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Why Can’t We All Have 100 Acres?

Liliane Wong runs the Interior Architecture Department at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence where she has been teaching since 1998. Though there’s no apparent connection between her early interest in pure mathematics and what she does now, it’s not hard to imagine one. “I was interested in describing the changing shapes of clouds as they moved through the sky in non-Euclidean terms,” she said. “Later, RISD gave me a grant to knit clouds out of copper wire to get a better idea.”

Now, fast forward a decade.

Wong’s interest has changed from clouds in motion to how buildings move through our cultural and historical landscape. As the Editor of the journal IntAR, short for Interventions | Adaptive Reuse, Wong has become a leader in the global effort to less the impact of the built environment upon Mother Earth.  However, there lie major obstacles ahead. “In the public mind, adaptive reuse means turning churches into condos, which is what we don’t mean to do because the church to condo model fails to respect the DNA of the church itself.”

A case in point is The Newport Congregational Church with its Tiffany windows by John La Farge, whose congregation had dwindled from 700 hundred worshippers to fifteen. By 2013, the historic landmark needed to reimagine itself and hopefully adapt without being condo-ized. Wong and her class kick-started the discussion with an industrial blower inflating a giant textile to hover over the nave and frame it.  The result was not only to bring attention to the long overdue repairs needed on the ceiling but also to generate creative ideas for reuse. One proposal: an exhibition, wedding space along with a gym floor summoned by the push of a button.

Leslie Schneeberger
Leslie Schneeberger

Architect Leslie Schneeberger heads up Siemasko + Verbridge’s Chatham office on the Cape cautions about some over-used forms of reuse. “Barn doors, for example, reused as sliding doors,” says Schneeberger. “It looks clever at first, but appears less clever over time.” There was a time, also, when deep bathtubs seemed like a clever idea, but one that would fade out because bathers would cool off so quickly. “Not so,” according to Schneeberger. “In recent client meetings, a priority in the master bath is a tub for soaking. But for the true connoisseur, however, you do need in-line heaters.”

“The Boston Institute for Architecture and its nonagenarian Dean, Angel Piscara, are growing old together, but an unholy alliance of arrogant architects and an unethical developer with Russian mob ties has other plans for both,” reads the flap copy for Glenn Morris’ latest novel, Saving Angel. His oeuvre is something of an inside job, given the fact that Morris was the founder and Chair of the College of Interior Design at the BAC for twenty-five years.

The novelist and teacher also runs an eponymously-named architectural firm, based in Newton, MA. “I find myself continually surprised by the markets,” says Glenn. Real estate has become for him — as well as many others these days — stranger than fiction. “Right now we’re working on some nine-story, multi-unit housing projects in Woburn, where we’re mixing in what are called ‘micro-units’ of 500 square feet with the 3,000 square foot ones.

“Can the micros be made to feel larger? As far as I am concerned, the answer is no. I grew up in the Brickyards in Lynn by the GE plant, sharing a bedroom with my three eldest brothers. We’re of the generation always looking to move up to the next biggest place. Even now, my 1800 square foot townhouse feels awfully small, though I have it all to myself. Even the gardens and courtyard are feeling cramped,” says Morris. “Why can’t I have one hundred acres?”

Glenn Morris
Glenn Morris

True enough for Morris and his generation, and at the same time he takes pride in the fact that the BAC has long been home to the study of tiny houses. As the college’s Director of Design for Human Health, Dak Kopek told Live Science in August: “Such homes fill a need, especially for young, single people, that gives them some freedom and flexibility as they bounce between cities pursuing their career goals and personal aspirations.”

Freedom and flexibility come from having your architect available and engaged throughout all phases of construction, and this represents a new priority among his clients, according to Cambridge-based architect John Altobello. They realize that despite the best-made plans, stuff happens.

John Altobello
John Altobello

On a recent project, says Altobello, “the contractor discovered some significant structural defects within the nineteenth-century house. There were implications for the architectural design – which had already been agreed on. The layout and fenestration of the master bedroom and bath would have to be reworked.” With everyone present – contractor and homeowners – Altobello was able to sketch a solution quickly, bypassing the usual back and forth, which can often lead to acrimony and blame.

The problem? “Moisture had crept in over the years and had provided a Garden of Eden for carpenter ants.”

A close cousin of the Adaptive Reuse movement is the Sharing Economy. When interior designer Heidi O’Donnell Eastman and her architect husband Charles are living and working in an adaptively reused bank in Westport, MA, they rent out their house in Providence. When they return to Providence, their home doubles as a showroom for her artwork.

“While the Sharing Economy encourages everyone to share resources, our Entrepreneurial Economy encourages the wearing of many hats,” says Eastman.  One hat she’s been wearing is that of teacher in a children’s program she originated in New Bedford called Port to Port.  It now travels the world: Corsica, Estonia, Switzerland, Dublin – and this coming summer New Delhi. “Students learn how the sea connects their city to others far away, by mapping and recording in the field what goes in and what goes out.” Just think what influence New England’s China Trade exerts on interior design to this day: rugs, lamps, vases, silk!

Heidi O'Donnell Eastman
Heidi O’Donnell Eastman

Students attending Mt. Ida’s School of Design in Newton come much more focused on a career and its prospects than before, says long-time Chair Rosemary Botti-Solitsky.  If she attended design school motivated by the notion of learning the art of sculpting space, young people today already identify with being designers. “Now they want to know what our placement rate is,” says Botti-Solitsky. “Fortunately, ours runs about 95%, the majority of which go into hospitality and retail. We have also launched an advanced degree, which combines business and design, or MSM for Masters in Science Management, as well as LEED GA or Green Associate certification program, both of which helps our students stand out. Meanwhile, our graduates keep coming back to recruit.

With a grant from this magazine, Botti-Solitsky and Mt. Ida hosted the First-Ever Inclusive Design Symposium in March. A 2-day event focused on accessibility and usability in design; its centerpiece was a Design-A-Thon, in which teams of faculty, staff, students and professionals displayed their inclusive creations. “The ADA guidelines are great, but we regard those as the minimum,” says Botti-Solitsky. We brought everyone together with end users – professional in interior design, architecture, fashion and other disciplines – to develop some real solutions.

Rose Botti-Solitsky
Rose Botti-Solitsky

One strategy for accessible design is to build on one level with no winding staircases to mount. Modern design makes that easy to do in elegant ways, whereas tradition revival type homes have relatively strict proportions. However, observes architect Danny Sagan of Montpelier, VT, modern doesn’t necessarily mean mid-century all glass with flat roofs. “Though you can now get super-performing windows without much trouble, you still have to be thoughtful about it.”

Danny Sagan
Danny Sagan

Sagan tends to build with what he calls a “solar wedge” a roof sloping to the South that meets a window wall, with a high space behind it reaching to the North, an exposure which provides diffused light all day. Sloping not only keeps snow off, according to Sagan, but “makes people feel protected” as opposed to the unnerving feeling of expanding out horizontally forever. As in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Zimmerman house in Manchester, a central spine makes it easier to find a center. Or consider another great modernist, Eero Saarinen, who for all his horizontals, created vertical conversation pits that caused people to stop.”

Is there an optimum ratio of vertical to horizontal as we move through space? It’s a tempting idea – perhaps Liliane Wong can be lured away from Adaptive Reuse long enough to apply her knowledge of mathematics. After all, if she can measure the clouds in heaven in this dynamic, non-Euclidian way, then why not our most beautiful structures in the New England that lie below?


© Louis Postel 2017, first published in New England Home 2016