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Uniting Forces

From Turn-of-the-Century to Mid-Century, Lord, Aeck & Sargent recognizes the importance of all sizes of historic buildings.

By Gordon Bock

Though many architectural firms and businesses 'live long and prosper' at what is sometimes called the family level – typically a head count of 50 or under, regardless of any blood connections – not all aspire to or attain a larger scope. Not so with Lord, Aeck & Sargent. With its roots in the most family of family enterprises in the 1940s (see sidebar) this dynamic firm has actively sought new frontiers from the 1980s on – from growing a practice in historic preservation to embracing computer-aided design and sustainability – and has never looked back.

According to principal and chairman Antonin "Tony" Aeck, FAIA, "Today's firm is really the result of two firms coming together in 1989. I joined Aeck Associates, which was my father's firm, in 1971 as a traditional summer intern – the blueprint boy – and over the ensuing years we grew to about 22 people and did a lot of interesting projects, sometimes in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jamaica, but principally institutional and educational work."

Then in about 1983, as his father was thinking about retirement, Aeck began looking for a new course for the firm. "Two respected local architects – Larry Lord, FAIA, and Terry Sargent, AIA, – had broken away from a very large firm here called Heery to start their own small practice, which had seen fairly rapid growth to around 30 people. I initially approached them shortly after their founding, but it was not until 1989 that we came together as equal partners and Lord, Aeck & Sargent was formed."

There was more behind Aeck's thinking than just "the bigger the better." "When I was at Rice University," he recalls, "I studied under and worked for William Caudill, FAIA, dean of the School of Architecture." Caudill, who believed firms faced increasingly complex practices, preached that they stand on a tripod base of design, technology and management – a three-legged stool that will always balance. "Caudill's gospel stayed with me," says Aeck, "and as I became interested in growing a larger firm, the notion of Larry, Tony and Terry – with talents reflecting design, technology, and management – was a good way of doing that."

Today the firm has three offices, with 100 people in Atlanta and another 20 or so divided between Chapel Hill, NC, and Ann Arbor, MI, that serve particular clients in those and other geographies. To approach the market, the firm is organized into five studios – Historic Preservation, Science, Education, Arts & Culture and Housing & Mixed Use. "It's really six," says Aeck, "if you count Planning, which cuts across all the others."

While work on existing buildings has always been part of the firm's project list, it has gained increasing prominence since the 1990s, in part through a uniting of forces. "I joined my practice with Lord Aeck & Sargent in 2007," says principal Jack Pyburn, FAIA, who founded his own award-winning historic preservation firm in 1984, "and we have a rich cross-section of preservation experience – a lot of institutional and governmental work as well as private and non-profit projects."

Adds Pyburn, the director of the Historic Preservation Studio at Lord, Aeck & Sargent, "We have a spectrum of projects from large to small, which I enjoy. For me, one of the fascinating – and important – things about preservation is that historic buildings have significance and value to our society and culture, regardless of scale."

Principal Susan M. Turner, AIA, who collaborates closely with Pyburn in the Historic Preservation Studio, agrees. "We do a lot of work with the National Park Service," she points out, "and a fair amount with private non-profits – typically organizations founded to preserve a site, such as Andalusia, the Georgia farm home of writer Mary Flannery O'Connor."

It's hard to find better examples of government projects than historic court houses, which have been an almost continuous source of preservation work since 1990. "Georgia has 157 counties, more than any state but Texas," says Pyburn, "and given that we've done two state-wide studies of Georgia courthouses, in addition to over 30 courthouse projects, in one way or another we've really worked on all of them."

Pyburn notes that the firm is working on four as of this writing, and one – the Coweta County Courthouse – was the cover feature of Traditional Building in April 2011. Over the course of two decades, Pyburn has seen an interesting sea change. "A lot of courthouses were inappropriately treated in the period between the1950s and 1980s to accommodate population growth. When it came to the important features of the building, they were at best covered up and, at worst, damaged. In the years since, however, there has been a shift to increased appreciation of the historic context and character-defining features."

Wide-Ranging Projects
At Lord, Aeck & Sargent, it is not only the scale of preservation projects that run the gamut but also the age of the buildings the firm works on. "We see what I would call three periods of buildings," says Pyburn. "One is pre-industrial to early industrial up to about 1890. Another is the modern period from 1940 forward. The buildings from roughly 1890 to 1940 I consider transitional, a period where traditional building techniques were being combined with modern materials in assemblies that are quite unique. It's an era of experimentation – trying to figure out the boundaries of materials – and extremely fascinating."

No surprise, Pyburn notes that mid-20th century buildings are more and more being recognized as historically significant and, as a consequence, the firm is doing preservation work on 1940s, '50s, and even '60s buildings. Just finished is an adaptive reuse project at the 1939 Hinman Research Building at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The first building on the campus designed for industrial research, the Hinman Building was expanded in 1951 and presented a textbook example of the kind of technical and philosophical questions that mid-century buildings now embody for preservation. According to Pyburn, the building incorporates "composite" walls, including steel, masonry and pre-cast and cast-in-place concrete.

Pyburn suggests that preservation philosophy is evolving to deal with now-unavailable modern materials and building components, such as early curtain-wall systems from the mid-century. "For the recent past," he reflects, "the goal is not necessarily a formal approach that strives to match existing materials in-kind, as it is philosophical consistency, where intent and visual characteristics rise in importance."

According to Pyburn, "Our forte, what we bring to preservation planning and architecture, is a very grounded understanding of buildings architecturally – as opposed to looking at them just from a stylistic standpoint – and our commitment to deep research." When the project demands, Lord, Aeck & Sargent is also not shy about tapping into strengths outside the firm. In the case of historic masonry, for example, he says, "We don't do laboratory work, but we have a very talented group of conservators that we work with, particularly if we need detailed materials analysis."

Turner agrees. She says that while they may do their own materials investigation for simple projects, "We're architects, with a good deal of respect for specialists, and it's very common for us to bring them in." A striking example she points to is their recent restoration of Hardman Farm in the Nacoochee Valley of Northeast Georgia that includes buildings dating from 1870.

The home of former Georgia Governor Lamartine Hardman and now a state historic site, the farmstead was basically untouched until acquired by Hardman in 1902 and, for the most part, it has remained unchanged. Of particular concern in the restoration were original paint finishes that had never been repainted and the unpainted plaster walls. "How do you perform crack repairs on, or conserve, plaster that's not going to be covered," asks Turner rhetorically, "especially when you can't afford to make a mistake?" The answer in this case was to bring in two of the nation's top specialists: paint and wallpaper analyst Frank Welsh and architectural conservator Andrew Ladygo.

Sometimes, however, the issue is not avoiding mistakes, but dealing with those of others. "For example," says Pyburn, "when it comes to restoring historic masonry, matching historic mortar is not that difficult. The evolution of building technology and diagnostics has made it possible to understand historic materials pretty deeply and treat them thoughtfully."

As he explains, the more demanding projects are those where past interventions have been particularly destructive, such as where the masonry has been abused – everything from painting with a non-breathable coating to sandblasting to re-pointing lime mortar with Portland cement that leads to brick faces popping off. Because such inappropriate treatments are typically applied to the whole building, they are often irreversible. "The projects with the most potential for a quality outcome are the ones that have had the least done to them over time, because you're not having to undo a bunch of insensitive alterations," he says.

Born Again Buildings
Restoration to original condition is one thing, but to have a future, many historic buildings must be sensitively upgraded or adapted for new uses – a common area of activity where the preservation team has some very clear concepts and methodologies.

"Generally, when we get buildings they are pretty worn and tired, and the people that move out can't imagine ever being back in that space; to them they're obsolete," says Pyburn. However, as the project approaches completion, the picture invariably changes. "All of a sudden, when people see what the space can be, it becomes the place of preference with a wonderful quality that nothing else can match."

For Pyburn and his colleagues, this turnaround is not magic but the result of careful planning and a healthy dose of inspiration. "How do you match uses with the building? How do you organize systems within the structure to deliver an important functional capability while retaining historic character and the qualities that make the building special? To me the solutions are the creative side of preservation – and one that's grossly underestimated and under-acknowledged."

Introducing new mechanical systems into an existing structure is a significant part of the challenge. "Systems integration is always a big piece," says Turner, "and one of many design issues is to determine first and foremost what is important for the building."

Adds Pyburn, "We work very closely with our engineers to define the historically significant context characteristics that we're going to work within; then we develop a concept for the outcome, and work with them to deliver the systems within that framework." One example was an early-20th-century building in Atlanta characterized by large industrial spaces. Since the original systems were exposed, the new systems were left exposed as well.

At the other end of the spectrum are projects like the Old Governor's Mansion where, in order to hide every service, the preservation team created replicas of missing plaster ceilings, but with HVAC diffusers incorporated in the cornices. Sometimes the approach is a compromise. In the 1889 Georgia State Capitol, for example, Turner says the original barrel-vaulted corridors had been covered by a dropped ceiling sometime in the mid-20th century in order to accommodate modern mechanical services. Though the dropped ceilings could be removed, relocating the service lines was not practical, so the solution was to create new cambered ceilings in the corridors – an aesthetic that relates to the building's historic barrel vaults but is executed in a subtly different manner. "It's the building that guides the approach," says Turner.

On the Technology Curve
True to form for a firm that values technology, Lord, Aeck & Sargent has been quick to put computers in service for preservation. Says Aeck, "We ordered our first CAD system in 1979, and in the last four years we've made a real push into BIM (Building Information Modeling). It's a great tool for embedding information – equipment specs, dates of installation, and so forth – and we're using it to document existing conditions in our preservation projects."

"We're working on a way to identify character-defining features and embed them within the BIM model," adds Pyburn. "In a standard BIM, there's a feature called Clash Detection that will flag conflicts during design – say, if the mechanical engineer's model has ductwork going through a beam in the structural engineer's model. Well, we want to identify a decorative column, or balcony, or other important feature, and to have a kind of clash detection where we don't want historic fabric altered. BIM has great potential as a tool, and we've completed a number of preservation projects using it."

Though the firm is clearly an early adopter when it comes to meshing sustainable design with historic buildings, they are far from being into technology for technology's sake or jumping on a green bandwagon. "We get energy efficiency," says Pyburn, "and what we like to do is go back and look at the origin of the building and work out from there."

"Windows are a good example," he notes. "We had a recent client who was going to change out the windows until we produced an energy model and found that the windows weren't really the big problem; in fact the historic building was as efficient as the client's green buildings." Turner adds that they are careful to make sure that sustainable features aren't just "one more layer added to a historic building to make it work."

Says Aeck, "Our firm came early, I think, to the recognition that sustainability – and energy conservation in particular – is a worthwhile attribute. Though we don't have engineers on staff, we have energy modelers and we use the technologies available today to enhance our architectural designs before we pull engineers into the projects."

That sounds like an example of good architectural family values. TB


Gordon Bock is a writer, architectural historian, technical consultant, and lecturer, as well as co-author of the book The Vintage House (www.vintagehousebook.com).

 

 

 
 

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