How Building Design Can Reflect A Community's Persona

How can a building's design be emblematic of the community in which it sits? And what role does building design play as a community develops its own persona? In cities like Ferndale and Royal Oak, it's subtle but obvious.

Take the Affirmations building in Ferndale. By extensively using green building materials, the design of this downtown LGBT community center reflects the city's progressive values.

In 2007, Affirmations -- a nonprofit organization specializing in outreach, programs, and support for the gay and lesbian community in metro Detroit -- moved from its 7,500 sq. foot space in the Pioneer Building across the street to its new, 17,000 square foot facility, in what used to be the former F & M drug store. The complete, floor-to-ceiling renovation was made possible by a $5.3-million capital campaign spearheaded by George Westerman, Affirmations' manager of annual giving. The reinvention of the space illustrates how the structure is not only designed to be distinct, but how it is built to last for generations

The community center itself is a testimony to green building. Westerman said a Kresge Foundation grant to support sustainable building was what got him, architects and developers interested in eco-friendly construction. The finished product turned out to be the city of Ferndale's only Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified building, including such features as roofing materials with a  high Solar Reflective Index, bike rack facilities, waterless urinals, and bathroom sensors to help reduce water usage.

While the building's design and commitment to a reduction in its carbon footprint is impressive, it is all tied directly to the role Affirmations plays in metro Detroit. Affirmation community members were asked for their input at the onset of the process and throughout the build. They were queried about building location and proximity to amenities. Citing great access to freeways, bus lines and a strong community, the majority said to stay in downtown Ferndale.

The building's appearance is distinguished by its use of glass. Westerman said that in the early design stages, it was suggested that the entire Nine Mile Road-facing side of the building should be mainly glass. Affirmations officials conveyed these plans to the Ferndale community and also to people who come from other areas for Affirmations' services. Their input, which was opposition to the extensive glass use, crystallizes perfectly how a building develops its own design persona within its community.

"We did a design charrette with the community," Westerman said. "Overwhelmingly, people said they wanted less glass on the front of the building. In the gay community, people are not out yet and they would not be comfortable with that. People were insistent on that."

What makes good design?

Jason Krieger is President of Royal Oak-based Krieger Associates Architects and has been in the field nearly 20 years. He also sits on the city's Downtown Development Authority and the Chamber board. He says there are numerous components that define a structure as having a tight design, or one that is not only relevant for the present, but created to last well into the future.

For residential structures, Krieger says it not so much about style, as it is masking a house so it relates to the street and other houses around it. With commercial buildings, Krieger explains that good, sharp design starts with ensuring the structure is on a pedestrian scale with the streetscape.

"You have to get down to the street level," he said. "Is the store front too high? Are the windows too high off the floor? There has to be scale. It has to set the pace for the rest of the neighborhood."

Materials, he added, also pay a pivotal role if a building's design is to stand out.

"You want quality," he said. "You'll pay more up front, but it will last long after we are all gone."

Krieger pointed to a current trend in more progressive and cutting-edge building design and that is adaptive reuse, where buildings and architects are taking older buildings and converting them to relevant, usable space. Office buildings, lofts and condos are starting to look like they've been part of older industrial structures.

"The idea is to feel like you're moving into an old warehouse," he said. "And it's cheaper. You already have four walls and a roof."

Old meets new in Royal Oak

In Royal Oak, a local architect/builder/entrepreneur has taken an iconic, historic building – one that sat in disrepair as an eyesore for years – and is applying his own design standards to the structure's renovation. Interestingly enough, the project fits snugly with Royal Oak's design persona or, more specifically, what gives the city its unique appearance and feel, all while showcasing the architect's distinct design vision.

In 2011, Brandon Becker purchased a beat-up, single-story brick building on North Main Street that was once Shorty's Auto Parts. Shorty's de-evolved into an unsightly mess over the last decade, with the front windows littered with hubcaps and stray taillights. When Becker bought the building, his vision was to create an address for his business, Building Detail, which specializes in residential renovation projects.

Becker found himself in position to reinvent this popular community structure. And in doing so, he would attain the holy grail of building design; retaining rich historical components of a structure, while ushering in modern flair.

The front part of the building, with its distinct, original brick fronting, remains in place. Becker and his crew added an upper level made of galvanized aluminum, to create an old-meets-new appearance. What was once a crumbling building littered with car parts and dripping with community disdain is now a keen rebuild with tight lines, a mix of classic and new materials and a dedication to good design. And not just good design, but an appearance that is distinct to Royal Oak.

Becker says numerous loft buildings in the central business district downtown maintain a similar balance in materials, using classic materials like limestone and brick, to go with steel and other metal components.

"That's not very different from what I've done here," Becker said. "Blending metal with historic structures. There is maybe not necessarily a specific style (to Royal Oak) as there is a certain feeling you get when you go through Royal Oak. Someone might say there is a style or an evolving style. I don't know that it is that, but it's like a glimpse in time from what we are doing today versus what was done in 1924."

John Q. Horn is a freelance writer. This is his first story for Metromode.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography