A lean, green studio: talking with James Meyer of Opsis Architecture

By Brian Libby at http://chatterbox.typepad.com/portlandarchitecture

Though the Great Recession has not been kind to the architecture and construction industry, Opsis Architecture may serve as proof that the combination of skills – collaboration, innovation, humility, ingenuity – can still propel certain firms to prosperity.

Not among the biggest or smallest firms in town, Opsis remains busy with a host of public and private projects across the region. In particular, the firm – which Meyer formed with Alec Holser and Jim Kalveledge (all were colleagues at Yost Grube Hall) in 1999 – has made its name with several school projects over the years, both K-12 and colleges. Though the firm has yet to design a major building in central Portland, they’ve long been on the cusp. They were one of three finalists for Portland State University’s new building on the Urban Center plaza two years ago, for example, and produced an arguably far more compelling design than the ultimate winner, Yost Grube Hall. But as Meyer notes, the variety of projects, and the future in which they are designed, is what gets him excited.

“We’re doing food service, theaters, basketball courts, media centers, offices. Even as you start thinking about new working environments, we’re intrigued by that conversation related to all of these projects going on.”

Among the most recent Opsis projects is the Pringle Creek housing community in Salem. A 32-acre development, Pringle Creek is first mixed-use LEED-rated community in the United States, blending of the residential and commercial communities are developed to enhance livability. The community integrates

130 carbon-neutral/net-zero-energy residences (including single and multi-family houses, cottages, row houses and apartments) with LEED-certified retail, work spaces, parks and community buildings. There is geothermal heating in 70 homes, commercial and mixed-use buildings as well as a porous asphalt street system for managing rainwater; an onsite biodiesel co-op; and community flex car (car-sharing), all while protecting a bounty of native landscape and habitat. At the center is Painters Hall, a circa-1930s barn that has been restored into a net-zero-energy community space with meeting spaces, a community kitchen, conference room, art space, and a café.

“Pringle is such a commitment. If you can do it and stay with it, that’s where the future is. It’s so light on the land, so light on energy, and so heavy on buildng community and respect. It’s humble but it’s a flagship in terms of what it represents.”
He also says Painters Hall typifies a kind of sweet spot for Opsis in terms of size and scope of a project. “Painters Hall is 3,400 square feet. We can do a little super hands on building. I can walk around there and point stuff to the contractor. It’s guerilla architecture,” he explains. “You work with the contractors and subcontractors to make it happen. But then when you’re doing a net-zero 200,000 square foot building, you’ve got to be smart and think about all those pieces. If you can get things that always do more than one thing, you can really amp up the juice that you get out of a project.”
Opsis was also a co-developer of the project, which Meyer says was a good teacher. “You sure really develop a respect for developers and contractors by doing yourself. It’s a different stomach required in the development game. You don’t just sit and tell people what to do. You’ve got to understand repercussions. But that’s helped keep our spirits up in the recession. You make core financial decisions about who you are, what’s your brand.”
The firm once made a similar bet on its headquarters, a circa-1910 horse stable building on NW Lovejoy that Opsis retored into a LEED Platinum rated office. “We’re only about 4 or 5 years old when we bought this building. But six years ago, when we finished, it was one of the highest rated LEED buildings on the west coast.”
Another recent project is the new Music and Science building at Hood River Middle School, which last year became the Oregon building to be honored by the Energy Trust’s Path to Net-Zero program. Designed to earn LEED Platinum certification, it also was a winner of the AIA’s 2030 Challenge Design Award.
Situated directly adjacent to the historic main school building on the campus, the design of the Music/Science building had two primary objectives: create a public building that truly fuses sustainable design with sustainability curriculum, and carefully integrate the facility into the existing National Historic Landmark site. The new building is home to a new music room, practice rooms, teacher offices, a science lab and a greenhouse.
Insulated concrete formwork walls are augmented with a brick veneer carefully detailed to complement the pattern of the existing building. Triple-glazed windows complete the airtight, well-insulated building envelope with good thermal mass to buffer against Hood River’s seasonal temperature swings. Geothermal heating and cooling is paired with heat exchange with water from an adjacent stream, a radiant slab and heat recovery ventilators using displacement air distribution. A plenum sits under a 35 kilowatt solar panel system, simultaneously preheating air for the building and cooling the panels to make them more efficient. The project is estimated to consume approximately 35,000 kWh, all of which will be supplied by the photovoltaic array on the roof.
Key to the Opsis working method, the architect says, is its studio environment. That and never being satisfied.
“You worry about a certain confidence,” he explains. “Have you listened to what the building could be? Can you find the balance where everything has due thought but you’re moving forward and it’s not cavalier? We don’t pull a style out of the drawer. We just apply rigor. I think everyone’s talents are mixed and they’re shifting. What an open studio means to us is the conversation is broad.”
Meyer believes that each team member has certain tendencies and talents that can then be meshed into the whole. “I tend to just see things. It’s a gift and curse. You go through five pages and see the detail that’s not right. The mission was this. Did we capture the mission? It’s an ability to be reflective and critical. You just have to look at stuff and criticize. You’re not going to get good architecture accidentally. It’s very complex. Everything we do is unique. We are always balancing between the benefit of repetition coupled with seeing everything for the first time. I think Opsis is able to capture the freshness. We’ve been around for along time. But we want the competence to allow us to do highly dynamic work.”
Another project underway is a new performing arts facility at Reed College. Due for completion in 2013, the new academic facility will bring the three performing arts departments together in a building carved into the slope above the tennis courts on the west side of campus.
“At every corner, this is a teaching facility,” says Meyer’s Opsis partner, Alec Holser. “Whether it’s a stair landing or a lobby space that works for performance, it’s got to be a place where students come together to learn and connect, to do what Reed students do—get together in small groups and discuss.”
The centerpiece of the three-story building will be a 6,929 square-foot atrium winter garden that frames the view to the west hills. Extending from the west entrance to the second-level east entrance, it has been designed as a place that will accommodate impromptu jam sessions, guerrilla theatre, and spontaneous gatherings. Outside, an informal amphitheatre is created by a series of terraces descending from the Gray Campus Center quad to the entry plaza.
“It started out as a reasonably straightforward response to the broad student experience, which in their view would include the arts: theater, music, dance,” Meyer explains. “At Reed there is a desire to have synergy in how different portions of the school can be integrated. What came in a highly collaborative exercise with them is the notion of space as a connection.Also, because of the steepness of the campus you couldn’t really get to Kaul Auditorium next door. We were able to create space in the winter garden atrium that otherwise just doesn’t exist on the campus. You have this ability for informal learning going on all the time, and an attractor related to community. It can’t be all planned. You want somebody going, ‘I’m just going to walk in because it’s cool.’ The black box, you can open up the wall to what’s going on. You don’t always want all those walls all the time. It can being daylight and activity in and make you feel like you’re on display. You already have an audience. That’s connecting you to an audience in a way.”
Meyer says the firm’s studio environment helped produce the best possible design for Reed, like all clients. “Alec and Jim and I touch every single project. It just depends on timing and relationship. We don’t have any kind of structure,” he explains. ” One project might be on a fast tract, so we’ll have a project manager who lives and breathes it. Or it might be about capturing a vision, so we’ve got a young designer creating different renderings and ideas. We’re pretty much a 3D studio now. When we build the teams, typically the people at the beginning go all the way to the end, from groundbreaking to ribbon cutting, so we have that continuity. At the end of the day, I think we still have a real personal investiture in the work and the places associated with it.”