Sometimes Less is Enough

The Italians have an expression for what might only be characterized as the art of doing nothing—il dolce far niente. In this era of living in the fast lane—everything, all the time—we appear to have lost any sense of being able to leave well enough alone, find contentment in things just the way they are and simply abiding.

When RoehrSchmitt Architecture received a 2018 AIA Minneapolis Merit Award for our Shed at Crown Center project, it provided an opportunity to reflect on this quality as an approach to design and how it informs to one of our favorite projects.

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The Shed began as a derelict industrial space that through time and fire and neglect had been left open to the elements for years—just another urban, industrial ruin. RoehrSchmitt was tasked by the owners of the Crown Center to come up with a plan to the make the space a useful, attractive amenity to be shared by the tenants. We were excited about the commission because we already loved the space the way it was - the way perhaps only architects love marginal, neglected, abandoned spaces. But then we were also hesitant to touch it precisely because we loved the space just the way it was. Ruins have always had something of the sublime about them, an aura of soulfulness, an inimitable realness in a world of imitations; qualities that might have easily been lost or chased away with any effort to clean them up. In short, we didn’t want to ruin the ruin.

Our efforts were primarily oriented toward identifying, revealing, and clarifying what was already there.

While we ultimately supplemented the space with a number of gestures to make it more useful and appealing to tenants, our efforts were primarily oriented toward identifying, revealing and clarifying what was already there. We approached the space gingerly, cleaning it up only to the extent necessary to reveal the patina that lay beneath the grime. Obscured by years of junk and dirt and pigeon shit there slept a latent grandeur—a brute materiality that simply needed to be acknowledged, reframed, and offered back up to the world.

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On the surface we repurposed this soaring, gritty space as a linear park and garden to serve as a courtyard and gathering space for the tenants, neighbors, and friends of the Crown Center. We carved away at it here and there to allow for more sunlight. We provided a family of planters that complemented the scale and distressed materiality of the Shed, and that sketched out a series of outdoor rooms for gathering. But for the most part the work of design here was more a process of discovery than creation, more archeological than speculative, more a matter of listening than talking. Some spaces simply require a certain quality of attention to bring them back to life, and this was one of them—a space ripe for the attentions of a mature designer with the restraint to simply appreciate and reframe what already exists, resisting the impulse to alter or fill it.

This attitude may be related to Mies Van der Rohe’s dictum that Less is More, but actually reflects something more radical in that it springs from the virtually unrealizable aspiration to achieve one’s design intent by doing nothing at all. Or at least to appear to do nothing.

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Rather than less is more, perhaps in this case the principal might be expressed as more relaxed less is enough. This kind of work is about paying close attention to the world around you, and inviting that quality of attention on the part of those that will experience the place. This is the work of noticing, revealing, pointing, framing, presenting, appreciating, nodding and sometimes winking. It has something in common with Duchamp's' provocative objets trouvé and ready-mades. The creation of art - or architecture - through the quasi-magical act of simply presenting something as art - or architecture.

Rather than less is more—perhaps the principal might be better expressed as less is enough.

So much effort goes into making objects and spaces that aspire to reflect the feel and texture and patina of conditions that only occur through accident, neglect, and aging—the heady brew of time and contingency—but there is really no good way to intentionally replicate the work of these forces that doesn’t ultimately appear precious and contrived. Sometimes more is necessary; often less is more; but occasionally less is just enough.

See the project.

Does Preservation Matter?

RoehrSchmitt Architecture was just awarded a 2019 Minneapolis AIA Heritage Preservation Award for the Smyth Lofts Renovation in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood. Our first involvement in the effort to preserve this building began in early 2016 and we’ve spent the last three years steeped in a process that was definitely challenging, never simple, but ultimately extremely rewarding.

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Given the complexity and difficulties involved in modernizing a building that’s over 100 years old--why do we preserve these structures? What about their character is so important that it merits thousands of hours of effort and millions of dollars in investment? Why is it important to save these buildings for the community, the neighborhood, and ultimately the city?

This building, which when we began the project was known as the Campbell Logan Building (or the Inkunabula Building), was originally constructed in 1885 and designed by the architect William C. Whitney. The building is blocks south of the Mississippi River on North 2nd Street and is part of the Saint Anthony Falls Historic District--the location of Minneapolis’ earliest mills and the waterfall that powered them.

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The building is fairly typical of the period, with brick exterior walls and wood and concrete structure supporting the floors and roof. It’s main street facade originally had a more detailed stone, brick and cast iron facade, but prior to the renovation that facade was infilled with brick and glass block. Since the 1970’s, the building housed a book binding company and apartments, but had never had a complete renovation. Its condition when we were first introduced to it could fairly be described as poor. Given the economic realities of 2016, the time had come when it finally might make sense to redevelop the building--but getting our arms around what that investment would involve proved to be a challenge.

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There was plenty to love about the building. The wood structure of the front portion had been built with thick douglas fir joists unseen in the construction world for a hundred years, and the arched brick openings in the interior bearing walls were gorgeous where they had not been painted or damaged. The back portion of the building consisted of a concrete structure with massive round columns and mushroom capitals. It had great bones throughout.

There would also be challenges. The building’s mechanical and electrical systems would need to be removed and replaced in their entirety. An existing freight elevator, although still operational, might be best described as dangerous. Making it home to a modern elevator was not easy. The basement, which was being used as a space for handmade papermaking, had a cave like quality and an existing coal boiler set deep below the basement floor was surrounded by a water filled moat.

There was plenty to love about the building. It had great bones throughout.

Over time, the building’s electrical and other infrastructure elements hadn’t been removed as they were replaced, and there was a rat’s nest of conduit, wires and pipes throughout the building. It was a challenge to figure out what was operational and what wasn’t. Interior partitions, floors and ceilings were beyond their usefullness, and in most cases needed to be replaced. Existing doors and windows were also well beyond their expected life cycle and were replaced throughout. Additionally, there were plenty of other issues that wouldn’t be discovered until the project was well into the construction process.

Planning the redevelopment involved understanding the best use for the space and its most likely users. Ideally, there would be retail clients where there had originally been retail clients on the first floor, and the upper floors would be office or residential users. As the design process progressed we explored both options for the upper floors but ultimately the developer determined that multi family rental housing was their best option. Once this course was set, options for the best layout of the residential units were explored, and a final plan began to crystalize. Building amenities such as the rooftop patio, party room and covered parking were studied to understand how they would best serve future tenants. The new systems were designed and coordinated to mesh with the existing building and a clear idea of how the old would relate to the new developed.

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One of the main reasons this building was redeveloped was because of State and Federal Historic Tax credits. Historic Preservation Tax Incentive programs encourage private sector investment in the rehabilitation and re-use of historic buildings. They create jobs and are one of the nation's most successful and cost-effective community revitalization programs, leveraging over $89 billion in private investment to preserve 43,328 historic properties since 1976.

The building needed to be deemed a “certified historic structure” based upon its importance during a period of significance and its contribution to a registered historic district. We worked closely with the development teams historic consultant Hess Roise to determine what changes could and could not be made to the building, and to negotiate the final design to meet the needs of the project and the requirements of the tax incentive system.

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Some of the items that were ultimately dictated by the system included the number of new openings we could cut into the building to provide additional windows for the residential units, the type of windows that were selected, the location of the modernized elevator to provide vertical access into the building, and the levels of finish that would be required in each space. The goal of the system is to preserve the building in a way that is in keeping with what it might have looked like and functioned during the period of significance. The best possible outcome is a completely modernized building that maintains the character of the original structure while updating it for another hundred years of productive use.

So again, why is it important to preserve historic buildings? Is it because humans have an inherent preference for historic buildings over new ones? Is it the economic and marketplace advantages of maintaining existing buildings instead of building new? Or simply preserving the historic charm of buildings no longer in use?

I believe the fundamental reasons go deeper. Preserving an existing structure, especially when it’s stood for a hundred years or more, is a kind of human time travel. We all have an intrinsic understanding and relationship with buildings, and so a structure from 100 years ago is both easy to comprehend, and yet a little mysterious. Each historic building represents the unknown lives and stories of all of the people who have ever lived and worked within it, and the possibilities of the next generations who will inhabit the building.

The best possible outcome is a completely modernized building that maintains the character of the original structure.

Preservation demonstrates a tangible sense of community because it represents to its neighbors that a risk was worth taking for the building, the neighborhood, and therefore the city.  The history of the building reflects the unique character of the surrounding city--its culture, past, present and future, as well as it’s geography and climate.

When a building has been present in the neighborhood for generations, its restoration demonstrates how to meet the universal and timeless challenges of creating livable cities today, without erasing yesterday. Preservation ultimately makes the statement that our civilized world continues to be worth the effort.

How to Work with a Residential Architect - Top 5 Tips

Northeast Bungalow.  See more.

Northeast Bungalow. See more.

Hiring an architect is an unusual experience. You’re hiring a guide, a facilitator, a coach, an artist, and a magician if you’re really lucky. An architect is one of the few professionals you’ll ever pay to create more work for yourself, and to (probably) make your life a little harder for a while, but together you’ll achieve results you’d never get to otherwise. Most people I’ve worked with have not only found it well worth the trouble, but it’s resulted in one of the more exhilarating experiences of their lives. Here are my best tips for how to make the most of it:

5. Banish preconceptions.

Come to the design process with as few preconceptions as possible. Start with a clean slate with your architect. You should spend some serious time talking about everything except architecture - thoughts, feelings, experiences, dreams. What keeps you up at night? What puts you to sleep? What do you think about in the shower? What you say when you talk to yourself? What do you do when you think no one is looking?

While collecting images of things you like can certainly be helpful in the process, you should use such images more as a way to describe how they make you feel rather than as specific features you’d like to see incorporated into the design. That way you develop a shared vocabulary and frame of reference with your architect. As such you're using them to help generate a design that uniquely correlates and integrates the qualities you want in your home, rather than as a collage of features cobbled together from other houses.

4. Prepare for the process.

Don’t expect an architect to come to your project with ready answers, but with a wealth of provocative and constructive questions. You need to come prepared for a journey rather than a product. Working with an architect should be understood as not only more of a commitment of time and money than working directly with a builder, but also more of an emotional commitment. You want an architect to work with you rather than for you, and you need to be prepared to be part of a collaborative team.

Island View Condo.  See more.

Island View Condo. See more.

3. Work smarter not harder.

The first thing we do with a new project is to determine how little we can do. We're far from lazy, but we find that many clients begin a project believing they need more space when what they really need is to better utilize the space they’ve got. We help them fully understand what they already have, along with its potential, before adding anything. It’s important to understand  that any additional space will shift the center of gravity of an entire house - for good or for ill. Often we’ll end up with a much smaller addition than anticipated, but one that provides just enough to effectively re-organize what’s already there, providing not just a wonderful new space, but a house that finally works.

2. Get back to basics.

Rather than blindly following trends, we start by learning the details of our clients’ lifestyle, then we shape their space around how they really live. Pandering to the latest thing all too often degenerates into a shopping expedition, distracting from the design process, which for us is as much (or more) about subtraction and reduction as it is about addition. We want to create a house for you that first does no harm; that doesn’t get in your way. We’re all surrounded with so much noise and chatter these days, a home should be a refuge from all that.

1. Be true to yourself!

“Curb appeal” is not an architectural term. A project customized to the needs of a specific client will always have more character and integrity than something created to satisfy the generic needs of the marketplace. Unless you’re extremely peculiar, that specificity will never be so far outside of the mainstream as to not be useful and delightful to another owner. And then again, if you really are that peculiar, you should by all means be living in a weird house!

Juliet Avenue.  See more.

Juliet Avenue. See more.

Ultimately the best way to bring value to your house and home is to fully own the process--be true to yourself and your needs and desires.  Don’t waste time worrying about what some phantom future buyer may want. The journey of creating a house around your unique way of life is a great adventure and privilege, and often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Don’t blow it!

Copperwing Takes Flight

A look into the making of a micro-distillery

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Many years ago, Keppen Kettering, RoehrSchmitt Architecture's interior designer and resident Revit maestra, came across one of those brew-your-own-beer kits on sale. She and her husband, Kyle, already really liked craft beer, so they picked up a kit and the adventure into DIY beverages was born. Years, recipes, and a storage-room-littered-with-gear later, Kyle was still delighted by his hobby--and Keppen was still enjoying being the taste tester. So when a friend and former co-worker came over for an afternoon at the pool and pitched a micro-distillery idea, they couldn’t get it out of their heads.

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Thanks to the Surly bill passed in 2011, the craft beer biz was starting to boom in Minnesota. But not much was being done with craft spirits. That was until a similar bill was passed for distilleries 2014. Distilleries were now allowed to operate a cocktail room, along with a new provision that lowered the licensing fee significantly. The game had been changed.

But starting a distillery is complicated. So many laws! So many codes! So much regulation! Kyle and his business partners, Chis Palmisano and Brian Idelkope, spent a year on research and business planning, coming to the conclusion that starting a distillery was not only possible for them, but smart.

In 2015 the three friends formed a partnership and leased a commercial space in St. Louis Park. It didn’t take them much time to realize a cocktail room was definitely needed, and so they addressed the local zoning laws to make it all possible.

With more than a decade of experience providing commercial architectural and interior design services in a wide variety of project types, Keppen took the ideas and requirements of the partners and turned them into a real (and code compliant) thing. She collaborated with the partners to review idea boards, read up on local regulations, and brainstorm countless ideas.

Keppen’s most important role was guiding the team through the entire design and construction process.

Then she got to work on space planning, construction documentation and detailing, code compliance hurdles, furniture choices, color and materials selections. Keppen’s most important role was guiding the team through the entire design and construction process. This was no easy task for an already busy parent of a toddler with a full-time day job. To top it off, she was pregnant with their second child. Luckily, the RoehrSchmitt partners, Chris and Michael, were very supportive, lent an ear, and gave great advice whenever the inevitable hiccups arose.

The biggest challenge was the size of the cocktail room they were allowed to create. The law is written to only allow the bar space to be 25% of the total distillery, which meant a maximum of 600 square feet for the cocktail room. A glass wall separates the cocktail room from the production side, overcoming any feelings of a cramped space. It also turned out to be their biggest and best design move, offering a fully immersive experience. Guests can enjoy drinks inside the distillery, not just adjacent to one.

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The space came to life with the help of some incredibly talented partners. Chris Hale and Sheila Mozayeny of SpaceCraft built out most of the space including the wood bar with custom concrete countertops, the stacked wood tiles on the walls (a Chris Hale invention), the wood bench that spans the length of the cocktail room, and the amazing copper chandelier.
Heather Doyle from the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center created the ‘jewelry’ elements in the space. She fabricated the large gears set into the concrete tops and created the beautiful copper letters inset in the front of the bar.

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The gorgeous sign that shimmers over the entry is by southeast Minneapolis metal fabricator and artist George Hindley. The copper wing pattern was cut by hand, the lettering was completed using a CNC laser. The finished sign sits an impressive 4’ wide by 6’ tall.

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Keppen’s favorite design element is the color-changing LED lights that wash the sparkling stills behind the glass walls. It adds a real wow-factor to the space that highlights the heart of the business in a special way.

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From the start, a high-performing, flexible space that spoke to the main values of the business was the goal. They wanted something smart, hardworking, and not at all stuffy or pretentious. Copperwing should be a place guests could grab a drink before a special night out, or stop in wearing jeans and a T-shirt after a crazy day. The space is a happy mix of industrial functionality and sophisticated warm touches.

People have taken notice – this year Copperwing was awarded City Pages Best Distillery of 2018.


Copperwing Distillery

6409 Cambridge Street, St. Louis Park, MN 55426

Connect with Copperwing on Facebook and Instagram. Get details on special events, tours and classes at copperwingdistillery.com

Progress Report: Mercado Central

Since 1997, Mercado Central has been a collaborative hub for more than 35 Latino-owned businesses. Handcrafted products, delicious food, and essential services fill the bustling marketplace on Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue in Minneapolis.

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RoehrSchmitt was asked to develop a plan focused on the market's long-term development, and the striking face lift currently in progress is the initial phase of work focused on the several buildings that comprise this landmark retail complex.

"Our objective is to clarify the internal organization and re-orient an inwardly focused building outward to the street and to the community", says principal architect Michael Roehr.

The first step is the transformation of a previously unassuming exterior with an unabashed celebration of colors evoking the Latino culture of the Mercado’s businesses. The geometric bands of rich color serve to unify a variety of disparate building elements and frame the sprawling organic mural by celebrated Venezuelan artist Pablo Kalaka that wraps the building.

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Pablo's incredible work on the Mercado Central mural is well on its way and on track to be completed next month.

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