Daily Archives: December 5, 2015

The Hofheimers

When we started to plan this trip, the first thing I did was map out all the people on our route around the country we could visit.  There were family, friends we saw pretty often, friends we hadn’t seen in quite a while, friends we’d really lost touch with, and then there were what we might call secondary friends – people we knew mainly through other friends.  A number of whom said, if you make it to our neck of the woods, we’d love to see you.  The Africanos in Illinois were the first we visited in this category, and the Hofheimers in Virginia Beach were the next.

DSCF7575i first met Jo Ann and Buzzy Hofheimer 35 years ago.  Jo Ann is the oldest sister of my friend Karen Zeno (now in Seattle), and Buzzy is some level of cousin to Mike Zeno, Karen’s husband.  (This was our first introduction to the interconnectedness of southern families.)  We met at Karen and Mike’s wedding in Norfolk, and compared to us recent college grads, they seemed markedly grown-up – married, with kids and real jobs. They had both been raised in the Norfolk area, and settled down there, where Buzzy worked in title insurance and real estate, and Jo Ann owned a bookstore, while raising two charming children, Kate and Robert.  Over the years I would see them at Zeno family occasions – births, bar and bat mitzvahs, etc., and it was always fun hanging out with them, although it was always for short periods of time.  (At one point in the early 90s, their son Robert stopped in to Eugene on a cross-country drive, and I had the pleasure of taking him on an Animal House tour of the UO,  fulfilling one of his lifelong dreams.)

When you live in the northeast or the northwest, you actually don’t get to know many southerners;  you know people who have left the south, and you know some people who have moved to the south, but you seldom come across people who were born and stayed there. So in some way Jo Ann and Buzzy provided me with my model for what southerners were like.  This was obviously a somewhat skewed view, as compared to most southerners they are coastal and liberal, but the differences from the northerners I knew were evident – a deep gregariousness and immediate friendliness, talking at a less-than-frenetic pace, and a manner that is always  welcoming and gracious.  So as we started to head deeper into the south, it was wonderful to begin the acculturation process with them.

They are both retired now, and have sold their house in town to live full time on the beach in Virginia Beach, a few blocks from where Buzzy’s family’s house was when he was growing up.  They beautifully remodeled an older house on the dunes, which is simple and comfortable, and includes a feature most of us would love – a stair hall with bookcases two stories tall (with books perfectly arranged, as befits a former bookstore owner).  When we arrived Jo Ann shooed us out onto the beach so we could catch the light before dusk, and then we returned for a fabulous dinner of local fish.

DSCF7374The next day Greta and I accompanied Jo Ann on her four-mile morning walk in First Landing State Park, leading to the estuary of the Lynnhaven River.  We thought we were in pretty good shape from all the touring we’d been doing around cities, but she had us both sprinting to keep up with her.  Then we visited the Brock Environmental Center (which I’ve previously posted) – Jo Ann is a docent there, where their daughter Kate is the Vice President for Development for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  After an afternoon in Norfolk we rejoined them for dinner at a local seafood restaurant, where I began my renewed involvement with eating oysters (which has continued across the south, but which Greta will not be blogging about).

The sites in Norfolk were interesting, but we mostly enjoyed having the opportunity to sit around and talk (and eat and drink) with Jo Ann and Buzzy – just the four of us, not in the general hubbub of a big family party.  That has been the fun thing about secondary friends – people you’ve always really liked, but with whom you’ve never been able to spend enough time to really get to know them.  After a couple of days of conversation and hospitality, I think we can remove the “secondary” from the classification, and we hope we get to see them more often.

Brock Environmental Center, Virginia Beach


Back in the 1970s, there was an explosion of research and innovation in energy-efficient and solar building.  It largely disappeared in the 1980s – partially due to the lack of support under the Reagan administration, but also because it had focussed almost exclusively on building performance, neglecting the many other factors (included in firmness, commodity and delight) that motivate humans in their building preferences and decisions.

We’ve come a long way since then, and the Brock Environmental Center exemplifies how the new generation of high-performance buildings are not just machines for saving the earth in, but buildings that satisfy the full range of human needs.  The goal of making a very high-performance green building isn’t in conflict with making good architecture;  this building shows how those performance-oriented features can fundamentally enhance the quality of the architecture overall.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is a multi-state nonprofit, dedicated to saving Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.  They have a history of making buildings that embody their environmental goals – their Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis was the first LEED Platinum building in 2001.  They have recently followed this with their Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, which is on track to be certified as LEED Platinum, plus meeting the even more stringent requirements of the Living Building Challenge. Both of these buildings were designed by the SmithGroupJJR.

The context of the site, both local and regional, is critical to understanding the meaning of this building.  We arrived in Virginia Beach in early December, not fully realizing how it was our first exposure to the environment in which we’d spend most of the next two months – the edge where the great Southern coastal plain meets the sea.  We descended from the Piedmont around Charlottesville into this plain, which is extremely flat, with fairly monotonous pine forests and shallow broad rivers with very little fall in elevation, which widen out into enormous bays that join the sea.  The mouth of the Chesapeake is one of the largest, opening to the Atlantic in the Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News-Virgina Beach metro area.  The beaches are wide and beautiful, and in many places are protected by constantly shifting barrier islands (although not here).


Behind this beach and a narrow band of development is First Landing State Park, which preserves about 3000 acres of the Lynnhaven River estuary where it joins Chesapeake Bay.  There is lots of low-lying salt marsh,

plus some uplands with pines and live oaks, and Spanish moss everywhere.

The Pleasure House Point parcel (about two miles from the park) which houses the Brock Center site was slated for residential development, but after the Crash it was purchased for recreation and the preservation of its wetlands, salt marsh and meadow, and maritime forest.  The building sits on a small upland site, not encroaching on the estuary.  DSCF7468

The parti of the building is simple – a narrow, curving linear scheme, raised a tall story above the ground plane.  The more public lobby and meeting rooms are at the top of the ramp:DSCF7477

The lobby shows the tectonics of the building, with structure and mechanicals exposed within the simple shell:

A large gathering room

the curving corridor along the southern exposure

which has a porch / shading device running its length.DSCF7442

a panorama of the open office space – glazed doors from the corridor on to the porch, balancing glazing to the north, and clerestory lights facing both ways.

I won’t go into great detail about the all strategies employed in achieving Living Building Challenges goals – as the architects do a very thorough job of that on this webpage:


The Brock most resembles a laboratory in its form and organization:  a simple, open shell, which can accommodate a complex array of mechanical systems and human uses.  This division between the architectural elements and the mechanical ones leads to a building which is conceptually clear, tectonically articulate, and very efficient.  The architectural elements are manipulated to achieve as high a level of passive energy performance as possible.  The section is optimized for daylighting, minimizing heat gain, and enhancing natural ventilation.  This leads to habitable rooms which are commodious, tall, well-lit and very comfortable.  The need for south-side shading lead to a wonderful porch, something not many office buildings have.  The energy performance may have driven the scheme, but the elegant resolution of these demands produced very fine spaces.

Passive strategies take you as far as they can, but have to be supplemented by active ones, especially in a hot, humid climate.  The systems employed in the Brock are sophisticated, and in some cases, unprecedented.  The insulation levels of the envelope are obvious (they have annotated pieces of their materials on display throughout the building).  For mechanical heating and cooling, there is a ground-source heat pump.  For electrical needs, there is both rooftop PV and a couple of wind turbines, which are producing more power than needed on site.

And for all you ASHRAE geeks reading this, the water and waste systems are extraordinary.  All toilets are composting, using the Clivus Multrum system, leading to containers at the lower level.  The limited amount of blackwater effluent from the tanks is trucked offsite.  As the toilets are located in different parts of the building and some see more usage based upon location, there was an initiative during the first year to get occupants to vary which toilets they used, to spread it around, so to speak.DSCF7448

The building’s greywater is run through various biofiltration systems and delivered to raised-bed planters on the grounds.  But the most innovative system is for the rainwater, which is collected, filtered, and used for th building’s domestic water needs.  This is the first commercial building in the US to achieve this legally.  The various gutter leaders connect below the main floor level:

and there are lots of pumps and tanks and filters and controls which I won’t pretend I understand:


But the implications for the architecture are obvious, and led to a clear design protocol.  Make simple envelopes which can be optimized for passive performance.  Design to accommodate extremely sophisticated active mechanical systems, which may change over time.  Complex machines in simple buildings.

Buildings such as this may rationally resolve an argument that has been going on for a few decades.  Back in the 60s, buildings such as the Beaubourg made the expression of the building’s systems – both structural and mechanical – the basis for the parti.  While there was certainly a conscious attempt to integrate these systems into an overall composition, it wasn’t obvious to laypeople.Beaubourg006

Architects such as Lou Kahn also articulated the necessary elements of the building, but more explicitly integrated them into the buildings overall design intention, such as at the British Art Center.  British005

Postmodern architects reacted against this direction.  I remember Bob Stern making the case that the British Art Center was irrational at its core:  it expressed the mechanical systems, but by making them part of the formal design, it forced them to serve aesthetic goals rather than engineering ones;  in doing this, it increased their cost and inefficiency incredibly, so that what you are seeing is not so much a rationalized mechanical system but a very expensive expression of the idea of a mechanical system.  Stern asked if we had any idea how much a round stainless steel duct cost, and argued that if you wanted an efficient, cost-effective building, you should design the spaces you want for human habitation, build them out of steel studs and gypsum board, and leave lots of spaces between where the engineers can put all the mechanical equipment they want, without having to worry about making it beautiful.

The Brock Center shows a clear, rational compromise between these two positions.  The architecture can be what it wants to be, but based upon performance factors along with goals for human habitation.  The building systems are exposed where it makes sense – steel structure,  ductwork, piping, sprinklers, conduit – but not everything is dogmatically expressed.  A main rainwater collection tank is openly placed near the entry ramp, DSCF7389

but they made the wise decision to keep the composting toilet tanks in the mechanical room, out of sight, where they can do their work efficiently without offending delicate sensibilities.

Perhaps the key is recognizing the messy, often compromised reality of a building.  Achieving extreme simplicity of appearance requires extraordinary hidden complexity (which is very common in high style buildings right now), whereas letting the purely functional and efficiency-driven goals drive the design is unlikely to produce a satisfying building on other levels.  The Brock Center is a straightforward, elegant solution which integrates many of the issues, not compromising on performance for aesthetic reasons, but also not forgetting that buildings are for people and not just solving technical problems.

And as we design for sensitive coastal environments and the anticipated sea level rise with climate change, for the first time I start to appreciate buildings set up on piloti.  Corbu was 100 years ahead of his time, and he didn’t even know why.