The Buildings I’d Like To Design

Posted on Nov 26, 2014

When people I meet find out I’m an architect, one of their first questions is, “Do you specialize in any type of building?” I think they really want to know whether I just design houses, or whether I’ve done anything famous. My stock response these days is, “I’ll design any building for you!” With the real estate/construction sector recession now in its fourth year and showing few signs of turning around, it’s hard to be choosy. So, yes, I will admit that I have designed some mundane structures. But many of them have one or two features making them more interesting.

We’re responsible for hundreds of thousands of square feet of space for the Random House book distribution center in Westminster. But warehouses are just big, empty boxes: boring, right? But there is so much going on below the surface. An example is the addition we designed which uses 65-foot-tall forklifts, like rolling elevators, to access book pallets stacked on twelve tiers of racks. This required a “superflat” concrete floor, poured in continuous strips over 500 feet long, so the forklifts would remain stable. And the soil under two thirds of the building was poor, requiring a deep foundation system called augercast pilings bored into the earth topped with concrete grade beams. Then mix in the radiant heating system using ten miles of plastic piping cast into the slab. The pre-engineered building shell can sway in the wind up to fourteen inches out of plumb, so the storage racks within are freestanding.

(When we were commissioned to design renovations to the executive offices at the Westminster Random House facility, I proposed an entrance with tall masonry walls at right angles, their open ends connected by a curved curtain wall with closely spaced mullions. It was supposed to represent an open book for people to walk through, but was rejected when the client felt it looked “too much like an oil filter.”)

Another example of a big, empty box is the indoor soccer facility we designed in Elkridge, Maryland. Most of these structures are simple pre-engineered metal buildings. Except this one has a green (vegetated) roof, which reduced the stormwater runoff from the site.

Even the home additions can have unusual features. There was the second floor addition (see our August 2010 newsletter) which we designed to completely bridge across the original house, whose structural integrity we didn’t trust.

We have designed three elementary schools and a middle school addition, two branch libraries, many churches, banks, restaurants, offices, clubhouses, apartments, and homes. But there are many other building types I would like to create.

Tall buildings have fascinated architects since the advent of steel in the late nineteenth century made them possible. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a mile-high building, called The Illinois, which was never built. After 9/11 there was speculation that tall buildings were not profitable, too attractive to terrorists, and should not be attempted, but several projects, including the recently built supertall Burj Khalifa and the pending one-kilometer-high Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, put lie to that talk. The highest building I’ve ever worked on was a nine-story condo on Wisconsin Avenue in DC. Though I don’t have Wright’s ambition, sometime I’d like to design a more modest high-rise building, of only forty or fifty stories.

There are new stadiums being designed and built constantly across the world. Often these are intended for single sports such as football, soccer or baseball, while others are adaptable to a variety of uses. The host countries for the Olympics use these events as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show off their features, and the architects for their venues introduce many unique building innovations. Who can forget the tangled box beams of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest and the bubbly blue skin of the Water Cube? I still recall, long before I became an architect, how impressed I was with the fabric roofs of 1972’s Munich Olympics. Many stadiums employ one of the most common forms of kinetic architecture, the retractable roof. Maybe sometime I’ll get to design one.

Another project type I’d like to design sometime is an airport. If not the entire complex, with its runways and taxiways, fueling facilities and hangars, then at least the passenger terminal and control tower. I admire the innovations many architects employ to handle the large numbers of automobiles and buses, people and luggage, and aircraft coming together, flowing through, and departing. The security measures imposed on these facilities in the last decade need the same sort of design scrutiny.

Speaking of security, I’d better initiate my application for top secret clearance if I ever expect to design an embassy. I’m sure many of the spaces within embassies are routine offices, though large ceremonial spaces–ballrooms with full-service kitchens–are a must. Even in friendly countries, facilities such as sally ports and secure vehicle storage, rooms for sending and receiving secure communications, and reinforced safe rooms with independent HVAC are required.

I have never designed a movie theater, though I have done rooms which were later converted into home theaters. I have also never had the chance to design a live theater, with its proscenium arch, fly loft, orchestra pit, trap doors, and catwalks. With my early interest in space, I’d love the chance to design another kind of theater, a planetarium–and of course, to express such a room on the exterior of the building with the classical shape of a dome.

Another kind of building I’d like to design is a museum. Many architects have reinforced their reputations while contributing their unique ideas to museum design. Whether you think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling drum at the Guggenheim in New York; Frank Gehry’s shiny sweeping walls at the Guggenheim in Spain; I.M. Pei’s sharp glass angles at the National Gallery in Washington, DC and the Louvre in Paris; Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ inside-out Pompidou Center in Paris; the movable Burke brise soleil at the Milwaukee Art Museum by Santiago Caltrava; or the cycloid-vaulted Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn; all go far beyond the utilitarian function of simply housing art collections.

These are some of the building types I would like to design. Will I ever get a chance? Even in this economy, I remain optimistic.

Written by Dean R. Camlin, AIA, LEED AP BD+C.
© 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

Ready to Start the Conversation?

If you’re looking for a LEED-accredited architect in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, or Pennsylvania, look no further. Contact me today for a free consultation.
Get a Free Consultation