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Notable Buildings, Notable Architects

Eielson Visitor Center at Denali National Park, designed by RIM Architects for the National Park Service.

Eielson Visitor Center at Denali National Park, designed by RIM Architects for the National Park Service.

PHOTO: © 2012 Chris Arend Photography

Designing for community involvement
 

Deep in Denali National Park stands a structure that seems to grow out of the rock and tundra of the landscape.

When Denali’s shroud of clouds drifts aside, it’s a place that offers tourists on the park’s bus tours an unimpeded view of North America’s highest peak, as well as a warm shelter where they can rest, eat food they brought and browse through interpretive displays about the park.

“With this building we tried to complement the rugged architecture of the mountains and get man's presence out of the way completely,” said James Dougherty of RIM Architects.

The Eielson center is just one of a growing number of architectural works in Alaska designed in recent years to function as more than just a building. They are designed to embrace the needs and conserve the resources of the larger community in which they’re located.

• Architects of an innovative parking garage and convention district in Anchorage sought to provide heated sidewalks, and other thoughtful comforts for visitors using the garage or strolling from the Dena’ina convention center to the performing arts and Egan centers ;

• A surgical center in Fairbanks was built with an eye toward bringing the city’s medical community together and providing a venue for community events;

• Designers of a new hospital being built in Barrow reached out to people living there and in five nearby villages to see what features would make the hospital more culturally responsive to the community it will serve;

• Architects incorporated art from the Homer artists’ community into the city’s 5-year-old library, and the nearby Islands and Ocean facility was designed to house in one building a community of scientists and researchers hailing from state and federal agencies, and

• A school being built in Alakanuk isn’t just a school. It was designed to provide spaces where people living in the village could get together for basketball games and cultural events.

• The ocean and shore inspired designers of the Anchorage office for the Afognak Native Corp.

 
PHOTO: © 2012 Chris Arend Photography

Eielson Visitors Center designed by RIM Architects for the National Park Service.

Eielson Visitors Center - RIM Architects

The National Park Service gave RIM its first design contract for the $9.2-million, 8,500-square-foot replacement Eielson center in the fall of 2002. The center opened to the public in August 2008.

The design not only celebrates the magnificent Denali park landscape, it also reflects forward thinking about conservation and preservation of resources.

The structure had to be durable, because maintenance would be impossible once the park road closed for the winter. “It buries over with snow and is allowed to go cold,” Dougherty said. “That dictated materials.  It was not just about whether it needed to be repainted every year. It’s a very harsh mountainous environment. Materials had to hold up well in minus-40 temps. Because it snows over, we worried about bears falling through the skylights because they weren’t aware the structure was there. That’s why there is reinforcement on skylight windows.”

The designers used multicolored masonry that matched rock formations found in the surrounding landscape. Wind-carried sand scours away exterior finishes, so low-maintenance alternatives were paramount. Concrete aggregate, galvanized steel and, indoors, away from the chewing teeth of bears, certified-sustainable woods were used.

“Our charge was to triple the capacity of the old visitor center because of projections,” Dougherty said. “We didn’t want to triple the footprint, enlarge septic, water systems. We relied heavily on conservation measures — water-saving toilet fixtures, sinks.”

Eielson Visitors Center achieved Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certification — the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest rating level, the first LEED platinum rating awarded in Alaska and the first such recognition the park service has received.

“We want to be responsible with the buildings we build and not burden taxpayers with ownership and maintenance costs,” Dougherty said. “This structure is durable and doesn’t have high recurring costs. We spent a little bit more to build something that would last.”


RENDERING: kpb architects

Alakanuk School will be more than just a school when completed.

Alakanuk School - kpb architects

Out in the villages of rural Alaska, schools are more than places where children learn to read and solve math problems. They are dynamic places where people go to be with their neighbors, watch basketball games, share a meal or sleep.

“They’re the community center, hotel, gymnasium, cultural center — really the center of the town,” said Lauri Strauss, an architect for kpb architects.

Strauss knows this firsthand. While visiting the village of Alakanuk a year ago, she bought cans of soup from the village grocery store, ate it at the old school and then slept on the floor of the gym in a sleeping bag she had brought with her.

Strauss designed Alakanuk’s new $30-million, 53,900-square-foot school, where construction began last year and will be resuming in the spring. Children in Alakanuk three years ago shot a video about how they needed a new school and presented the video to legislators in Juneau.

“And what do you know,” Strauss said. “Alananuk ended up number one on the list for funding.”

On her visit last year, Strauss saw the existing 40-year-old school and checked out three possible sites for the new structure. They picked a 20-acre site close to the new part of the village, near the electric plant and barge landing, Strauss said.

 “Buildings just take a beating in Western Alaska, with the wind, snow, rain,” Strauss said. “Everything sits on piles out there.”

Strauss met with the school facility manager, principal and school board, which she approached for approval of the project.

Kpb has built other schools in rural Alaska, half a dozen over the last 5 years, and between 10-15 in the firm’s history, said Strauss, who also worked on kpb’s Kipnuk School.

“The founders of our firm got their start in designing rural schools,” she said.

Dowland Construction Inc. is the contractor for the project.

Two levels of classrooms for the new school will face south, allowing the sun to provide day lighting inside. The school’s kitchen, storage areas and metal shop classrooms will be situated on the north side.

The school will reflect the cultural character of the village, Strauss said.

“We work with the culture of the village,” she said. “We ask them what they want. The community will use it after hours for cultural events, and even for teaching the children how to skin animals. There’s a deck on the back with a skinning table so kids can learn what their Native history has done.”

Using local materials is something Strauss strives to do when possible.

“In that particular case we're using driftwood gathered from the river in the spring, as a wall finish in the bilingual classroom,” Strauss said. “We really try to incorporate culture into the school itself. The window pattern is related to their basket weaving heritage. We try to incorporate the local artwork into the project somehow, make it a piece of the building, part of the building envelope.”

The bilingual room is an important space, as much as the library.

“It’s really important for the school to be able to use some of the areas used after hours while other areas are locked off and secure,” Strauss said. “This is designed so they can lock the classroom wing off at night and use the gym or multipurpose room. They can lock off the library or use it. The bilingual room has a back entrance so they can use it after hours.”

Strauss said the sport of basketball is hugely popular and the local team has won championships, so the gym features bleachers for almost 1,000 people. The village has only 600 people, but families and schoolchildren from other villages come in for championship games.

“That's the biggest thing for the community,” Strauss said. “It has a high-school-sized gym even though it's a K-12 school.”

Outside, the building was designed to be durable and require little maintenance. The structure has factory-finished metal panels over insulated panels, with extra-thick walls, an all-metal roof, energy-efficient triple-glazed windows with plastic Lexan panels on the outside to keep them from breaking when kids play nearby.

The materials are prefinished, premanufactured so there’s no painting down the road, Strauss said.

“For this design, I had to really work with the district to show them the benefits of using natural materials and to promote a healthy indoor environment,” Strauss said.

Kpb included natural linoleum, low VOC paint and LED lights in the design, as well as finding ways to reduce dependence on the village’s five 20,000-gallon diesel fuel tanks for heating the structure. The school is getting grants for solar panels and a wind turbine, she said.

The new school is expected to be ready for arriving students in August 2013.

“I always like a challenge,” Strauss said. “It’s amazing going out there and talking to the community, the teachers. The kids are so friendly and love visitors coming to see them. They’re pretty excited about their new school.”

  
PHOTO: © 2012 Chris Arend Photography

Homer's public library was designed by ECI/Hyer Architecture.

Homer Public Library - ECI/Hyer Architecture

Above the Safeway store in the city of Homer stands an odd structure with a glass entry resembling a spyglass.

Brian Meissner of ECI/Hyer Architecture worked on the design for that building, Homer’s public library, a 17,115-square-foot structure that replaced the town’s old 3,000-square-foot library.

“I think the words they used were that they wanted a vibrant, modern library,” Meissner said of the involvement of the City of Homer and Friends of the Library nonprofit in the genesis of the $6.3-million project. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had with a building committee; they were so engaged in the process. Homer's a great place, there's a very diverse community and they love their library, use the heck out of it.”


PHOTO: © 2012 Chris Arend Photography

The design of the building incorporated the work of 13 Homer-area artists, who crafted door pulls, a colorful concrete countertop, fireplace, different styles of study carrels and driftwood steps. Wood from a Kenai high school gym floor was intercepted on the way to the dump and used for casework.

Jay-Brant General Contractors built the library, which was the first municipal building in the state to become LEED-Silver certified. Construction began in 2003 and was finished in 2006, Meissner said.

The project had its challenges. Homer is built on a series of terrain “benches”, Meissner said.

“There’s just a ton of underground water, springs that pop up all over Homer,” he said. “This site has one of those springs. Runoff from everyone’s yard above it ended up at our site.”

Landscape architects and civil engineers devised a system of basins to catch that water, filter it and direct it into storm drains. The site also features a zen garden, parking areas, green space, amphitheater and bike trails.

Visitors cross a bridge to enter the structure. Inside, to the right, children have their own separate-but-connected library space, punctuated with window nooks and three “trees” defining the edge of the story hour space.

The main interior of the library is designed as one great big room with individual reading carrels (which Meissner refers to as “confessionals”), a reading “bar”, group study rooms, a reading lounge with fireplace and other reading opportunities around the perimeter.

“My favorite thing to do in that library is to watch people come in and see where they will go to read,” Meissner said.


PHOTO: © 2012 Chris Arend Photography

RIM Architects designed the Alaska Island Ocean Visitors Center for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Alaska Island and Ocean Visitors Center - RIM Architects

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge spans a 3.4-million-acre area that sweeps from rainforests in Southeast, traces the edge of the Alaska Peninsula, travels through the Aleutian chain of volcanic islands and around Attu, passes the cliffs of the Pribilof Islands and skims the Bering Sea coast to the Chukchi Sea. Forty million seabirds comprising more than 30 species live in the refuge, along with marine mammals, other migratory birds and marine resources they need to survive.

“It’s a huge coastal geographic area that for some reason is headquartered in Homer,” said RIM Architects’ James Dougherty. “Homer is midway between Attu and Nome. The refuge is so remote, it’s hard to get a sense of how it’s managed, how it touches the citizens. You can't really get there unless you have a boat.”


PHOTO: © 2012 Chris Arend Photography

Situated high above Kachemak Bay in the town of Homer is the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center, an eclectic structure with basalt-like walls that serves as headquarters for scientists, researchers and others who work for the refuge.

RIM Architects was contracted in 2001 to design the 35,000-square-foot, $10.5-million center that features $1.5 million in exhibits. It was completed in 2003.

The new center was designed to bring together in one building the community of federal and state agencies that study and protect the birds, creatures and habitat of the refuge — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, University of Alaska and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — as well as laboratories and spaces for presenting educational programs and events such as the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival.

“Part of the mission from a design standpoint was to bring the refuge to the people, so they can see how remote it is but how they're connected to it,” Dougherty said. “They can understand things that happen in remote Aleutian islands, how they touch everyone everywhere. This brings a national significance to something they can't see or touch.”

The building not only houses scientists, it also educates the public. A museum extends through the main lobby, which is two stories high and features a dramatic window facing Kachemak Bay.

“It’s a fantastic view of Kachemak Bay,” Dougherty said. “Our idea was not to lock away the public employees. We were trying to work for this idea of marine biologists as the ‘rock star’ stewards of the environment doing thankless invisible jobs thousands of miles away. At the center, they’re on display.”

Including the people of Homer in the development of the center project was key, incorporating local artists’ murals, sculptures and stained glass and helping local residents see the facility provides perks for the town.

The entrance door features hammered bronze bull kelp. Brass driftwood and brass seabirds flying in a brushed steel sky adorn the elevator. The step-down lobby resembles a tidepool, complete with ceramic barnacles, seaweed, kelp and shells integrated into the aggregate. Seen from the mezzanine, the mosaic of the lobby floor transforms into the shape of a sea star.

“There are surprises around every corner,” Dougherty said. “We hoped townspeople would adopt the facility as something that belongs to Homer as opposed to something that belongs to the federal government. This puts a human face on government, what government does.”

Interior Alaska Orthopedics and Sports Medicine - kpb architects

In Fairbanks, kpb architects designed a 38,000-square-foot, $7.2-million facility that seeks to smooth transitions between medical office visits and outpatient surgical care, draw together the city’s community of surgeons and provide an inviting space for patients and others in the community.

Dr. Mark Wade, a Fairbanks orthopedic surgeon who helms Interior Alaska Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, submitted a certificate of need for the facility. Part is used as a medical office building and the other part houses the surgical center.

The building is “L” shaped, with the main entrance lobby occupying two stories in the interior of the L, facing southwest to capture as much sunlight as possible. The surgical center has its own separate waiting room and contains operating and procedure rooms and patient care areas. Offices for practicing surgeons make it possible for them to efficiently meet with patients, complete diagnostic work and then schedule patients for surgery.

“Primarily it’s day surgery,” said Mike Prozeralik, president of kpb architects, which designed the structure. “There are also two areas where patients can be held less than 24 hours if they need an extended stay. The facility is envisioned for very good patient flow, and the surgery center itself is very open.”

LEED principles guided the design of the surgical center, and architects also incorporated ideas that would help reduce the number of steps health-care providers need to take in caring for patients and also help patients move through the building without confusion.

“If you’ve ever been in the hospital, when you walk in you don’t want to see anyone leaving surgery walking by you,” Prozeralik said. “Patients exit from another spot in the same building after surgery. It’s very reassuring for them to go through one entrance, one exit. It really protects their privacy.”

The large open space in the facility makes it possible for the doctors to provide community-oriented functions there.

“Dr. Wade is very much involved in the community, wanted to have functions in the building, receptions there with music and food and other things,” Prozeralik said. “When we first met him, he said he was doing this for the city of Fairbanks, giving back.”

As winter clutches the city of Anchorage, there is an area downtown where the street and sidewalks are free of snow and ice, fabric canopies shield pedestrians from inclement weather and even a parking garage shows aesthetic flare.

   F Street Passage & Linny Pacillo Parking Garage - kpb architects

The $8.5-million F Street passage and $40.5-million Linny Pacillo parking garage are components of a system kpb architects put together to open a clear path for people who wish to park their vehicles and move on foot between several of the city’s key structures: the Atwood State Office Building, Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, Dena’ina Civic/Convention Center, Town Square Park and Egan Center.

Construction began in March 2007. The parking garage was completed in September 2008 and the F Street project was finished in 2009.

 “This is based on the notion of calmed traffic, narrowed intersections, pedestrian bubbles at the intersection, elevated pavement,” said kpb’s Richard Reed, who worked with fellow architect Tamás Deák on the project. “There’s a different texture, motif, in the brick pavers based upon Alaska’s Native heritage. Pedestrians walk freely. It’s like a European city.”

The main pedestrian connectivity is intended to relate the new Dena’ina convention center to the existing Egan convention center on 5th Avenue, two blocks away, passing the front of the performing arts center en route.

“That was the idea of connecting those two convention centers so conventions that are huge would have clearly defined pedestrian routes — through a public park, past a very fine performing arts center,” Reed said. “One nice feature of the F Street development is how nice it is to have a raised street in town that offers an opportunity for vehicles to slow down, for pedestrians and traffic to mingle. It’s intermodal, with people picked up, dropped off down there.”

Fabric canopies with angled pylons punctuate the passage.

“It really creates a lot of energy on that street,” Reed said. “Being fabric, it's translucent, you can see daylight through it. The apparatus cables add excitement to it. It's a marker.

“We keep it in front of us all the time, what is the experience of visitors coming to our town,” Reed said. “These two projects are doing their part and we hope to do more.”

Alutiiq Center - kpb architects

Kpb also designed the Alutiiq Center, the Anchorage office for the Afognak Native Corp. and its subsidiary, Alutiiq LLC. The 71,000-square-foot building and site design draw their inspiration from images of Afognak Island and the region of the Alutiiq people.

A 51,000-square-foot parking structure and two exterior deck areas are available for office workers’ use. Inside, a small museum exhibits displays of historic and cultural materials of the Alutiiq people, in addition to modern artwork integrated throughout the lobby and upper levels of the office building. The architects collaborated with the owner’s cultural committee to effectively weave artwork into the building design, rather than incorporate it afterward.

A projecting glass wall above the entry contains the images of four ancient petroglyphs found in the Alutiiq region; these petroglyphs are images carved into stone on Afognak Island. Providing a unique identity for the building, the exterior uses a granite facing and aluminum composite panels for the building’s skin.

Principal Landscape Architect Tamás Deák said, “During a visit to Afognak Island in the conceptual phase, we were inspired by the ocean and the shore. This led to the use of ornamental grasses, driftwood, large rocks and pebbles into the site that reflect the close and indelible bond the Alutiiq feel with their homeland.”


RENDERING: RIM Architects

RIM Architects designed the Barrow Hospital for Arctic Slope Native Association.

Barrow Hospital - RIM Architects

Nearly seven years ago, Arctic Slope Native Association awarded RIM Architects the task of building a new 100,000-square-foot hospital that would serve the city of Barrow and five nearby villages, and be four times the size of the existing 48-year-old facility.

RIM's Matt Vogel immediately saw two major opportunities in the project.

"One is cultural, the other is Arctic architecture," said Vogel, the project's architect. "There were a broad variety of items we had to tackle and solve."

Michael Fredericks, president of RIM First People, joined the design team and received the task of bridging cultural crevasses — reaching out to the Inupiat community through Arctic Slope Native Association, learning what its people wanted in a hospital.

"One of the really cool things about the project was that ASNA felt it was important for [RIM] to get the input of the villages served, for the hospital to be infused with the culture of the user," Fredericks said. "We [the design team] needed to understand how the user would feel more comfortable, how the space contributes to that comfort, how it functions."

Fredericks learned that the hospital needed to "maximize on the continuum of care" that starts at the village level, moves to Barrow — the regional hub — and then to Anchorage if need be. The less people have to travel, the better and less disruptive it is to their lives.

"We strove to encourage more use through design," she said. "A hospital is always a community facility. Barrow already existed that way but the layout of the existing facility didn't contribute to the community feeling. We heard really loud and clear that the hospital here needed to be that kind of place, reinforcing that community feeling and making it an inviting place to go."

The old hospital facility had been remodeled, with hallways connecting disparate elements of the structure. Unlike the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, there was really no central gathering space.

Fredericks' research took place through community forums, with the aid of a community liaison who spoke the Native language.

Forum participants answered a variety of questions: Who goes with you when you go to the hospital? Who stays? Who stays in the room with you?

The forums revealed the prospective users of the new facility wanted rooms designed with space for patients' families. They wanted rooms designed to promote eye contact between a patient and a health-care provider.

"By talking firsthand to people using the facility, we could understand what it needed to be," Fredericks said. "It's not a hospital in Arizona or a hospital in Anchorage. Instead of making assumptions, we were getting firsthand knowledge. We didn't have to spin our wheels with assumptions."

After five months of research, Fredericks submitted a report to the design team. ASNA brought concept designs back to the forum participants and noted the community’s response to those designs.

Vogel planned an arctic entry into a main central lobby, with waiting spaces for the primary care, clinical care and specialty care clinics tucked back off the main lobby space for privacy.

"If you wanted to be part of the public space you could," said RIM's Molly Logelin. "That was the feel of trying to provide a communal space while also maintaining privacy. For people staying a night or longer, there was within the inpatient wing kind of a communal space where visitors can set up their crockpots and food."

Rooms were made larger and included a pullout sofa so additional family members could stay with a patient. The designers crafted exam rooms with more of a triangular formation, to facilitate eye contact and better communication between the family, patient and a doctor using a laptop.

"When a doctor turns to log in to get information, the doctor's back is turned to the patient," Vogel said. "That was perceived as not responsive, that the patient is not important. It's a cultural shift from a big city."

Designers also included small but meaningful features: hooks for bulky Arctic winter parkas, cubbies for boots and areas where people could cook the food they brought.

Building a hospital in Barrow presented challenges.

Trent Mullins, RIM's project manager, said it was critical to prevent snow drifting and insulate the permafrost to keep it from melting.

"With the logistics of building in Barrow — transportation, barges —you really have to plan ahead," Mullins said.

Building materials such as exterior finishes had to be low-maintenance, able to withstand the scour of storms. Lights and other fixtures were selected based on their ability to be  repaired locally. The structure had to be elevated so snow could blow through, preventing drifting.

Construction is expected to be substantially complete this fall, with the hospital's opening tentatively set for January 2013.

The Arctic conditions and environment strongly tie in to the culture of people living in and near Barrow, Logelin said.

"Most of the year it's pretty dark there,” she said. “That has a huge influence on the mood, wellness, how people feel in life in general. It affects their day-to-day habits, how they live. We tried to incorporate as much color and natural textures into the building as possible.

"The building is transparent, glowing from the inside," Logelin said. "You can see it from far away. It feels like a warm place to be."

This article originally appeared in an abbreviated version in the February 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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