Architect James Theimer Takes Time to Discuss National Award

Today we talk with James Theimer, the principal architect and founder of the Redding-based Trilogy Architecture, the firm that recently won the national Honor Award — First Place for a New Academic Complex. Trilogy Architecture competed nationally in the category of high performance buildings when it won first place for its design of Redding School of the Arts.

On March 22 Theimer will travel to Washington, D.C., for an awards  ceremony before members of Congress, staff and representatives from leading organizations within the building community. The ceremony will include a briefing of the High Performance Building Congressional Caucus Coalition on Capitol Hill.

Q: Congratulations to you and everyone at Trilogy Architecture for being the recipient of the National Institute of Building Sciences Sustainable Buildings Industry Council’s 2011 Beyond Green High Performance Building Award.

Whew. That’s quite a title. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s call it the SBIC, OK? First, in your field, what’s the significance of this award?

Well, if you believe that controlling energy use is important for the future of the U.S., then building design is important as well, because 70% of electrical energy use in the U.S. comes from buildings.

If buildings are designed for higher efficiency, they will use less energy. If ALL new buildings, now and into the future, are designed to use less energy, soon we no longer will need to talk about adding new power plants in this country. Thus, you’re seeing more national recognition for those buildings that excel in energy efficient design.

Q: You received the  Beyond Green High Performance Building Award because of your design of Redding School of the Arts. What makes it a “green” project?

Within our design studio, we think of “green” as meaning more than one thing. It’s about using environmentally friendly building materials, ranging from non-toxic paints to bathroom partitions made from recycled soda bottles. It also means conserving electricity as well as generating it – that’s the high performance everyone is looking for these days – and reducing water use at the same time.

We’re particularly proud that our energy use in this building is running about 75 percent less than that required of new construction. Water use is even better, at about 95 percent less. Finally – and this is trickier – it’s about creating a building that makes people feel good when they are there. There are too many “ugly”, energy-efficient buildings, and the idea that beauty and efficiency can co-exist in one solution should be important to all of us.

Q: What other projects were you up against?

This was a national competition for all buildings in the United States. So basically, we were up against all buildings that considered themselves examples of ultra-high efficiency. We won the award for best new academic building, which means everything from preschool to university buildings. It’s interesting that one of the other winners is HOK, and they employ about 1800 design professionals worldwide, or about 1796 more than Trilogy.

Q: Sounds like Trilogy is like the little architecture firm that could.

Subject change. You’re a graduate of Cornell University. Back in the day, when you were taking those early architecture classes, what was taught about green technology?

Not much, as green technology was in its infancy. Oil prices were still low back in the early seventies – now I’m dating myself – and there wasn’t a lot of incentive to employ what were then expensive renewable energy alternatives like wind and solar power. Well, we now know how that worked out.

But I probably learned more about environmental design from my years living in the Caribbean, where I experienced what it meant to have to rely on rainwater from a cistern under my house (and the importance of a 60-second shower to a sustainable water supply). Understanding cross-ventilation, the usefulness of low energy fans to cooling, and deep roof overhangs for shading were all part of that “low tech” education. And, I should add, all are part of the solution for Redding School of the Arts.

Q: When did the concept of green building practices turn your head?

At the risk of saying I have always believed in “green” design, I have actually always believed in green design. In 1990, when we started Trilogy, we even thought about naming the firm “Architecture Green”, but decided people might just think we were landscape architects. Green was just a color back then, not a global trend. Oh, we were selling sustainable design even in our first home designs, but very few clients were buying.

I think the Internet has done a lot to spread the word on the importance of protecting our planet, not to mention the amount of money a building owner can now save by going green. Something as simple as a roof overhang to protect the building interior from the extreme western sun can save substantial money on your energy bill; and yet it’s amazing to me how few new homes in this area employ that simple idea.

Q: What’s the biggest myth about green construction?

I think there are two big misconceptions out there. First, there is a belief that all vendors are changing their products to be green because the market is starting to demand it. Manufacturers are just getting cleverer in their marketing efforts. Consumers have to be careful to educate themselves as to what is truly a green product, and what is simply “greenwashing”.

The latter is a product that says it’s green, but in reality isn’t at all. The second misconception is that green costs more than conventional design. Not true. Better insulation for your home is not costly, but it’s also not as “sexy” as adding solar panels to your roof. My advice is to start your green makeover with the most cost-effective ideas, and measure your progress before deciding if you even need to go further with advanced technology.

Q: Do you have a favorite detail of the Redding School of the Arts?

It’s hard to choose just one idea; I would have to say I have three. The first is the outdoor galleries that connect the classrooms. Utilizing large evaporative cooling fans in the summer and radiant heating in the winter, these become learning spaces that can be utilized comfortably by students most of the year, even when the weather is not perfect.

Idea number two is best described through a brief story. A few weeks ago I was at the school when the music teachers opened the large bi-fold hanger doors of the three music classrooms to the outdoor theater. Each of the classrooms became an impromptu stage, singing mixed with laughter echoing through the brightly sunlit space. The fact that this was happening on a winter day in February just made it all the better for me.

Finally, I think there have to be a few unexpected and fun surprises in every school; my favorite is the child-sized door we added to each kindergarten and 1st grade classroom.

Q: I know that your award is for Redding School of the Arts, but can you share some examples of how you’ve implemented green practices in some of your other designs?

In 2006 with the Turtle Bay Administration Building, we oriented most of the offices north for the best day lighting possible; this together with well-insulated rammed earth walls and high efficiency heating/cooling equipment resulted in a energy design about one third the size of a normal office building. In 2008, the Agree Home we designed for the Shasta Builder’s Exchange is full of green ideas, all contained within an ultra-efficient eight hundred fifty square foot two-story structure. But its most sustainable feature was a price tag of about $92 a square foot before land costs.

Q: What do you think it was about your project that turned the votes in your favor?

I honestly have no idea why one project wins over another. I will make sure to ask when we receive the award in Washington later this month and let you know.

Q: So, what next?

At this point in my career, I have two passions, and I would like to pursue both. The first is expanding on the idea of designing buildings with more focus on comfortable outdoor living; and the second is solving the puzzle of how to provide green and attractive housing that is ultra-affordable. But in an age of specialization, I still consider myself a generalist architect.

It’s a challenge working with many different project types instead of concentrating on one or two, but ultimately I think it keeps our ideas fresh. Which hopefully means there are a few new places to explore, with clients who are willing to take the journey with us.

Q: Anything else you’d like us to know?

It’s certainly very nice to be recognized for this project, but the simple truth is that award-winning buildings do not happen because of the architect. They happen for three reasons: 1) a great client team, 2) a great construction team, and 3) a great design team. The McConnell Foundation did not just pay the bills; they trusted their team to make good if often unconventional choices. The school administration, teachers and students were all part of the client team, and they supported the process 100% even when we told them that much of the learning space would be outdoors. The general contractor, Gifford Construction, really embraced the green design, and that was critical to our ultimate success with their subcontractors buying into a construction process where, for example, more than 80% of the construction debris needed to be recycled.

Finally, the architect is only one piece of the design team. Huge thanks are necessary to all those who put their talent, passion and commitment into this project, especially local consultants such as Rob & Shelly Kibler of K2A&E and Tony Bowser of PACE Civil, just to name a few.

Thank you, James, for taking time to talk with me today. I wish you the best as you accept your award in Washington. 

Click here for Part 1 of Joshua Corbelli’s story, Redding School of the Arts – So Green it’s Platinum.

Click here for Part 2 of Joshua Corbelli’s story, Redding School of the ArtsKid-sized Doors; a Slide Outdoors.

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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