THA Field Trip!

by Daniel Childs

Last week, our entire office got to step away from our desks, hop on a bus, and take an all-day field trip to see some of THA’s finished projects. We were fortunate to have most of our Principals on board, including THA’s founding principal, Thom Hacker (and his wife, Margaret). Without email, Revit, or ringing phones, it was nice to spend time with co-workers outside of our project teams and daily office rituals.

We began our tour in Eugene, Oregon – home of the University of Oregon where Thom taught in the School of Architecture from 1970-1984. First stop was the “Hacker House,” which Thom and Margaret built – quite literally – by hand for their family. Thom explained some of his thinking behind the design of this modest home they began building in 1975. The simple layout and rich materials (wood, stone, and light) provided what Thom described as his intention to capture the “houseness” of a home, rather than any particular style. While not subscribing to a particular style, the house exhibits clear references to some traditional Japanese structure and space (interior partitions, square timber structure, and delicate woodwork) and a strong language of what could be described as American craftsmanship. Thom explained that the house took eight years to complete – including five years that the family lived in the house while also building and installing millwork, doors, and windows.

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One element of the Hacker House that was reiterated and expanded upon throughout the projects we later toured was the light filled atrium – in this case realized as a reading nook above the entry that allowed one to sit in a well-lit, comfortable space.

After the Hacker House, we headed to UO, where we toured the Lewis Integrative Science Building (LISB) and College of Education. At LISB, Matt Sugarbaker, one of the Project Architects, explained the site complications, showing us how this building was shoehorned in between existing buildings with requirements to connect to these buildings via bridges and walkways at multiple levels while also avoiding heritage trees and accommodating a significant amount of specialty lab equipment. These constraints provided that path to a well-articulated building with an incredible cascading multi-level atrium space, fully daylit and inviting.

Concrete and steel was tempered by a large bamboo paneled wall and softly curving skylight shading devices that warmed up the space and provided a soft diffused light to the lower levels. The floor to ceiling glass walls in the wet labs connected students and researchers to natural light but also allowed people moving through the atrium to see directly what each lab was working on.

(One of the labs had a plastic soda bottle wrapped in aluminum foil sitting in an incubation cube right next to an isolation chamber with rubber arms sticking out of the sides. Though I’m not sure what they were doing in there, I was fully convinced they were being scientific!)

Though this building was completed three decades after the Hacker House, there was a familiar feel to the atrium space – how the informal study areas and soft seating related to the overall volume and stair. In the Hacker House staircase loft I felt a similar quality of space and light. Both maintained a visual and physical connection between multiple levels while also providing an intimacy of scale and supporting a strong relationship to the outdoors.

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After a quick trip up to the LISB roof to see the very intense ventilation infrastructure, we walked through pouring rain to the HEDCO building – the newest addition to a larger collection of older buildings that make up the College of Education. This building was one of the most active buildings we experienced – with students presenting and preparing for final presentations, the hallways and learning commons were full. The L-shaped building wraps a large southwest-facing courtyard that I imagine to be an incredible place to be during the warm months.

After HEDCO, we jumped back on the bus and headed up to Corvallis and Oregon State University. I immediately noticed that the character and feel of OSU’s campus was entirely different from UO’s more pedestrian and heavily treed campus. While the formal quad and historic building character was still apparent, the campus was interlaced with roads, which created a very different relationship between buildings and to one’s movement around and through them.

Most impressive to me was the modestly sized Hallie Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families. This building was truly incredible and it’s great to know that people doing such important work get to be based in this amazing space. The warmth of the Doug Fir glulam beams and the abundance of well-tuned natural daylight created a contemplative and peaceful space well suited for concentration and conducting research. The building is organized with a rigorous and clear formal order, keeping the more public spaces on the ground level and the private research offices at the upper level – all tied together with a three level atrium with a reclaimed Doug Fir grand staircase and bleacher seating, and a large skylight at the top. Every detail in this building seemed fully considered, from the custom built desks to the detailing of the fire stair.

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Just a few blocks down the street, we toured one of our most recently completed buildings – Austin Hall, for the College of Business. In contrast to the peaceful and contemplative research environment at Hallie Ford, Austin was buzzing with hundreds of people moving through and studying in the three interlaced atrium spaces. The scale and feel of this building was distinct and the difference in use and activity was highly evident in the large seating areas and busy group project rooms. A much larger building with a broad range of students, people looked to be constantly on the move – up, out, and through – rather than focused and inward.

The contrast between these last two atrium buildings, and how they worked to serve two different populations and functions was interesting. Each created a completely different sense of place while also serving to connect the multi-level spaces in unique ways. In Hallie Ford, the diagram supported an idea of gathering and inward focus while Austin Hall’s multiple atrium spaces created a sense of connection between each level as well as one another – drawing your attention to other parts of the building as a way for you to stay connected with all that was happening in this space.

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It was projects like these that enticed me to join the THA team just under a year ago, and it’s fascinating to get to see them in person and hear how they came to be, directly from the lead designers and team members. It’s not often one gets to take time to consider and experience the final product of what we are working on daily. What came across most strongly in all of these projects was the commitment to an idea of creating places that connect people with one another as well as with their physical place. Each project had its own identity directly related to the activities within and people using the space as well as to the outdoors – both immediately surrounding and further beyond. I look forward to producing such an inspiring kind of architecture and hope we can continue to create such meaningful work.

 

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