An Interview with EcoCenter Architect Christopher Wasney

In some ways, historical rehabilitation and sustainable design are completely in harmony with one another. After all, reusing a historic building is recycling materials on a grand scale! Chris Wasney, Lead Architect on the EcoCenter project.

Christopher Wasney is the Lead Architect on the EcoCenter project. He serves as Principal at Cody Anderson Wasney Architects, Inc. in Palo Alto, a 15-person architectural firm founded in 1993. The firm's portfolio includes new buildings, adaptive reuse and historic preservation. Projects range from historic renovations such as the Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park to new academic buildings such as the Student Services Building at Stanford University.

 

Q: From an architect’s perspective, why is the EcoCenter project interesting?

A: It’s a wonderful little building, a completely different side of Birge Clark, one that really illustrates what a fine and versatile architect he was.  He’s of course best known for well-mannered Spanish-style residential and commercial architecture, and here he ventures off into whimsical “streamlined nautical deco” or moderne style because it was appropriate for his client’s program and site. And it is always interesting to give a building a new lease on life, with the requisite challenges of changing its use.

Q: What are the unique challenges that this building presents?

A: Fitting the EV’s program into the small building required a very efficient floor plan.  In this efficient use of space, the ship metaphor is apt—spaces are utilized efficiently as they are on a boat. Even more challenging is integrating the building onto its shoreline site, especially because the entire nature of the shoreline is completely different from when the building was built.  Originally, it fronted on a dredged harbor with a sea wall, and now it will be part of a natural coastline of a marsh, where the tidal action determines where the water’s edge lies at any given time.

Q: The EV and your team have spent considerable time focusing on sustainable (‘green’) building elements. Is it difficult to incorporate sustainable design elements in an historic rehabilitation?

A: In some ways, historical rehabilitation and sustainable design are completely in harmony with one another. After all, reusing a historic building is recycling materials on a grand scale! The good news is that the preservation and the sustainability communities are finally beginning to sit down and compare notes, and they’re finding lots of common ground. Some sustainable design features (eg, ecologically friendly and recycled materials for interior finishes) are no more difficult to integrate into this building than into a new one. There are instances where sustainable and preservation “standard practice” diverge. We are seeking an appropriate balance.

Q: What  are some of the ‘green’ design elements being considered for the EV EcoCenter?

A: We’re looking at installing low-profile photovoltaic panels on the roof, but mounting them flat so that they will not be visible from the ground outside the building.  Here again we’re seeking a balance between sustainability and historic concerns. An interior finish palette of recycled and non-toxic materials, sorting and recycling construction and demolition debris, natural ventilation much of the year, energy efficient lighting and plumbing fixtures, and possibly a ground-source heat pump to provide both heating and cooling efficiently.

Q: What is your vision for the community’s interaction with the rehabilitated Birge Clark boat-shaped building?

A: We have some wonderful historic photographs of the Sea Scout Base in operation, fully rigged with flags up to the mast, and the sea scouts themselves hanging off every one of the various decks and the crow’s-nest.  The photos convey the incredible energy and life occurring in and around the building and bring a smile to my face no matter how many times I look at them.  While the EV might be slightly less boisterous than teenaged Sea Scouts, I think their great enthusiasm for their mission will bring similar energy and life back to the building.  Allowing the public to participate by attending events in the main hall, or simply using the lower deck as part of the Bay Trail will be a great way to further public knowledge of the important work that the EV does.

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