All posts by David Holahan

About David Holahan

David Holahan is Manager of Public Relations at Centerbrook. His freelance writing credits include The New York Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek.

Exhibiting Mystic Seaport at its Best

Centerbrook has designed Mystic Seaport’s new Thompson Exhibition Building, a 14,000-square-foot contemporary structure that is now under construction. A video produced by the Seaport explores the planning and design process and what the new building will mean to the future of the museum. In the video Centerbrook partner Chad Floyd discusses the inspiration for the design as well as its functional elements. The Seaport had charged Centerbrook with creating a building that would “stand out, but fit in” and “express the identity of Mystic Seaport and inspire the visitor.”

Read more about the McGraw Gallery Quadrangle Project at

Here a Chair, There a Chair

Descriptions below by the chair-makers themselves.

The third Centerbrook Chair Workshop is now complete, the culmination of months of inspiration and anguish for five intrepid participants: Julianne Cancalosi, Hyeon Ju Son, David O’Connor, Nick Ficaro, and David Petersen.

They had to design and build a chair, from scratch, despite minimal woodworking experience. It sounds simple enough, but is really quite devilish.

The quintet was mentored by Patrick McCauley, Centerbrook Master Model Maker and Product Designer, and Ron Campbell, our Facilities Manager and Master Craftsman, and Bill Rutan, Master Craftsman and Facilities Manager Emeritus.

The continuing workshop is a reflection of the firm’s devotion to craft, to a sense of the handmade, to the beauty and humanism with which we endeavor to imbue all of our buildings. All told, 17 people have run the chair gauntlet.

The results and the rationals follow, including a free verse homage to one of the most basic of hand tools.

Julianne Cancalosi


Tiny Model 06


Chair class was for me, if anything, a good excuse to learn the tools and the trades of the illustrious woodshop. I had access to a similarly sized shop at school, but since I chose to neglect those privileges I figured it would be stupid to pass this opportunity up. And as happenstance may have it, my curvilinear chair was the perfect segue into taking over the shop (metaphorically of course, although Nick Ficaro jokingly might aver otherwise.)

The chair began with eight boards, all almost twice my height, of African Mahogany (the project would’ve begun with me cutting the tree down myself if I thought I could get away with expensing a trip to Madagascar). The boards carefully were whittled down to 27 little boards, all almost half my height, and then laminated into the nine curved boards that make up the whole of the chair.

As I’ve explained to many people, this chair is both deceptively simple and deceptively complicated. Now that two chairs (the final and the prototype) have been crafted, creating subsequent chairs would not be a difficult task. Yet at the same time, the steps taken to produce each piece of the chair are very specific, and have to be calibrated (eyeballed) very carefully. And then putting the pieces together, because of the angled faces, is another trick in itself.

In the end, I’m very happy with how the chair evolved: Is it a barrel? A flower? The collar of a villainous fiend? I am happy, too, with the process that, with the help of Bill Rutan, brought it to life.

Hyeon Ju Son



Hyeon and Ron (7)

My initial design was vague and very conceptual, much like a cloud. It would be a simple lounge or coffee table chair, but elaborate in its shape and interconnectedness. My cloud was more involved and complex than the finished chair that I eventually completed months later, but as I modified the design to match my modest woodworking skills I tried hard to hold onto the spirit of my imagining.

The first challenge came when I began the actual organized process of building, of crafting the chair. I realized that my original design would have many joints and angles. More than I was capable of executing, even with the help of Patrick, Ron, and Bill. A skilled woodworker could have produced my cloud in all its complex vagueness. Not I, not yet.

What looks simple often is not. I made two life-sized models and changed them more than a dozen times. I changed the height and angle of the seat back. I changed the length of the seat and the angles of the legs. I showed my wife a mockup half way through. She was doubtful.

As demanding as this effort was, it was something I had always wanted to do as an architect: not only to design something alone but also to finish it myself. This was a great opportunity, one that few architects get. It was even fun. I gained greater respect for carpenters and craftsmen. Chair making may become a hobby of mine. It will be more fun when my woodworking skills improve (in that regard, there is nowhere to go but up).

The reviews are in. I like my chair. My wife came around, too. My son and daughter said it was “Cool, really cool.”

Nick Ficaro


sketch 5


My design intent was to create a comfortable chair perfect for lounging in with a beverage while enjoying a great view. So I looked to two chairs for inspiration, a fabric deck chair and the IKEA Poang chair. I was intrigued by the idea of a suspended fabric sling supported by a strong but lightweight bent-wood frame.

The chair is a mix of wood species, ash for the arms, Baltic birch plywood legs, and cherry accents and dowels. To determine the correct proportions for the chair, I first created a full-size adjustable mockup that allowed me to change the height and location of the sling to achieve a comfortable fit. In addition to the full size mockup, I used Revit and the Maker Bot to 3D print a scale model to understand how the chair would come together.

The bent wood arms started as a piece inch-thick ash, which was sliced into three ¼-inch slices. They were then clamped to a curved form and glued up to a final overall thickness of ¾-inch. These were then tapered and given an eased edge with the router, a shape reminiscent of a ski. The legs were cut from sheets of Baltic birch plywood. The front support for the sling and lower brace were tuned on the lathe out of cherry. The lower brace has a subtle tapper from the ends to the middle. For its durability, I chose a Sunbrella acrylic fabric for the sling and finished the wood with multiple coats of polyurethane. The sling supports are connected with removable fasteners to allow for easy removal and cleaning of the fabric.

The process of seeing a design go from sketch to reality was a valuable experience. Having Ron, Patrick, and Bill guiding us was a great way to learn just a fraction of their vast knowledge base. In the end, I believe the chair was successful in creating a comfortable place to lounge in and watch the day unfold.

David O’Connor


OConnor model (5)


For as far back as I can remember I’ve been an avid motorsport enthusiast with a profound fondness for the fluid curves of a Recaro seat. My affinity for motor vehicles goes beyond aesthetics, recognizing the need for a structurally sound frame to provide the foundation for an aerodynamic shell that work together in perfect symbiosis. In the case of my chair, both components are made of the same material though different in function and form: as such, my chair has been aptly dubbed “Schumacher meets Stickley”.

My first priority was comfort; all the curves and geometries had to be just right. At some point, when it was too late to back out, I silently acknowledged this was a tall task to undertake as the sum total of my prior woodworking experience was hanging wooden picture frames on a wall.

Being incredibly process driven, the recurring question was where to start on something that seemed to have no obvious beginning or end. Difficult to draw to precise scale is an understatement. Employing the benefits of 3D modelling in Revit, I was able to develop several alternates of the seat geometry from which I created four scale models using a Makerbot and a laser cutter.

I contemplated cold-formed plywood and the techniques used in boat building, thinking that this would be the best way to get the compound curves that I was seeking. I created a full-scale biaxial form from one of the 3D models and began to lay veneers at a 45-degree angle to my formwork only to realize that the spacing on the form was too far apart and the curves were much too tight for the compound curves that I sought. So back to the drawing board I went: i.e. the mouse and keyboard.

The digital model afforded me a forgiving trial and error process of manipulating the alternatives and considering various methods of construction. I eventually settled on a form of laminated construction, and then cut section profiles at ¾-inch centers through the entire width of the seat. Using 1″ x 4″ poplar, glued to match the recline angle of the seat, I band-sawed two sets of 14 distinct profiles. These were glued and clamped two at a time, till the rough shape of the seat appeared. I used a carbide grinding disc to roughly blend the profiles; then it was on to roughly 25 hours of hand sanding. The edge profile was cut with a jigsaw, shaped with a rasp and also hand sanded. Three coats of polyurethane later, I watched the seat come to life.

My intent with the frame was to create an anchor for the fluidity of the seat, thus the dark and linear 5/4-inch black walnut. The frame components were all planed and jointed and all the fasteners strategically located out of sight to reinforce the simplicity of the form.

This experience has enriched my penchant for architecture and has equipped me with a true appreciation for the fine craft of wood working.

David Petersen



In the past several years, a number of Japanese architects have turned to variations on traditional joinery in the execution of contemporary design. Japanese joinery is a highly refined craft in which each joint carries a history, an oeuvre, and a significant challenge to the skill of the craftsman.

One joint seems to be of particular interest to contemporary architects, the 6-way joint or Rokujou. The traditional form of this joint is somewhat impractical for current use. Its form is not easily achieved with modern tools, and the delicate interlocking tongues do not provide a rigid connection. As such, its innards have mutated with new techniques and technologies while maintaining its outward form.

The form creates an elegant transition between an ancient history of craft and the shorter recent history of contemporary architecture. It resonates with the repetition of industrialized fabrication, the grid of high modernism and even the more recent blob-like forms of computer facilitated NURB objects.

This joint excels at being two things at once. It is traditional and contemporary. It is a single connection that is able to multiply into an entire system. It is rigidly ordered and yet able to take on the ephemeral appearance of an evaporating cloud.

It can be almost anything, even a chair.

Patrick McCauley

Hand Plane (2)

The Hand Plane

One of my favorites

An indispensable tool for the woodworker and a Metaphor for a good chair

It’s practical and useful and durable and stable and solid and requires no software.

It looks good and feels good.

It’s active and requires physical and mental interaction.

It gives instant feedback.

It requires patience and care to keep it in good working order.

Get a plane, make a chair.

Use them, take care of them. You won’t regret it.

For more Centerbrook chairs:
First Class and Second Class workshops.

Architecture for the Birds


Architects design buildings for the people who own and use them, but there are other considerations. A relatively recent concern is the impact manmade structures, including private homes and skyscrapers, have on birds.

The American Bird Conservancy estimates that as many as one billion birds die each year in the United States from collisions with buildings, with glass being the primary point of contact. The group is one of several organizations educating the public about this problem and proposing solutions.

Staring Contest by Michael Leland
Staring Contest by Michael Leland

Members of the Centerbrook Sustainability Committee recently viewed a webinar on this topic led by, among others, Keith Russell of Audubon Pennsylvania. He pointed out that birds have excellent peripheral and color vision (much better than ours) but inferior depth perception. They also take the reflections on glass literally.

Studies have shown that most collisions occur during the day and that the species most affected are brightly colored songbirds. Nighttime accidents do occur and can be reduced simply by killing or at least dimming “vanity lighting” – lights that serve no practical purpose for inhabitants or security – during the fall and spring migratory seasons. Certain types of landscaping also can be an attractive nuisance for birds by mimicking, in combination with glass, a natural setting that birds try to traverse.

Awareness of this issue led the US Green Building Counsel to offer a LEED credit for Bird Collision Deterrence. It emphasizes creating “visual noise:” establishing patterns on glass that birds can recognize using color, texture, opacity, or ultraviolet materials. Screens on the outside of the windows are helpful, too. Keeping openings small and reducing the quantity of glass correspondingly lowers the incidence of bird strikes.

Our offices are located along a small river and millpond, and our fringe benefits include sightings of various avian species, among them: Black-crowned Night-herons, Goldfinches, Song Sparrows, Cedar Waxwings, Great Egrets, Osprey, Baltimore Orioles, Belted Kingfishers, and Great Blue Herons. Facilities Manager Bill Rutan reports that bird collisions are not an issue here, that, in fact, a number of species make their nest on or about the building.

As with other sustainable features, “bird-friendly” approaches can be integrated seamlessly into building design without sacrificing style or increasing costs. It is another option for clients to consider, one which can become a point of pride.

Bill is in the Details


Bill Rutan’s fingerprints, some visible some not, are all over the home office of Centerbrook Architects and Planners. He has been the firm’s Master Craftsman and Facilities Manager since 2003 and will be retiring before the snow flies. Caring for a building centuries removed from the current one is a Sisyphean labor. It requires character if not, as some would aver, a character.

Bill’s portfolio is eclectic and disparate: for example, he rebuilt and cleaned the befouled innards of the hydropower turbine in the bowels of this 1893 former factory building, thereby avoiding a catastrophic seizure and greatly improving its clean energy output.

Centerbrook's renovated lobby
Centerbrook’s renovated lobby

Bill spiffed up the lobby with: a new and level floor; a custom slatted, undulating maple ceiling (stained and polyurethaned to maritime standards); and a winsome curved reception desk. Continue reading Bill is in the Details

Art for Architects’ Sake

Hillside Campus, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory by Bill Grover
Hillside Campus, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory by Bill Grover

It is hardly a revelation that architects like to draft and sketch, draw, doodle, daub, render, even sculpt. So Centerbrook Partner Mark Simon invited his colleagues to contribute their watercolors to an office show, which is currently on display here in the Drill Bit Gallery (our 1893 building was once a factory). It is open to the public, free of charge, weekdays from 10 to 5.

Fifty works by 14 staff members are featured. A sampling of their efforts and comments are included here. They painted from life (i.e. eyes or iPhones) or from their imaginations. Their creations were for school assignments, for relaxation, therapy, or the sheer joy of it. “Watercolor is basic, inherently intermediate and emotional,” said Hyeon Ju Son. “That is why I like it.”

Anna Shakun said, “Watercolor painting, similar to a sketch or life itself, is done alla prima – at once, with no way to repeat, overwrite, or correct a mistake. It is as good as your attention at the moment, your ability to see and recognize important elements: the play of light and shadow, nuances of color. It is as good as your technique, your knowledge, your intimacy with tools. You can’t correct a watercolor – but you paint again, and again, until one day you like it.”

The exhibiting artists are Dan Batt, Jim Coan, Bill Grover, Elizabeth Hedde, Justin Hedde, Hyeon Ju Son, Patrick McCauley, Matt Montana, Charles Mueller, Andrew Santaniello, Anna Shakun, Jennifer Shea, Mark Simon, and Laura Taglianetti. To learn more about them, you can view their bios here.



Dan Batt: iPhone ever-present, I’m in the habit of snapping pictures of interest from my daily life, and on my phone they remain unless given an artistic excuse or opportunity to escape, such as the watercolor show. This show was well timed, as watercolor was an ideal medium for handling the subtlety and complexity of the color in my winter scene. I was drawn to the elegant curves of the Centerbrook geese surveying the frozen mill pond: their dark bodies in stark contrast with the snowy ice of winter stubbornly refusing to yield to their arrival and to spring.


Jim Coan: I was looking to capture the light and color of Key West.


Elizabeth Hedde: Water coloring is an imperfect art for an imperfect hand. As a discipline, it is a productive foil for the rigor of computer-aided drafting.


Justin Hedde: Watercolors have the ability to convey qualities of space and phenomena beyond just the visual. To quote Chiura Obata: “Just to imitate or depict an object of some part of nature is not enough [to] bring forth any beauty or truth of humanity . . . In expressing our minds, there must not be for a moment the slightest thought of dependence or imitation.”


Hyeon Ju Son: Watercolor is basic, inherently intermediate and emotional. That is why I like it.”


Patrick McCauley: “These kinds of efforts by the folks at Centerbrook make for a truly unique and special place. Down in the Model Shop, I live in a land of precision, perfection and absolutes. Though not a watercolorist by any stretch, I challenged myself to escape my world and throw some paint around with a quick, loose and carefree attitude. Hoping for one or two successes, I soaked and mounted ten papers, worked on eight of them and wound up with four that I was pleased enough to share. I dug up a ten-year-old picture and poked it a few times with a brush to update it and it, too, made my cut. I’m happy I made the effort.”


Matt Montana: My paintings are from my hometown of South Windsor, where the tobacco barns were plentiful, a few beach scenes from Cape Cod, and a foggy morning along the Farmington River. The barn watercolor depicts one of the old tobacco barns along Buckland Road, which is now the site of The Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk. I tried to capture the barn in early spring with open hay fields in the foreground. Painted about 14 years ago, it was part of a local art show at the South Windsor Public Library. The two beach scenes are from family vacations to Cape Cod when I was a kid. Both are just washes showing various beaches and salt marshes, along with the Race Point Lighthouse on the outer Cape. The setting for the larger painting is the Farmington River at dawn. While fly fishing with my father, I took a photograph of our favorite fishing pool. In order to capture the very foggy, almost mystical scene, I added lots of washes to convey and create this sense of fog, and reduction of detail.


Charles Mueller: I painted my watercolor P A N T H E V U M for an assignment in architecture school. It employs the traditional technique of applying many layers of lightly-pigmented washes to achieve an impression of depth and transparency in a way that cannot be done with just a few heavily-pigmented washes. It takes time. Lots of time. When I interviewed for a job at Centerbrook, P A N T H E V U M was included in my portfolio. Chad Floyd seemed particularly interested in it and asked me how long it took to create. When I proudly, but naïvely, responded “Oh, the better part of a month,” Chad’s fascination waned. Despite that little hiccup, I got hired. And a short time later, Chad asked me to create a similar watercolor for one of Centerbrook’s real-life projects, The Stamford Center for the Arts. And guess what: it only took me about a week to complete!


Andrew Santaniello: The watercolors came out of a sketchbook that I kept while in Architecture School at Norwich University. They were drawings of local houses that were within walking distance of campus; I decided to experiment with watercolor with them as my subjects. The charge for our class was to measure and understand the components and proportions of the Greek revival inspired homes in the area.


Anna Shakun: Watercolor painting, similar to a sketch or life itself, is done alla prima – at once, with no way to repeat, overwrite, or correct a mistake. It is as good as your attention at the moment, your ability to see and recognize important elements: the play of light and shadow, nuances of color. It is as good as your technique, your knowledge, your intimacy with tools. You can’t correct a watercolor – but you paint again, and again, until one day you like it. For me watercolor painting is like therapy – it makes me happy to be able to hold a brush, mix pigments in water, and see how they combine. When you guess it right, they produce a new wonderful pallet – or it all comes out muddy. When Mark Simon announced that we were going to have a show, I was so excited to be challenged to paint again; it is hard to carve time for it otherwise. I painted every night for a week, and on my way to work I drove in a dream state seeing watercolor images of the sky trees and rocks along the road. It was a beautiful experience. So even though I can’t say that the outcome isn’t important for me, the process of watercolor painting is what makes it magical.


Jennifer Shea: My works were the culmination of an undergraduate college course, completed in 2004, and depict my first watercolor efforts using real subjects. Each respectively illustrates specific course lessons: shadows (blue shoes), foliage (bonsai tree), reflections (pool house) and sky (city skyline).


Mark Simon: I haven’t water-colored for very long. I grew up drawing and doing sculpture like my father but watercolor always frightened me; I had no understanding or control of the medium. Then I learned a few techniques from a master, Bill Grover, and off I went! Now it is fun for me and very relaxing. I get to play with color!


Laura Taglianetti: My painting “Falling Leaves” was completed as a watercolor study in art class my senior year of high school and was selected to be part of a show at the Lyme Art Association. I painted Kultorvet (“The Coal Market”), a public square in the Old Town of Copenhagen, Denmark, for an introductory to watercolor course at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. It was sketched and painted in a few hours on site. I did the same for Christians Kirke, a magnificent Rococo church in Copenhagen. The Ionic Column was done for an Architectural Theory Course at Norwich University. The assignment was to hand draft one of the three columns. The watercolor finish was optional.

Biographies of an Office


How does one characterize a community of people who run marathons and Tough Mudders and also drive Autocross? People who hail from places like Oxford, Connecticut and Moscow, Russia?

Or people who:

  • Moonlight in bands
  • Danced with the American Ballet Theater
  • Wintered upon the Bering Sea
  • Can make a mean Norwegian Fystekake Almond Tart
  • Love fashion design and making dry-laid stonewalls
  • Is a self-described bleeding-edge early adopter

Never mind the groom who took a four-month honeymoon, or the woman who bought Chet Atkins a drink.

Again, how does one do justice to such a diverse, perchance quirky group?

One does it one person at a time, as I did over the past few months. The results are now on this website, six dozen strong. I even did myself.

As riotously different as my colleagues are, there are telling commonalities. Very early on, many liked to draw or paint or sculpt, or make plans for the house they would occupy decades hence, or build forts with “found” lumber, or tear things apart to see how they fit together. A clear majority knew by high school that their calling in life was design.

And a calling it clearly is. Don’t take my word for it: click on any of these Centerbrook biographies.

Groundbreaking for Cutting Edge Science

The importance of bioscience to Connecticut was on full display recently at an open house, seminar, and groundbreaking for the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine on the campus of the UConn Health Center in Farmington. Governmental and academic leaders praised the new project and insisted that bioscience would be an increasingly important component of the state’s economy.

The Centerbrook design team for the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine attended the recent groundbreaking ceremonies in Farmington, Connecticut, posing at the site with their architectural colleagues from Tsoi Kobus & Associates. The 173,000-square-foot facility will house 300 biomedical researchers, technicians, and support staff in advanced computing facilities and laboratories. It will open in 2014.

JAX Team
Pictured above, from left to right, are: Jennifer Mango, Barbara Carpenter, Elizabeth Hedde, Scott Allen, Chu Foxlin, Kristen Kendall, Stephen Palumbo, Andrew Santaniello, Rick Kobus, Jim Coan, Blake Jackson, and Jeff Gotta. Not shown are Jim Childress, Alan Fried, and Jeff Schantz.

More than 200 people attended the event to hear Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy tout the project as well as announce a new initiative to spend $200 million for future bioscience efforts in the state. Jackson Laboratory President and CEO Edison Liu asked the Centerbrook team to stand up and be recognized in his opening remarks, along with various other contributors to the project. Continue reading Groundbreaking for Cutting Edge Science

Learning and Burning

When the learning runs past the hour, Steve Haines, who does the burning on the nearby Green Roof, rings the dinner bell, not softly. It tolls: “Take all things in moderation, including Continuing Education and, soon, kielbasa et al.” At this Pavlovian clang, presenters in the Union Hall start talking faster and clicking quicker. The hitherto attentive audience fidgets.

Centerbrook’s Continuing Education curriculum is, in Tweet speak, “Learn & Burn.” An array of in-house presentations and demonstrations, many AIA sanctioned, frequently are followed by a barbeque high above the Falls River dam. Here, overlooking the campus millpond, staff and guest speakers ruminate on architecture, nature, and the craft of building. The idea is two parts elucidation, one part nutrition. Continue reading Learning and Burning

Co-Designing Co-Housing

Photos by Sean O’Brien

If you ask people what is missing from contemporary life, what would they say? The answer in many cases, I believe, would be a sense of community. We often don’t know our neighbors, much less interact with them. We no longer raise barns together, swap tools, or lend a helping hand. It’s as if we live in parallel universes.

Green Haven Cohousing of Connecticut was formed by people who envision something different: a village where they can engage not only one another but a natural and bountiful environment as well. The concept embraces diversity, living in harmony with nature, and a multi-generational mix of residents.  Continue reading Co-Designing Co-Housing

Reflections on a “Whole New School”

Photos by Joe Darwal

Centerbrook has designed and overseen the construction of a new academic and science wing for the University School, a renowned independent school for boys located in Hunting Valley, Ohio. Gently curving away from the school’s main academic and administration building and down the center of a peninsula in a nearby lake, the rectangular structure’s windowed south wall harvests both natural light and solar heat. The three-story, 52,000-square-foot building is slated for either LEED Silver or Gold and is now open for the current school year.

In addition to its Upper School facilities at Hunting Valley for grades 9 through12, University School maintains a second campus for K-8 in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Centerbrook Partner Mark Simon, FAIA, who led a design team with Project Manager Russell Learned and Associate Katie Roden, both AIA, discussed the project with me recently.  Continue reading Reflections on a “Whole New School”