John Ronan's philosophy of getting back to basics turns out to be perfectly suited for eco-minded design
Cindy Coleman -- Interior Design, 10/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
The architect in his office, inside a former metalworks building in Chicago. Photo by Michelle Litvin.
John Ronan has a straightforward message: Clarity leads to good design. After establishing John Ronan Architect in 1997, the architecture alumnus of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design developed a varied repertoire, ranging from small residential renovations to large-scale, ground-up buildings. In 2004, the Chicago-based firm prevailed over such established names as Eisenman Architects and Morphosis to win the Perth Amboy High School Design Competition in New Jersey. Ronan was honored in the Architectural League's Emerging Voices program in 2005 and won a coveted commission, the Poetry Foundation's building, two years later. His latest project, the Yale Steam Laundry Condominium complex in Washington, D.C., reveals his stance that doing less in renovations of historic buildings yields more character. He expounds on the benefits of boiling down design challenges to their bare essence.
What role does the concept of distillation play in your design process?
I start all projects by asking the same question: What is the most appropriate response? It's easy to over-design, but applying more architecture isn't the answer; in fact, it's a distraction. My work looks to simplify the architecture, to take away the unnecessary, and distill the important ideas in each project. I look to see what I can subtract to make the building or space more poignant.
New steel-framed windows at Washington, D.C.'s Yale Steam Laundry Condominium loft complex, a sustainably minded renovation by John Ronan Architect. Yale Steam Laundry's bridge of hot-rolled plate steel and glass connecting the original early 20th–century building to its 1930's annex. Photos by Nathan Kirkman.
Do you think an architectural strategy of doing less makes for more sustainable design?
Today, most conscientious architects design sustainably, which I'd describe as a responsible strategy. Beyond striving for architectural clarity, I look for ways to extend the life span of a building indefinitely. My work anticipates change; it's about creating flexibility in how a space is built and also how it functions.
How is this seen in your most recent project?
The Yale Steam Laundry renovation in Washington, D.C., involved converting a 38,000-square-foot dormant commercial laundry building from the early 20th century into a high-end loft condominium complex. The three-story structure had beautiful glazed brick throughout the interior and interesting wood joist ceilings and industrial dunnage on the roof. Our design went to extremes to save the visual history. The original glazed-brick walls were preserved, imperfections and all; the repainted brick gets as close to the original as possible. As this or any preserved building evolves and acquires new programs, its original intent and historic legacy should not be erased.
A hallway in the apartment building. A steel-frame interior window between the entry and lobby follows the form of an existing structural beam. Photos by Nathan Kirkman.
Tell us how you interpreted the programmatic requirements in the Yale laundry project.
For the public space, we inserted a series of contemporary interventions—a glass-and-steel bridge, plate-steel stairs—which discreetly stand apart from the existing painted- and glazed-brick structure. A steel-clad wall was inserted in the lobby to delineate public and private spaces. Where new elements meet the existing structure, the distinction is visible yet subtle. We applied the same strategy in the apartment units by installing new maple millwork and flooring.
Was the high degree of preservation difficult to coordinate with the contractor?
With any renovation project, you risk losing the original character if the refurbishment goes too far. We spent a lot of time with the contractor explaining the idea of archiving the building's history. We pointed out every condition to identify what stays and what is either repaired or covered. Mostly, we established a standard practice that if the flaw didn't compromise the structural integrity or safety of the building, it was preserved. It required all parties to develop a special appreciation for the imperfections.
An apartment's maple flooring and kitchen cabinetry. The windows' plate-steel corner guards and slate sills. Photos by Nathan Kirkman.
How does a project like the Yale laundry renovation fit in the continuum of your practice goals?
Materiality is an important focus to our work. We often take an idea from one project and develop it more fully in another. In one residential project, we reconsidered how a concrete wall cast on-site was constructed to accept and accentuate the imperfections that are part of the process. I was happy with the result and that project became a springboard for embracing the notion that imperfections can be virtues.
Where do you get your interest in materiality?
I view materiality as the designer's palette that engenders the personality of a space. For the Yale laundry project, the materials plan strove to keep the difference between old and new elements discrete, so the archeology of the existing space is exposed both structurally and materially. With renovation projects, it isn't so much about what you do, it's more about what you don't do.