Chris is Centerbrook’s Director of Business Development. A 1994 graduate of Gettysburg College, he spent six years in Washington, DC as an aide to U. S. Senator Joseph Lieberman and as deputy director of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation for America’s Heritage Abroad. He returned to his native Connecticut in 2001, serving for two years as a development officer at The Nature Conservancy before joining Centerbrook.
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At a recent Friday dessert conclave, Ryan Hansen described his year-long thesis research about how grocery store self-checkout kiosks have changed the way customers and staff interact with technology and with each other.
Ryan considered how cities spur civic engagement, and applied urban design principles to his analysis, with the goal of improving the customer experience. He surveyed new models for full automation like Amazon Go as well as Japan’s flourishing vending machine culture, necessitated by an aging population and dearth of low-cost labor.
Ryan’s research focused on Minnesota’s Lunds & Byerlys grocery store chain, which broadly implements self-checkout in its stores. He spent time in the St. Paul flagship studying how customers interacted with the kiosks; exploring demographic and design issues with an in-house architect, interior designer, and financial analyst; and interviewing cashiers and attendants to learn how self-checkout affected their daily tasks. He also visited Target and Walmart to see how their checkout areas were organized.
Ryan found that self-checkout has broad ergonomic, social, spatial, and organizational implications that all can be influenced by design. How intuitive is the self-checkout screen? What is the best pitch and volume of a warning buzzer? How can the checkout area be organized to enhance security and improve worker satisfaction? What visual cues can ease traffic flow? How can lighting and color induce calm?
Ryan’s hope is that careful planning and design can promote healthy human interactions, even when we’re picking up milk and eggs on the way home.
Our resident craftsman, Ron Campbell, recently installed two new sluice gates and restored the lifting and lowering mechanisms on our hydro-turbine’s head race. Let’s break that down.
About 10 percent of our power at Centerbrook is generated by a low-head hydropower turbine. Installed in 1982, the turbine in the basement of our mill building uses the infrastructure that once harnessed waterpower to run machinery that manufactured drill bits. A “head race” diverts water from our pond to the turbine, through which it flows before exiting the “tail race” into the Falls River below. The diverted water collects in a concrete tank with a hydraulically-actuated control switch.
We clean the tank and a screen that catches debris (and the occasional northern water snake) before it enters the turbine. That’s where the upstream gates come in–they shut the inlets, stopping the water flow so we can drain the tank and do the maintenance. Problem was, the long-submerged gates leaked.
He planned to remove the gates by hand and rigged up a brace to hold them in place as they came out. Concerns about safety led him to instead enlist arborist Town Burns, who brought in a crane mounted on a flat-bed truck. Lashed to a harness, the gates came out in short order.
Using the old gates as templates, Ron fabricated new ones out of sturdy white oak, fastened together with stainless steel hardware. He restored the rack-and-pinion lifting and lowering mechanisms, which involved welding a broken toggle and fabricating new pinion gears. Asterisk, Inc. helped with this, cutting steel with a water jet. Ron sandblasted all the parts and finished them with a two-part epoxy-based blue/gray paint.
Spring has officially sprung at Centerbrook. Our mill compound here is capped with a rooftop garden where we gather for cookouts and camraderie when weather permits. We’re treated to expansive views of the Falls River and our dam and spillway, and shaded by a cedar trellis topped with wisteria. Its fragrant blossoms called our architect-gardeners to action, who at lunch today filled teak planters with flowers and herbs procured by Matt Montana from nearby Acer Gardens. Each contains the same varieties, blended together in a pleasing composition that complements our green roof of sedum. Up next, a moss garden at the base of the wisteria’s twined stem, which will be watered with air handler condensate. Waste not, want not.
Kudos and thanks to architect-gardeners Matt Montana, Jim Childress, Ted Tolis, Anna Shakun, Mark Herter, David O’Connor, and Pete Cornell. Photos by Derek Hayn
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.
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.
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.
At last Friday’s “Dessert in the Cube”, Mark Herter, one of our sustainable building experts, discussed the future of biomass as a renewable thermal energy source. Mark has addressed several industry groups on the topic, including the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Biomass Heat and Power Conference.
Mark described the pros and cons of wood chips and pellets as an energy source. The public often has the impression that wood fuel is not sensible given the environmental impact of harvesting, emissions from combustion, ready access to forestland, and the special equipment required. This has slowed acceptance of the industry.
However, when harvested using sustainable forest management, and if near to a fuel source, biomass energy can be an economically and environmentally viable alternative to fossil fuels. Mark demonstrated this in Centerbrook’s Biomass Heating Plant at The Hotchkiss School, whose wood chips displace more than 150,000 gallons of fuel oil annually. With its advanced electrostatic precipitator removing nearly all particulates from the combustion, it cuts sulphur dioxide emissions by more than 90 percent and provides fertilizer for the school’s organic farm.
We never overlook a sustainable option here at Centerbrook.
Never ones to let a design opportunity pass us by, last Friday’s pumpkin carving party was an excuse to get our families in on the creative process. While the engagement of the little ones was spotty, the Dads, architects all, made sure the jack-o’-lanterns met the spookiness spec. Our campus provided a resplendent backdrop for the artistic merriment, which was capped off by a campfire where the kids chased goblins and the adults, well, unwound.
This afternoon we spotted some wild activity on our dam’s spillway. Little silver fish were leaping off with reckless abandon. Concerned for their welfare, we asked our friends at The Nature Conservancy what was going on. All is well, they tell us. They are juvenile alewives making their migration out to salt water. Our Mill Pond was stocked this summer with pre-spawned adults. Their offspring, our fearless jumpers, now consider the Falls River, a tributary of the Connecticut River, their “natal” stream. This means they’re hard-wired to find none other that’s quite so special. We hope they’ll return, perhaps one day to a fish ladder that makes the return trip less harrowing.
This is the first in what we hope will be regular missives on happenings in Centerbrook’s Cube, our newly-minted collaboration and inspiration zone. It is quickly becoming our firm’s physical and metaphorical heart and is bringing us together in new and surprising ways.
Since its “ribbon cutting” in May we’ve used the Cube for meetings, design sessions, lectures, vendor demonstrations, mock-ups, and lunches. Of particular interest are Friday post-lunch “Dessert in the Cube” presentations that gives staff an open forum to present on a topic of their choice. Limited to 15 minutes, it’s a TED Talk Centerbrook-style, which means free-wheeling discussion.
Among the folks we’ve heard from so far are Ted Tolis on the intricacies of the underground utilities and materials management facilities on Yale University’s Science Hill, Brian Adams on the similarities between dance choreography and campus circulation, Derek Hayn about photographing the New York City street grid from a helicopter, Jay Klebeck on the indigenous architecture of Nova Scotia, Chuck Mueller on Swiss villages, Todd Andrews on how we involved a local parish in the design of their new church, and, this week, Russell Learned on the Guinness Storehouse visitor center in Dublin.
From time to time we’ll post a Note from the Cube, with the hope of showcasing the myriad inspirations that enrich our practice of architecture and connect us to each other.