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27dN: Design/Build Modern Architecture at the Great Recession’s Ground Zero

To survive the real estate market’s crash, two Florida architects took control of how their designs would be built

By Ingrid Spencer

Regardless of tendencies to favor stalwart Modernist principles such as clean lines, lack of ornament, and smooth transitions between inside and out, the fear of alienating clients who may have a more traditional idea of what buildings should look like can keep many young architects from casting their lot with a design tradition that began with the European avant-garde. Not so co-principals John Pichette, AIA, and Michael Halflants. They tout their Modernism proclivities right on their shingle for their Florida-based firm: 27dN: Studio for Modern Architecture. “To us it’s a commitment,” says Halflants. “We interpret Modern as a way of designing based on the constraints of the project—the site, the climate, program, budget, precedence—and we present a fresh solution.”

The 2012 recipient of an AIA Young Architects Award isn’t afraid to talk about style, as well as philosophy. Halflants cites as absurd Venice, Fla., which mandated that all buildings in certain districts be built in a Northern Italian Renaissance style. “Even the gas stations must have red tile roofs,” he says, “which to me is about imposing a label—not the right way to design appropriately to site or climate.” How buildings work best in Sarasota’s unique Gulf of Mexico climate is a topic he takes to heart. (“27dN” actually refers to Sarasota’s latitude; “27 degrees north.”) Halflants explores this topic profusely in “Tropical Architecture,” a class he teaches at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “We look at how other cultures have designed for our particular latitude for centuries,” he says. “Taking precedence from places like Brazil and southeast China, we can see ways to make spaces comfortable without having to seal ourselves in an airtight box, which is how many Floridians live.”

Sliding into the subtropics

Both Halflants and Pichette had to learn to love the climate of their chosen city, as neither is a Florida native. Pichette grew up in Connecticut and moved to Florida after a four-year stint in the Air Force followed by five years studying architecture at Andrews University in Michigan. He founded what is now 27dN in 2005 after working for a variety of midsized firms in Florida, and then opening his own firm, before asking Halflants to join him in what was previously called Halflants + Pichette.

Halflants was born and raised in Belgium, and his path to Sarasota took him to New York City, where he worked for Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects). He moved to Florida and worked for a time with Carl Abbott, FAIA, an original member of the influential Sarasota School of Architecture who studied with Paul Rudolph and AIA Gold Medalist Louis Kahn. “I went from a firm of 100 to a firm of one, basically,” says Halflants. “Carl spent a lot of time on exterior spaces. He thought they were an integral part of the house, even though the materials used might be slightly different. I’ve taken that to heart.”

Indeed, Halflants says that his and Pichette’s projects reflect this idea unanimously, citing as an example the firm’s design of an AIA Tampa Bay Design Award winner in the unbuilt category: the Valencia Road Residence. It was designed to be built on a small 50-foot-wide site in an area of Venice where the Italian Renaissance requirements don’t apply. Though the house (at 2,300 square feet) and site (5,000 square feet) aren’t large, the interior and exterior spaces weave around one another. Half of the second floor is elevated over an open terrace. Due to the elevation of the house, this terrace will have a 14-foot ceiling. Adjacent to the terrace is a narrow courtyard that will be shaded by the two wings of the house. “The project creates connections to the larger context by focusing the views of the second floor to the Gulf of Mexico through the side yards of neighboring houses,” says Halflants. “One such view is aimed toward the winter sunsets, and the other toward the summer sunsets.”

Design/build to the rescue

It was research and experience, too, that led Halflants and Pichette to apply a design/build business model to their firm, which, Halflants says, allowed the firm to survive the real estate crash in Florida. “We started our firm a few months before the housing crash,” he says. “We found that often we would start a design, the client would get a permit, and then projects would get aborted. Because we weren’t in control of the building part, we couldn’t see things through to completion.” Frustration continued, and Halflants and Pichette decided to change tactics. Pichette got his contractor’s license, and the firms started bidding on projects to serve as contractor. “It took the business in a new direction,” says Pichette, “and while we don’t serve as contractor for all our projects, the fact that we have that ability has been crucial.”

Halflants says the advantages of design/build are many. “It’s frustrating to pour your heart into a design and hand it over to someone who may not be as attentive as you,” he says, adding that working as contractors gives them more opportunities to be something more than just designers. “We’ve also become better architects by having this kind of knowledge and control. When we priced a window package, we came to better understand the cost implications of our mullion design. When we worked with our concrete subcontractor to pour an exposed concrete wall, we had an excellent lesson in the types of form ties that we could use and express.”

The examples continue, with Halflants describing how in a project called the Lido Key addition he and Pichette found the opportunity to reuse all of the broken glass at the site in the new terrazzo floor. “It’s not anything different than what any architect should spend the time to learn,” he says, “but as builders we are really forced to look at implications to the cost and constructability of our projects.” Halflants credits friends such as New York architect Peter Gluck for mentoring them along the way. “Peter does separate drawing sets for all the subcontractors, which gives him a great deal of control. We’ve learned to understand that building long-term relationships with subcontractors is an important way to have more control of a moving target,” he says.

27dN has a current team of five, and was recently joined by a new principal, Juan Villafane. The firm still maintains a healthy plate of mostly residential work, but Halflants says they’re looking to do more public projects and are branching out with a few higher education cultural commissions. “We extend all of our philosophies and knowledge to the designs of commercial projects, including new materials and technologies discovered from our research.” Go ahead, call them Modern.

   
   




27dN’s Lido Key Addition in Sarasota, Fla. Image courtesy of Greg Wilson.

An interior of the Lido Key Addition. Image courtesy of Greg Wilson.

Lido Key Addition adds expansive views out to the water. Image courtesy of Greg Wilson.

Solstice House in Sarasota, Fla. Image courtesy of Carlton Grooms.

Finergy Main Street in Sarasota, Fla. Image courtesy of Michael Halflants.

Michael Halflants (left) and John Pichette, AIA. Image courtesy of 27dN.

     
 

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