Forms that function

Thomas Sayre and Steve Schuster at Clearscapes in Raleigh, NC.

by J. Michael Welton

photographs by Lissa Gotwals

One’s a mere 650 square feet for both living and working, while another takes up three floors of a downtown high-rise. One’s the local extension of a major national architecture practice, while others are collaborative workspaces for small clusters of designers. Others include a renovated garage in Glenwood South and reclaimed parts of Mordecai, Oakdale and Martin Street.

But the seven architects’ offices described here all demonstrate a commitment to downtown Raleigh – and to good design. They are creative expressions, intent on defining the philosophies and capabilities of the people who made them.

And they all have one central source of inspiration: Whether student, professor or designer, each of the architects represented here is directly linked to the College of Design at N.C. State University – and to its legacy of creating great spaces for the citizens of this city.

Clearscapes: CPR for downtown

Downtown Raleigh was hardly a cultural mecca in 1990, when Clearscapes design principals Steven Schuster and Thomas Sayre, pictured above, moved their families and studios to West Martin Street.

“There were three loft conversions downtown then – us, and J. C. Raulston,” architect Schuster says. “You could lie down on Martin Street on Saturday night and not get run over,” says Sayre, a maker of large-scale public art.

With railroad lines running straight through the warehouse district, much of the area was dedicated to storage and light industrial use. “It was centered around transportation, with raw materials coming in and finished products going out,” Schuster says. “The Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) was a produce warehouse.”

Schuster and Sayre’s jointly owned quartet of early 20th-century buildings – 35,000 square feet now divided up into four sections – originally housed a grocery warehouse. One part evolved into a plumbing supply business, another into potato chip storage, and another for automotive glass.

The two set up Sayre’s art studio in two of them and moved their families into lofts carved out of another. By 1997, Schuster had remodeled the last unfinished section and moved his architecture practice there. Today, it employs about 20 people.

For almost 25 years, the pair have led the charge to change the cultural fabric of downtown Raleigh.

“We certainly had an influence,” Sayre says.

Indeed. Clearscapes has worked on designs for about 25 projects downtown, including CAM, the convention center, Marbles Kids Museum and the soon-to-be-built train station. They’ve converted a dozen commercial structures into mixed use for retail and residential, and Sayre’s currently working on a memorial to fallen police officers, now under way outside City Hall.

Today, the two 63-year-olds will tell you, the heart of Raleigh beats in a new and different way. “At night I can watch performance artists juggling flames outside my window on Market Street,” Schuster says.

And a little arching bridge over an alley between sections, one they originally designed to link studio, office and lofts, has found new life as a stage set. “Bridal parties are photographed on it,” Sayre says.  “Also, cheerleaders, rappers – and naked women.”

Progress, it seems, comes in many forms.

011614_as_-112Clark Nexsen: Room to move

Dennis Stallings, the 58-year-old principal and design director at Clark Nexsen, is an architect’s architect.

No sooner had he finished designing offices for Durham architecture firm The Freelon Group in 2004 than he did the same for downtown Raleigh architects Pearce Brinkley Cease + Lee. That firm merged with Norfolk, Va.-based Clark Nexsen last year.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into it again – it’s hard to design your own space,” he says. “Everybody’s on the building committee, and often there’s a tighter budget than if you’re designing for a client.”

But given carte blanche for materials and furnishings, he tackled the challenge of a narrow space in a classically modern Fayetteville Street tower, designed in 1963 by New York’s Emery Roth & Sons.

“It’s incredibly thin – 50 to 54 feet wide – and a block long,” he says.

The firm was outgrowing its second-floor digs and anticipated increasing its staff from 38 to 50. Its partners were committed to downtown, though. So they examined their options, elected to move to the 10th floor, then took part of the ninth with an option on the rest. That’s when Stallings stepped in.

His signature achievement was to open up the building to what’s outside, while flooding the inside with light. Clear is better, he reasons. One glimpse from a southwest corner – toward the limestone, Art Moderne finials on the 1940s Waverly F. Akins Building – and it’s easy to see why.

“When you walk off the elevator, it needs to be open so you can see the city from anywhere,” he says. “Plus, I wanted to exploit the natural light.”

That light falls on maple and birch furniture, milled and fabricated for a rich, warm feel, and on sleek and elegant Eames chairs from Herman Miller.

Today, the firm is looking at the rest of the ninth floor and three quarters of the 12th. “We’re making renovations for 75 to 80 people,” he says.

Tucked between them, on the 11th floor, the architects at KlingStubbins must be feeling a little squeezed.

in her office/home in Raleigh, NC.Tina Govan: Fully integrated

Tina Govan calls herself a wife, a mother, a neighbor, an architect, a community organizer, and a friend.

“It’s like having one big life,” she says. The 2006 addition she designed and built at the rear of her home in Oakdale is a multi-tasker, too.

“It’s everything – it’s for family, work and play, all in one space,” she says. “It’s for living, dining, office, storage, bath, and bed.”

The 55-year-old designed each area to accommodate a number of functions. Her tatami room serves as sleeping quarters, yoga space and stage. It’s elevated two feet, eight inches above floor level, separated from living and dining areas by sliding shoji screens. It overlooks a living area that doubles as office and conference room for colleagues and clients, and still makes way for the occasional party.

Opposite and above is a loft and library, accessed by ladder. From the bathroom, a shower opens to outdoor sauna and hot tub. The dining area can accommodate a game of Ping Pong or rehearsals for her son’s rock band. It also offers access to the back yard and a chicken coop inhabited by specimens from the Rhode Island Red, Orpington and Brahma breeds. They’re colorful, to say the least.

The 650-square-foot addition’s design is based on a concept Govan discovered while working for a landscape architecture firm in Japan, after graduating from architecture school at M.I.T. It’s called Amai Moko and means ambiguous space. “It’s about spaces that are open for interpretation – they’re not one thing or another, they’re transition spaces,” she says. “They go from enclosed to outdoors in a series of zones that open up to the outside.”

The idea is to blur the boundaries between public and private spaces, to allow all her varied interactions to happen there, and enable them to transform her life.

“I want to make it messy – to mix things up together, because it’s all the same thing,” she says. “I feel like I’m feeding life and architecture back to the city, and I like the way things are evolving.”

It’s one small solution for one big life.

Chad Parker and Brett Hautop , Principals of Gensler Raleigh-Durham.Gensler: Making the transition

In 2011, Vernacular Studio, its offices highly visible at the corner of Hillsborough Street and Glenwood Avenue, became the Raleigh branch of Gensler, the nation’s second-largest architecture firm with 4,800 employees around the world.

Things changed almost overnight for partners Chad Parker and Brett Hautop and their 15 employees. The firm’s residential work started to taper off, and the big commercial projects picked up. The look of their office, though, remained the same. But now that’s evolving, too – for a more accurate portrayal of what the firm’s about.
“We create thoughtful spaces and places, and we want people to know that we’re not just designers and architects, but problem-solvers,” Hautop says.

“Sometimes we’re therapists, in a way.” Parker says.

Their 5,000-square-foot office started out in 1925 as an apothecary shop, then became a lunch counter and pharmacy with a boarding house atop. From 1962 until the mid-’90s, it served as home to Pota Vallas’s National Art Interiors, a favorite Raleigh design and furniture shop.

Vernacular signed a five-year lease in 2008, and Gensler renewed it last year. “Being in this building immediately elevated our credibility with clients,” Hautop says. “They feel at ease with us as stewards of their budgets and projects.”

Recent renovations are aimed at two audiences – those working inside, and those passing by. Interior walls are now white, with surfaces throughout that invite writing and tacking notes or drawings. “It gives people an opportunity to express themselves,” Parker says. “It’s a home away from home, so it should feel comfortable.”

They’re also taking advantage of the structure’s south-facing storefront windows by placing collaborative workspaces in plain sight. “We want people to see what we’re doing and be intrigued,” he says.

And they’re placing rotating exhibitions in the corner window. “They’re sculptural, like models, videos or technology-driven,” he says. “We want people to say: ‘Wow! I’d love to work there, to get to know those guys, to go in and see what they’re about.’ ”

011614_as_-55in situ studio: Productive pragmatism 

Three years ago, 39-year-old Matthew Griffith and 35-year-old Erin Sterling Lewis walked out on a limb and set up the studio they call in situ, in a 600-square-foot office on Snow Avenue.

“We started in October 2010 with no work, in the month that unemployment was the highest it ever got,” Griffith says.

“We had no money, but boy, did we have dreams,” Lewis says.

By April 2013, they’d found some clients and even begun to feel cramped. So they moved into storefront space on up-and-coming North Person Street, an area technically called Mordecai, but that also carries the sketchier moniker of NOPE. Since then, they’ve added two associates, and to cover part of the rent, a little bookstore called So & So Book Club.

To make it happen, they spent six weeks laboring in their office on Snow Avenue by day, then turned their attention to the new, 1,600-square-foot space on nights and weekends.

“We came in here and turned up the music and worked on it,” Griffith says. “We painted it, laid the carpet and added a kitchenette in back.  We did the bath, the cabinets, the plumbing and the electrical.”

“We did it with a budget of less than $5,000, including the kitchen,” adds Lewis. “We don’t like debt.”

Their design solution is straightforward. In 300 square feet out front are four shelves of books – two containing best-sellers and two others with more obscure volumes of poetry, architecture and children’s fare. Behind that is an open conference area, and at the rear, the architects’ table.

It’s a communal affair, with two designers facing two others across a five-foot by 20-foot span made of hollow-core doors resting on file cabinets. Slabs of maple plywood stretch out atop it all, edges banded together by strips of aluminum.

The walls are covered with 34 architectural models made of cardboard, basswood and chip board. “A lot of people come in here to look at the books first, and then the models,” Griffith says. “Then they ask what we do.”

What they do is design some of the more innovative new residences in the Triangle, winning awards and gaining recognition usually reserved for much larger firms. They call their architecture productive pragmatism. Their new office is its walking, talking definition.

012314_as_-258Cannon Architects: New and old

Susan and Roger Cannon, 58 and 59 years old, have breathed new life into an aging, 1940s garage in Raleigh’s Glenwood South neighborhood. In the process, they’ve articulated the collaborative nature of their architecture firm.

In the space’s previous incarnation, delivery trucks for Pine State Creamery used to pull into a pair of garage doors to be hosed down at the end of the day. Then they’d rumble down a sloping floor and exit through another set of doors.

By filling in those four doors – with glass for views of Raleigh through the front bays, and more opaque, corrugated steel and glass at the rear – the architects have managed to mingle utility with a stripped-down aesthetic.

“We tried to respect the history of the building with modern language,” Susan Cannon says. “We like the contrast of new and old.”

Their design divides 2,800 square feet of space – including a mezzanine with Ping Pong table – into an open studio and service area. The latter lies at the center of it all and serves as hub for staff interaction, since it houses printers, scanner, fax machine, office supplies, and work table.

“Everybody comes together at the center bar,” she says. “We use it as a gathering space – a collaborative area.” On a recent morning, architect and quilt maker Nicole Carroll was using it as a place to stretch out and trim a quilt, as others looked on.

“It’s an open work environment,” Cannon says. “And it’s a studio in the sense that we’re all part of a team, even though there’s a hierarchy of business owners and employees. We value everyone’s input.”

That spirit and their gathering space are defined symbolically by a pair of glowing, eight-foot-tall “lantern boxes” at either end of the common space. Their bases are pale green, but their tops, white fabric stretched around them, light up at night.

“We wanted to bring new life to an old space,” she says. “It was a working space for washing down trucks. Now it’s a working space for architects.”

011714_as_-62Frank Harmon: 360 degrees

Architect Frank Harmon may have designed his own office, but it wasn’t originally meant for him. His third-floor space on East Peace Street was designed as an office for lease atop the American Institute of Architects North Carolina Center for Architecture and Design – a way to bring in revenue to help pay for the new structure.

But as the Great Recession dragged doggedly on, tenants were less than forthcoming. So Harmon, having paid off the mortgage on his office in nearby Boylan Heights, decided to lease the new space himself.

All the moving parts came together to benefit each party involved.

“I’d already designed it as something I’d want to work in,” the 72-year-old says. “So I could rent out my old space and then help pay for the new space at the AIA.”

The new tenants in his Boylan Heights office are a group of young designers, so the tradition and use of that space continues today.

And Harmon, with a staff of four, is now perched up on the top floor of his award-winning, cypress-and-zinc-clad building, with 360-degree views of all things Raleigh.

“We see every storm coming a half an hour before it gets to us, from any direction,” he says. “We can see people going out at night and coming back in then morning. And when it snows, it’s magic.”

It’s a little less space – 1,800 square feet compared to 2,400 in his former office – but with access to conference and multi-purpose rooms, it’s expansive. Besides, it’s about as green as an office can get.

“It’s the most optimistically sustainable building in Raleigh – and a wonderful role model, with heating and cooling from the earth,” he says. “We don’t use any light bulbs during day, since there are windows on four sides.”

The result is an acute awareness of the passing of time.

“It’s a diary of the day,” he says.

And a symbol of relationships that have come full circle.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes a digital design magazine at