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With SPP Awards, Architects Show Resourcefulness in Finding Small Places for Design

No one can argue that the recession has been good for architecture, but the latest crop of SPP award recipients is a bumper one, demonstrating architects’ ability to bring design excellence to the humblest of projects

By Michael Singer

Eight recipients of the eighth annual Small Project Practitioners Design Awards were announced Saturday at the AIA National Convention in New Orleans. Chosen from well over 100 submissions, this represents a more than 35 percent jump in entries from the year before. This spike in entries could illustrate a trend of architects holding their own during the prolonged economic downturn by undertaking smaller projects, and this has led to a burst of some very creative small work, according to Deborah Pierce, AIA, of Pierce Lamb Architects, jury chair of the 2011 awards

“I think more small projects versus large [ones] get built in an economic downturn,” she says. “Among the entries this year, some are self-built and some are carving out space not otherwise utilized, such as roof decks, instead of room expansions you might see a booming economy. Submissions included tollbooths, sun shelters, municipal signs, walls by parks, bus stops, and kayak shelters. Many of these are projects that might have been designed by engineers in the past and show the resourcefulness of architects to find work today."

The eight honored projects, announced Saturday by the Small Project Practitioners (SPP) Knowledge Community at the convention session Off the Grid: Small Project Awards and Discussion of Local Context in Sustainable Projects, represent exemplary work in Small Project Structures (construction costs up to $500,000) and Small Project Objects (construction costs up to $50,000). Two other Saturday convention sessions (Small Project Practitioners: Top 10 Questions and Solutions and Small Project Practices and the AIA 2030 Commitment) will also examine the current state of architecture on a smaller scale.

Urban connectors and rural retreats

One such resourceful interstitial space honored for its design is the covered walkway at PS 234, a K-5 school in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, designed by Macrae-Gibson Architects, PC. The L-shaped walkway allows access from the main school building to the playground, using a steel-framed structure with panels arranged in rhythmic, undulating patterns. The result is a light playfulness expressive of both the movement of children and the dynamism of the city.

“A lot of things we saw this year are connector pieces like the walkway,” says juror Wendy Evans Joseph, FAIA. “Things that make a difference are not always buildings themselves, and architects seem more interested in making these smaller elements a part of enhancing a place and life. A walkway doesn’t have any intuitive form to it—this [PS 234 walkway] makes something very special of it and brings something special to the place.”

Celebrated projects came from the around the country, including urban, suburban, and rural areas. Like the PS 234 project, the Gordon Square Arts District Bus Shelter in Cleveland offers a contemporary, adventurous take on what’s often considered simple neighborhood infrastructure. These stainless steel bus shelters (designed by Robert Maschke Architects) were designed for a transitional area on the city’s West Side, and received a Small Projects Objects Category award. Part of a $3.5 million planned streetscape investment, the shelters are built from stainless steel and folded into an origami-like shape.

“Bus shelters are typically very boring and nondescript, but we feel that by creating a consistent identity along the streetscape, we can help change the perception of placed objects,” says Robert Maschke, AIA, in The Bus Stops Here, a short film about his project. “The shelter was designed to be iconic, as it is the first piece of public art in the new streetscape.”

“There’s an artistry that’s notable in the best small projects,” says Pierce. “The Gordon bus stop is simply a piece of folded, perforated stainless steel, but through origami style, it takes the idea of a piece of a paper that could perhaps be a folded bus ticket. Its stainless steel materials are a good complement to the metal of nearby car grilles and storefront windows. This is what the awards celebrate—projects creatively planned, envisioned, and well-executed.”

Residential works honored in the Small Project Structures category offered quiet places for meditative contemplation. The Tea House, a 180-square-foot design by David Jameson Architect, Inc, is a hanging bronze and glass object suspended from a steel structure in the backyard of a suburban Bethesda, Md., home.

“I think as people move from an analog to a digital society, there are more pressures to remain connected, but also more pressures to disconnect--to go someplace that is TV, Blackberry, iPhone, computer, and even furniture free,” says David Jameson, FAIA. “There is no space more fantastic for us to design than an introspective space that suspends thought, space, and time. Projects like this let you interrogate the design at the level of a surgeon, a level of detail that is not possible on larger scale projects.”

On a very slightly larger scale, the E.D.G.E. (Experimental Dwelling for a Greener Environment) House overlooks Lake Superior in rural Bayfield, Wis. William Yudchitz, AIA, of Revelations Architects/Building Corporation, designed it as an experimental, modular structure for the four basic functions of life: eating, bathing, sleeping, and communal fellowship. Yudchitz uses built-in furniture to optimize the space with maximum flexibility. The 340-square-foot E.D.G.E. prototype, captured during a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter’s visit, is an educational tool that Yudchitz hopes will help transform the way spaces are created for living.

Yudchitz says he gets three to five emails weekly from people who want to own an E.D.G.E house, though he readily recognizes the biases against sustainable, compact residential development that the house exemplifies.

“Most counties in Wisconsin would not even allow you to build a house that small because of their zoning, as most minimum size requirements are 750 to 800 square feet,” he says of his tiny floor plan. “When we finally found the site where we ended up, we could not finance it, as bankers said they did not loan on ‘log cabins’.”

Yudchitz is also developing an urban counterpart to the E.D.G.E. House—the Essential House in Minneapolis, which will be a 20-foot-by-30-foot, two-story house on a slightly larger urban lot.


As an adjunct to the Saturday awards program, a question-and-answer session will be held with the award recipients. In addition, a retrospective of more than 50 winners from the first SPP awards onward will be published in hardcover and digital form later this summer as a means to further empasize the importance of small projects.

Marilys Nepomechie, FAIA, a former SPP awards jury chair, is leading the assembly and publication of the retrospective. “You find big ideas in the best small projects—all with elements that the architect can control,” she says. “This retrospective publication is designed to provide inspiration and admiration for that wonderful work, and show that it doesn’t require large budgets to do wonderful things. All the reasons we went to architecture school are right there, in these projects.”




The 2011 Small Project Practitioners Design Awards

Small Project Structures


The Kiwi House in Baton Rouge, designed by Plus One Design + Construction.

The E.D.G.E. House in Bayfield, Wis., designed by Revelations Architects/Builders Corporation.

The PS 234 Manhattan Walkway in New York City, designed by Macrae Gibson Architects.

The Layton Pavilion in Greenfield, Wis., designed by Johnsen Schmaling Architects.

The Tea House in Bethesda, Md., designed by David Jameson Architect, Inc.

The Meditation Hut III “Victor” in Champaign, Ill., designed by Jeffery S. Poss, FAIA.

Small Project Objects

The Pavilion in Empire, Mich., designed by David Salmela, FAIA.

The Gordon Square Bus Shelter in Cleveland, designed by Robert Maschke Architects.


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