Notes from The Cube: VR is an R

Senior Associate David O’Connor takes a turn in the VR model.

Virtual Reality has become a reality at Centerbrook Architects & Planners.

Today, during our “Friday Dessert” presentation in The Cube, staff demoed our newest tool of the trade.

We’ve been keeping tabs on VR and its applications to the architecture industry for a while now; considering all of the hardware and software options, and just how it could be integrated into our practice.

With digital design coordinator Mike Hart and architectural intern Ben Mayne on the case, we decided the time was right to take the leap. Mike and Ben procured an Oculus Rift headset and controllers, which is fed by graphics from software programs Revit and Unreal Engine 4.

Mike and Ben liked that the Oculus Rift is light, so the virtual experience isn’t hampered by headset weight. Ben recommended pairing our modeling program Revit with Unreal 4 based on his experience using it as a student in Cornell University’s School of Architecture & Planning program.

A staple in video gaming and movie animation, Unreal is finding its way into our industry due to its efficient, photorealistic renderings and lifelike animations. Other users of Unreal Engine include Adidas, Chevrolet, McDonald’s, Mountain Dew and even NASA, who implemented it to prepare astronauts for missions to the International Space Station.

So with this setup we’re ready to involve our clients in the design process in a whole new way.

Associate Principal Justin Hedde recalled that while our recently-completed residence in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, was carefully detailed and rendered, our client only grasped what they were getting when they stood on-site and saw it with their own eyes. He believes VR can facilitate greater client involvement in the design process.

“We are in a world where we’re designing duplicate environments – the virtual environment before the real environment,” said Hedde, who helped steer our VR effort. “The more we understand and experience in the virtual, the smoother things are going to be during construction.”

As to Friday’s test run in The Cube with one of our latest residence designs as the subject, the reaction was nearly universal from architects and staff alike: “This is so cool.”

A “wicked cool” may have also been uttered. That was me.

Science and Architecture: Back to the Future!

This anaglyph-style rendering of Demerec Laboratory was created for Harbor Transcript’s 3D summer issue. If you can find 3D glasses, give it a shot!

As advancements in 3D visualization push the boundaries of virtual and augmented realities, you can imagine our surprise when longtime client Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory asked if we could create a “retro” rendering for use with 3D glasses to feature in the Summer 2017 issue of the Harbor Transcript. This rendering style looks to the past as CSHL and our design team rediscover a 1950s building that has been occupied by some of the laboratory’s most notable scientists—including Nobel laureates Alfred Hershey, Barabara McClintock, Richard Roberts, and Carol Greider—and transform it into a modern research facility.

Anaglyph images, the kind intended for viewing with 3D glasses, were first used in the late 1800s and came to prominence in U.S. cinema in the 1920s. Mainstream use in newspapers, magazines, and comic books flourished into the 1950s and ‘60s, engraining the iconic red-and-blue-lensed glasses into the cultural zeitgeist. At that same time, future Nobel laureates McClintock and Hershey were conducting their research within the newly constructed Demerec Laboratory building. Completed in 1953 during the Brutalist architecture movement, the building is brought to life in the anaglyph image which highlights the strong repetitive vertical window patterning that defined a new era of architecture in the 1950s-70s.

Aaron Trahan (far right) presents the Demerec anaglyph rendering to the office during a “Friday Dessert” session.

The biannual Harbor Transcript publication highlights current research and news across campus about scientists at the forefront of their fields. In the most recent issue, CSHL saw an opportunity to create a more dynamic and immersive experience accessible to all recipients. The unique “3D Science” issue features anaglyph imagery from current cancer research as well as a rendering of the proposed renovations and addition to the Demerec Laboratory building that our firm is involved in. Construction is slated to begin this summer on a renovation and expansion to house the new Center for Therapeutics Research, a new $75 million initiative that aims to apply the Laboratory’s biomedical expertise toward advancing therapeutics for genetic diseases.

In our office, research and testing is ongoing to study how advancements in virtual and augmented reality can benefit our design process. These burgeoning technologies allow an immersive experience for clients to gain an understanding of the volume and form of a building design that cannot be achieved with traditional renderings and animations. With all of their promise, these technologies currently fall short in their feasibility for mass distribution due to the necessity of headsets, apps, or tethering to computers.

In contrast, anaglyph images pair perfectly with print media because the iconic red and blue glasses can be easily inserted into a publication. This realization of the simplicity of what is now a “retro” technology is a perfect metaphor for the Demerec Laboratory renovations that seek to bring back the simplicity and beauty of a building from the same era. Creation of this image was a reminder that with ever-evolving technology, the best means to convey a project to a large audience isn’t always the most advanced.

This story also appears at CSHL’s newsblog LabDish. Our Demerec design team includes: Todd Andrews, Reno Migani, Aaron Trahan, Ken Cleveland, Frank Giordano, Scott Allen, Justin Hedde and Hugo Fenaux.

Notes from the Cube: Hydro on Display

For many of us, basements are an afterthought, their contents hidden from view. Not here at Centerbrook. We cut holes in the floor just to see what’s down there.

Granted, we have a pretty neat basement. It houses our 10-kW low-head hydropower turbine and its supporting infrastructure. Since 1982, whenever water flows over our dam, it produces power. A constant thrum under the Cube’s floor was our only reminder of its operation, until now.

Our facilities manager extraordinaire, Ron Campbell, recently installed a portal that brings the hydro-gear into full view. Ever precise in his work, Ron centered it on the turbine, its holding tank, and the tail race beneath where the water exits.

Hovering 14 feet above the turbine, the portal’s glass cover –fabricated by Lucid Glass Studio of East Providence –is a three-layer sandwich topped with an anti-skid frit. A full 1 ¼” thick, its tempered low-iron glass is plenty sturdy and provides a dramatic, though slightly vertiginous view of the happenings below. Cold-formed and secured to oak floor joists, a circular maple frame supports the glass, which is protected by a neoprene pad in between.

Up next: the turbine, tank, and flowing water will be lit under the theatrical lighting direction of Partner Chad Floyd.

Notes from The Cube: Mimicking Mother Nature at Her Best

Phil Williams of Delos presents in The Cube.

Last Friday our “Dessert in The Cube” series hosted our friend and collaborator Phil Williams. Phil is an engineer who found his calling with Delos, whose modest goal is to infuse human health and wellness into the built environment.

Centerbrook designed the 7,500-square-foot Well Living Laboratory, which Delos and the Mayo Clinic use to measure how the interior environment affects us. Our own Mark Simon and Jim Coan then joined Phil on Saturday to describe its design and the results of the first round of experiments at the inaugural Northeast Summit for a Sustainable Built Environment at Yale (following image).

Phil reminded us that humans evolved to hunt and gather, not to sit in front of a computer screen. Amazingly, while modern homo sapiens spend 90 percent of our time indoors, until the Well Living Laboratory, there was no effort to quantify how that impacts our short and long term health and wellbeing.

The lab’s first experiments simulated an office environment for eight Mayo Clinic digital medical records workers. For 18 weeks, they completed their usual tasks while researchers measured the impacts of lighting, temperature, acoustics, and other variables. The lab’s systems and sensors performed as advertised, and the data showed clear and measurable impacts of different environmental conditions. The next experiments will focus on how lighting quality affects cognitive ability.

Delos, making no small plans, will open another Well Living lab in China that is four times larger, and envisions a network of studies with developers, architects, and owners all around the world. We’re honored to be part of it.

Investing in the Future

Adrienne Sieverding works with Associate Principal Justin Hedde on a master planning project.

Architects never stop learning their craft. It is in this spirit that we welcome prospective designers here to test the waters. We’re fortunate now to have three students under our broad roof gaining experience in the profession.

Tanya Gianitsos hails from Old Saybrook High School, where she is a junior. Hoping to pursue a degree in architecture, Tanya’s internship includes two weekly visits that will span her entire academic year. Last fall, she developed her own design for a Greek church, which she is refining this semester into renderings and a 3D model.

Lindsey Lent, a senior at nearby Valley Regional High School, is with us during her spring semester to complete her capstone internship. She is hands-on with Revit and Lumion rendering software.

Our newest protégé is Adrienne Sieverding. An architectural studies major in her final semester at Connecticut College, Adrienne came to us by way of Associate Principal Elizabeth Hedde, who was her instructor in an architectural drafting course. The daughter of an architect, Adrienne is assisting with one of our prominent projects currently in concept development.

Tanya, Lindsey, and Adrienne bring a refreshing view of the profession with their presence and their enthusiasm. We look forward to their growth and contributions and hope they return to us someday.

Ties That Bind

Reese Stadium, Yale University.

Past and present have connected in New Haven County for a pair of our longstanding clients.

Construction of the new athletic complex at Quinnipiac University began last fall on the Mt. Carmel campus in Hamden, Connecticut, and will continue through the remainder of the academic year. As a result, the Bobcat men’s and women’s lacrosse teams needed a temporary home for their respective 2017 schedules.

Enter Yale University and Reese Stadium, also one of our projects.

The Reese job entailed a significant renovation and expansion of what was then a 30-year-old facility. The modernized lacrosse and soccer stadium reopened in 2011.

Six years later, Reese has welcomed its neighbors to the north. The 1,250-seat stadium is serving as host venue for Quinnipiac’s 2017 home contests.

The Bobcat women’s lacrosse squad has already played twice at Reese. The first resulted in a win. The second was technically an away game as it came versus the primary inhabitants of the facility – the Bulldogs of Yale – and ended in defeat. They’ll be back at Reese this weekend for one of five remaining games there on the calendar.

A preseason favorite to win its conference title, the Bobcat men’s lacrosse team held the first of six “home” games at Reese this past weekend and fell by a narrow one-goal margin. Unlike the women, the Quinnipiac and Yale men aren’t scheduled to face each other in 2017. Both made the NCAA Tournament last year, however, so you never know what the future may hold.

Quinnipiac’s new lacrosse and soccer venue, as well as an adjacent field hockey facility, will open for competition later this year.

Construction progress at the new Quinnipiac complex. The lacrosse-soccer facility is in the foreground with field hockey in the background. Photo courtesy FIP Construction.

The Idea Workshop

Come workshop your ideal learning environment with us this week at NAIS 2017.

It’s that time of year again. The 2017 National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference (#NAISAC on Twitter) is on tap this week, and we’re looking forward to heading down to Baltimore.

If you’re attending, drop by Centerbrook’s Idea Workshop (Booth 315) or follow our conversation on Twitter at #WhatsYourVision. Tell us what you think makes for an ideal learning environment. We’ll be using a graffiti wall and a tabletop space planning exercise to interactively create and share ideas about learning space design.

So #WhatsYourVision for the ideal classroom? Maker labs? Collaborative spaces? Outdoor integration? Join the conversation. We’d love to hear from you.

If you stop by, you’ll meet Todd Andrews, Russell Learned and Katie Roden Symonds. Todd and Russell lead Centerbrook’s Pedagogy CoDE (Community of Design Expertise) and all three are at the forefront of research and practice in education design.

The NAIS Conference is an annual gathering of independent school administrators, trustees and teachers. This year’s conference will be held March 1-3 at the Baltimore Convention Center in Maryland.

Centerbrook Independent School Portfolio

MICDS Robotics Laboratory.

Visualizing the Future

Ted Tolis (right, standing) and Aaron Emma (seated) take The Country School students through the master plan animation for their campus.

With many connections to our surrounding community, we often welcome visitors to our offices for tours and learning experiences. We’re especially excited when student groups come to visit with their fresh perspectives and interests.

I recently welcomed a 6th grade science class from The Country School in Madison to the office. I gave the class and teachers Beth Coyne, Stephanie Johnson, and Stephanie Smelser, a thorough tour of the office, letting them see how we work. My wife, Amy, who also teaches at The Country School, came along as well. I was going to summarize the things that seemed to excite them the most, but they did it for me in this great poster they sent as a thank you.

(click to enlarge)

Centerbrook principal (and a Country School alumnus parent) Ted Tolis then took the students on a virtual tour of the master plan that Centerbrook has designed for their campus, to excited oohs and ahhs. Aaron Emma also helped by navigating the model.

The students were engaged in a “Shake, Rattle and Roll” learning unit that challenged them to design a building in a seismically active part of the world, combining local architecture with the structural principles they have studied. I gave them a brief presentation on creative ways architects have responded to those same challenges. The lively class had many interesting questions from students and teachers alike, and I was able to share my experience of designing in San Francisco to the most stringent codes.

The students left excited and full of ideas, and maybe even with the notion of becoming an architect in the future, as evidenced by some of the comments on the poster they sent.

The Gift of Giving

This year we were able to grant Christmas wishes for 30 children in Connecticut.

The act of giving is tied to the very core of the Christmas holiday. Like many, we have a special charitable cause that is near and dear to our hearts this time of year.

Covenant to Care for Children is a charitable organization that provides direct assistance to Connecticut’s children who are neglected, abused and/or impoverished. Its beneficiaries are often foster children, many of whom might go without a Christmas gift if not for the organization’s efforts.

We got connected to Covenant to Care for Children through the design community. Local interior designer and product representative Pat Mackenzie-Thompson – a longtime friend of Centerbrook – annually leads a state-wide gift solicitation drive on behalf of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) New England chapter. This marked the 17th-consecutive year that IIDANE has collected gifts and held a holiday gala in the greater Hartford area to benefit the Covenant.

Our own interior design and products department of Sheryl Milardo and Seaneen Thorpe gracefully manage our contributions to the program each year. The gift requests come in the form of tags that include a child’s name, gender, age and gift wish – providing a personal connection.

Once collected, the donated gifts are then provided to the parents or guardians to give to their children.

This year Pat was able to collect 450 gifts from across the Connecticut design community, which benefited children in Hartford, Manchester, Meriden and Norwalk. We were especially heartened to learn from Pat that a special group of 150 kids under the age of five from a Head Start program in Bridgeport will also receive gifts this year.

Thank you Sheryl and Seaneen, Pat, IIDANE and Covenant to Care for all of your efforts with such a worthy cause.

From all of us here at Centerbrook, we wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Plugged In

Dan Batt’s 2017 Volt in Heather Gray Metallic, Aaron Trahan’s 2013 Volt in Summit White.

As a car guy, I’m cool to hybrid technology. When you’ve heard a Porsche flat-six at full chat or been pushed out of shape by a torquey small block V-8, the faint whir of an electric motor just doesn’t cut it. Fortunately for our planet, a growing number of my more fully evolved colleagues are embracing hybrid’s bright future.


Centerbrook has long been a renewable energy devotee, with solar panels and a hydro turbine producing nearly a third of our energy. As you’d expect, many here share that progressive environmental ethos. Our parking lot is smattered with hybrid offerings from Toyota and Ford. While a pioneer, Toyota’s Prius feels to me like a science experiment on wheels, with nary a hint of sporting character.


Recently, however, our stable grew with the addition of two plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volts. With our renewable systems offsetting some of the current they draw while parked during the work day, you can squint and see the future. Its firm handling, straightforward ergonomics, and strong power delivery make the Volt an easy car to live with and have some fun with. And to my enthusiast’s eye, its taut lines, especially in latest guise, have enduring appeal.

I’m proud that Centerbrook is “plugged in” to reducing our carbon footprint, and heartened that my colleagues are driving hybrid vehicles to help us get there.