
"Some of the residential work was at a new level, in Denver especially," says Blanchard. "I thought [MOTO] stood out, just the materiality of it. It has a texture to it that a lot of projects don't."
Blanchard says the best architecture is often subtle. "Restraint and simplicity can make a project really punch."
AIA Denver is an underwriter of Confluence Denver.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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