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At Studio H:T, Process and Place Lead to Alternative Construction Methods

Just 8 years old, this Colorado architecture firm is researching new ways to put buildings together—and turning this research into construction.

By Ingrid Spencer

“We’re just two dudes trying to figure it out,” says Christopher Herr, AIA, co-principal—along with Brad Tomecek, AIA—of Boulder, Colo.–based Studio H:T. Modesty becomes these architects, but it’s easy to surmise from the young firm’s portfolio that the figuring-out stuff is pretty far along. With an office of six people, and now in its eighth year, Studio H:T has weathered the economic crisis, and the two principals have an impressive body of work to show for their efforts, both commercial and residential, as well as a slew of awards, including an AIA Young Architects Award for Herr in 2011, and one for Tomecek in 2012.

Tomecek says it’s being in a forward-thinking region that especially affects their firm’s practice methodologies and design tactics. “We work in an area where the plains meet the mountains,” he says. “It’s quite a palette geographically, and people are pushing wind power and solar. There’s innovation in Boulder and Denver.” The two architects are also energized by the award-winning work they and their students have accomplished in the advanced design/build studio they co-teach at the University of Colorado-Boulder—including two pavilions for local nonprofits constructed of mostly recycled materials.

Hands-on

Tomecek and Herr’s road to running a firm in Boulder was not a completely direct path. The two met at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where Herr, a native of Ft. Collins, Colo., had gone to study acoustics under acclaimed acoustics professor Gary Siebein. Herr plays the French horn and his music education had led to an interest of how sound affects space, which led to architecture. After college he went back to Colorado, playing the French horn, rock climbing, finishing his thesis, and trying to decide which direction his life would take. He lured his friend Tomecek to Colorado, and the two worked at various firms before joining forces and opening Studio H:T in 2005.

Since then, they have doggedly pursued the design of residences and commercial buildings that utilize alternative methods of construction, from the use of WeberHaus fully closed, insulated eco-panels imported from Germany to prefabrication to shipping containers. One of their clients, Andrew McMullin, who three years ago commissioned them to design a shipping container house in Nederland, Colo., says it was Tomecek and Herr’s enthusiasm for designing an alternative house on a difficult site that led him to choose Studio H:T. “I’m a builder, so I’ve work with architects quite a bit,” McMullin says, “and I find that active involvement is often missing. Brad and Christopher were involved from start to completion.”

The house, an off-the-grid building that uses passive and active means such as photovoltaics for heating, cooling, and energy, is constructed of two shipping containers on either side of a taller common area nestled in a mountainside rock outcropping. At 1,500 square feet, the house challenges the idea that bigger is better. While its angular aesthetic and lack of ornamentation reveal it as decidedly Modern, Tomecek and Herr eschew labeling a stylistic philosophy. “We are heavily invested in the process, and that process yields a unique solution based on client, task, and place,” says Tomecek. “Our aesthetic is not based on image, but the result of these forces at work.”

For the firm, the result of channeling these forces through their process can be expressed in a succinct formula: client + architect x task + place = architecture. The goal is to “craft places that live in memory based on the sculpting of light, surface, and spaces,” Tomecek says. Evidence can be found in such Studio H:T projects as Studio 2B in Denver, a showroom and design studio that represents furniture and art manufacturers. A renovation of a 1940s bow truss building in Denver’s North District, the project features a floating loft in the center of the space. A contemporary take on a barn-like hayloft, the insertion is a sculptural object bathed in natural light coming through the floor-to-ceiling glazed storefront.

Conductors pushing the bounds of practice

While the two architects have no intention of backing away from the kind of hands-on attention to smaller projects that they’ve become known for, they admit that they’re eager for a larger role. “We realize we need to have our heads up and out instead of in and down,” says Herr. “We want to ‘conduct’ more instead of just ‘perform.’” What this means to them is outreach and community involvement, pushing beyond the boundaries of traditional practice. “We think architecture is underappreciated and underutilized,” he says. “Architects have a larger role to play in improving the urban landscape—not because of our egos, but because we can make what’s out there better. We have that ability.”

Along with their continued exploration of alternative building, the two are in the process of becoming developers. Recently, Tomecek won the AIA Colorado James M. Hunter, FAIA, Traveling Scholarship, which allowed him and Herr to travel to California to visit various factories and fabrication shops that specialize in residential projects, including Project Frog, CleverHomes, Marmol Radziner, and Blue Sky Homes. “We’re very interested in exploring the cross section of offsite manufacturing materials and methodologies to better understand the best application for our projects,” says Tomecek. For Tomecek and Herr, their research efforts extend to their university work and to their firm’s projects, where exploration and “real-world friction,” as Herr calls it, collide. “Yes, there’s still a perceptual stigma about prefab,” acknowledges Herr. “But we certainly wouldn’t be pursuing it if we didn’t believe in it.”

It is experience that has led the two to the place they are today, but when asked to look back seven years to when they first started the firm, they agree that a certain degree of ignorance was a boon to their careers. “Blind naiveté has been an ally for us,” says Herr. “We’re always searching for answers, and those bring more questions.”

With more research into alternative construction methods always in progress at their firm, a plan to start up a satellite office in Denver in June, and a commitment to inject themselves more into the larger conversation about the future of the profession, these two architects just might figure out the answers to more than just their own questions. “It’s an architect’s role to inspire,” says Tomecek. “We hope we can.”

 



Shipping container house in Nederland, Colo. Image courtesy of Braden Gunem.

Interior of shipping container house. Image courtesy of Braden Gunem.

Studio 2B in Denver. Image courtesy of Crystal Allen.

Design/build dairy house in Denver. Image courtesy of Nathan Jenkins.

32nd Street modular house in Denver. Image courtesy of Studio H:T Architecture.


Christopher Herr, AIA, (left) and Brad Tomecek, AIA. Image courtesy of Studio H:T.

   
     

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Reference:

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