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Architect David O'Brien Wagner: There's more to green building than systems and certificates





Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, David O'Brien Wagner, AIA, a principal with SALA Architects in Minneapolis, spent a lot of time outdoors immersed in the lush, verdant landscape. And though he left the Seattle area behind for Minnesota years ago, nature remains a constant inspiration for his architectural work. "There's a tradition in Seattle where architects use form and space to try to allow people to reach out into the landscape, even when they're indoors," he explains. "We can do the same thing here in Minnesota; we just have to be careful about how we do it because of the climate."

Advances in technology are partly responsible for increasing our ability to connect to the landscape regardless of the weather. Floor-to-ceiling windows, he says, for example, were a disastrous choice ten years ago but now, thanks to improved energy efficiency, they can be part of an eco-conscious home even in Minnesota.

In this new-and-improved environment, the challenge for architects, Wagner says, is how to make it clear that good design that focuses on livability is as much a part of sustainability as materials and products. Read on to get his take on why architecture matters.

Meleah Maynard: What do you think is being sacrificed as we moved toward making buildings as energy efficient as possible?

David O'Brien Wagner: Certification programs like Minnesota GreenStar and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) address consumption and performance, but they don't address the need for connection to place, or the need for daylight or a view. It's up to designers to say that yes, it is important that a building performs, but we're not going to sacrifice elements like the need to get daylight from more than one side of that building. We have to point out that some of these compact, energy-efficient forms we're building have so few windows they don't offer good cross ventilation or light. We can't forget about how important it is to consider how we feel in a space.

In Green Building, Architecture Matters

Meleah Maynard: You were the lead designer for the Green Dream Home at the 2009 Minnesota State Fair. What did you hope people would take away from seeing and walking through that home?

David O'Brien Wagner: Our [SALA's] number-one hope was that people would come away with an understanding that architecture matters when it comes to sustainability. Architects have a knowledge base that allows us to design buildings smartly, but in a way that's more connected to a place. Overhangs on that house, for example, were very attuned to our latitude her in Minnesota. They protected the windows on the south side from the summer sun while using little horizontal slats to bounce daylight into higher windows on the south fašade so there was plenty of light in the winter.

By making the shape of the house long and skinny so it could work on an urban in-fill lot like you have in the city of Minneapolis, we were able to design a space where all the living spaces could face south and be open to the sun. Basically, we wanted to do more than educate people on sustainable technologies, we wanted to use the building as a teaching tool for why architecture matters.

Meleah Maynard: So you think people don't realize the importance of architecture?

David O'Brien Wagner: I think there will always be a range of understanding about architecture. In the past five years or so there's been a lot of press about green design and sustainable design, but it is typically very systems- and products- focused. Much less attention is paid to how the actual shape and form of a building can affect how it performs and how we live in it. Shape, function and layout of spaces are just as important as systems and materials. This is what I mean when I say that architecture can help drive sustainability.

"A Humble Relation with the Landscape"

Meleah Maynard: The buildings you design are often very simple and natural-looking. Would you say your work is minimalist?

David O'Brien Wagner: I think my buildings are trying to find a humble relationship with the landscape, so I tend to use very simple forms. That doesn't necessarily mean they are minimalist or lack detail, but I'm definitely not trying to create this: "Gee whiz, look at that," kind of object. I'm more trying to create something that feels rooted to a place so the landscape seamlessly wraps itself around the building. I do tend to be a little bit overzealous in using roof overhangs, though. They shield buildings from rain and snow, and shade the summer sun. But they're also gestural, almost like a tree branch reaching out to the surrounding landscape in the same way the trees are reaching toward the building.

Meleah Maynard: Describe a project you've worked on recently that was meaningful to you.

David O'Brien Wagner: It's under construction right now. It's a weekend home for some folks who live here in the Twin Cities. They purchased land in Pepin Wisconsin that overlooks the Mississippi River. It's set fairly far back up along the bluff along the river valley. The developer came in and carved out an area of trees to enhance the view, so part of the design inspiration came from our desire to heal that damaged part of the landscape. The building is long and narrow and stretches between a space in the trees. Outside the house, there's a long, tall steel wall about 12 feet high and it has a gap in it where you come through this threshold between two tall edges. You get a sense of transporting yourself across a threshold and stepping from this realm of the agricultural farmland behind you into a space that opens up to a river view. It's a very special moment and the kind of long vista we don't get here very often.

Hear David O'Brien Wagner on Modern, Sustainable Cabins
When: Wednesday, March 30 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: SALA Architects 326 Hennepin Ave. #200, Mpls., MN 55414
RSVP: to info@salaarc.com or call 612-379-3037
Cost: Free, but a suggested donation of $10 will go to a local housing nonprofit
        
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.


Photos, top to bottom:

David O'Brien Wagner: "Shape, function and layout of spaces are just as important as systems and materials."

O'Brien Wagner at work at SALA Architects

A model of "Aerie," an O'Brien Wagner house built on the Gunflint Trail

The SALA scene

All photos by Bill Kelley



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