Award-Winning Architects Seek Out ‘Unheroic’ Designs

The American Institute of Architects has awarded Louisville’s De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop a 2013 Institute Honor Award for their design of operational facilities on Goshen’s Mason Lane FarmThe project includes two new barns and a relocated silo for a centrally-located complex that consolidates maintenance, office and operations facilities previously scattered across the property, owned by Eleanor Bingham Miller.

The firm, led by principals Roberto de Leon and Ross Primmer, is one of eleven to receive the profession’s highest recognition of excellence this year. Other projects recognized by the AIA include buildings at Cornell and Yale universities, a waterfront expansion of the Vancouver Convention Centre and the exterior renovation of the New York Public Library. By contrast, Mason Lane Farms flies a bit under the radar, a set of utility buildings that need to execute fairly rustic functions, from drying hay to repairing large farm equipment, tucked away on a 2,000 acre farm outside of Louisville.

The facility also achieved LEED Green Building gold certification, the next-to-highest certification level for new construction, a goal the architects set as a challenge to themselves. Could they secure LEED certification for an agricultural complex—itself an unprecedented endeavor—without increasing the project’s budget? 

“The owner said go for it, but I’m not paying a dime for it to achieve this LEED certification,” says Primmer with a laugh.

Primmer says he and partner Roberto De Leon aren’t fans of what he calls “green commodities”—expensive sod roofs, solar panels—that inflate project budgets and can turn clients off of sustainable building. Their challenge to themselves: use zero materials and systems marketed as “green,” focusing instead on simple, elegant and logical solutions for this particular property. 

“We as a firm are always interested in the absolute most economy,” says Primmer. “All of the materials were off-the-shelf materials without a markup for being green, so this project came in at the same budget that a non-green project would. We kind of proved to our clients and to ourselves that being sustainable is not expensive if you take yourself out of the sustainable marketing situation.”

So rather than buying a geothermal heating system, they designated farm debris from felled trees as a fuel source for a barn’s boiler. And then there’s the project’s most striking visual detail, a bamboo lattice barn wall—not exactly a traditional Kentucky farm design. The designers considered many materials to create the lattice, and bamboo wasn’t a whimsical choice. 

“A lot of people automatically think that we used bamboo because it’s a so-called sustainable or green material,” says De Leon. “But the reality is there’s a bamboo grower only 32 miles from the site, and it was readily available. There was lots of it, it’s an invasive species. And it made sense for us in terms of cladding this barn because they were going to store square-baled hay there, so we needed to make this barn skin breathable so the hay can dry.” 

“There’s a resilience to the bamboo,” he adds. “If large-scale farm equipment accidentally bumps into it, it bounces back.”

Affordable, local and renewable sounds like the trifecta of sustainable materials. The bonus of this innovative yet practical approach is that a De Leon & Primmer building will have a distinctively local accent—as opposed to what Primmer calls the ubiquitous “green building” look—that attracts national attention. 

“If you look at any LEED building, there’s a sameness to everything. They could be anywhere,” says De Leon. “This project, for example, is in Goshen. It’s not in New Orleans, it’s not in California, it’s not in New England. There’s a logic to how you build in this region.”

Part of that logic is practicality. De Leon and Primmer have become known for creating interesting design details out of the materials they have at hand, rather than layering beautiful finishes on top of a functional structure. Primmer says their approach is reductive, focused on using the least amount of materials possible, and the economy of that decision leads to interesting aesthetic results. In the Mason Lane Farms barns, they peeled away standard finishing materials from the walls.

“Things we typically hide or conceal can be quite beautiful if they’re thought through,” says De Leon. “In one of the barns, every screw and fastener that is used to install the wall panel material is exposed. It becomes the surface pattern of a finished wall.” 

It’s all part of embracing the challenge of what De Leon calls “unheroic designs.” Now, the firm is collaborating on a new high-adventure base camp for the Boy Scouts of America in West Virginia. When asked which parts of the project they wanted to design, the architects jumped at the chance to tackle the Olympic-sized site’s most functional and least glorified buildings—dining halls, mess tents, even restrooms, environments that people use every day. 

“We went after the utility building, the toilet buildings and the maintenance buildings, because we’re interested in finding the inherent aesthetic  in utility. It’s there, and you don’t have to be apologetic about it, you don’t have to put lipstick on it to dress it up,” says Primmer. “Just think about it, and all of the sudden for us, these buildings that are meant to go away in the landscape are made beautiful.”  

It’s an approach that’s obviously paying off—their work with Kentucky cultural institutions like the Filson Historical Society, Yew Dell Gardens and the Wild Turkey Distillery has attracted national attention, and Mason Lane Farms is the first Louisville project in 26 years to catch the eye of the AIA judges—the last was Michael Graves’ landmark Humana Building tower on Main Street. And for Kentucky-based architects, it’s been more than 30 years since the last Honor Award. Alan Brake, executive editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, calls the long stretch “a significant drought,” and praises De Leon and Primmer for their innovative approach.

“Their work is very much centered in Kentucky and in a regional context, but they very much keep their eyes trained on the larger world,” says Brake. “They’re very sophisticated designers, and they have a real knack for coaxing poetry out of everyday projects.”

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