CentrePointe approved: See final design drawings

March 28, 2012

Rendering of CentrePointe along Main Street, where four local architects designed pieces of the building to give it more variety and help it blend in with historic buildings across the street. Rendering by EOP Architects

After four years of public debate and continuous improvement to the design, Lexington’s Courthouse Area Design Review Board today approved developer Dudley Webb’s plan for the CentrePointe mixed-use development. Board approval was unanimous. Nobody from the public spoke against it.

That was because the design is dramatically better than what the Webb Companies unveiled in March 2008 for the block in the center of downtown Lexington bounded by Main, Upper, Vine and Limestone streets.

EOP Architects of Lexington completed the design, with local architects Graham Pohl, David Biagi and Richard Levine contributing signature designs to the Main Street facade to help the development blend in with historic buildings across Main Street.

Approval by the review board was needed because much of the CentrePointe project lies within the boundaries of the old Fayette County Courthouse historic overlay district.

EOP used the basic site plan developed by Studio Gang Architects of Chicago, but made the tower larger to accommodate a Marriott hotel and created a signature building at the corner of Vine and Limestone streets that Webb says will house a Jeff Ruby restaurant and an Urban Active gym.

EOP’s lead architect, Rick Ekhoff, and the other architects made small but significant improvements to their designs in response to feedback from the review board at an informal meeting Feb. 15. The public also got to have a say March 1 at a public meeting at ArtsPlace attended by more than 250 people.

Those improvements included:

  • Adding more windows and design elements to the Upper Street side of CentrePointe, where the service entrance will be.
  • Enlarging a gallery through the middle of the development connecting Main and Vine Streets. It will now be 25 feet wide and 45 feet tall, with a sky-lit roof and retail on each side, Ekhoff said. The gym and reception space outside the hotel ballroom will overlook the gallery, which Ekhoff said will be a good place to display public art.
  • Making improvements in the architects’ facade treatments along Main Street.

Ekhoff said the design took into account the possibility that streets surrounding CentrePointe would be changed from one-way to two-way. And he added that all of the design input from the review board and public had “enriched” the result.

By the end of what has been a long and contentious process, the only change the review board insisted on was removal of a pedway over Upper Street, which Webb agreed to do. With that, the vote was taken and review board chairman Mike Meuser said, “Good luck with this very important project.”

Now that the design has been approved, Webb said it can be used more effectively to market the project to potential lenders and tenants. “It could happen very quickly,” Webb said, adding that three lenders have expressed interest in financing CentrePointe.

The process worked, and the CentrePointe project and downtown Lexington will be much better off for everyone’s effort.

The design of CentrePointe along Upper Street was improved to avoid it looking like a service entrance. Also, the proposed pedway was withdrawn. Rendering by EOP Architects


See the latest CentrePointe Main Street designs

March 7, 2012

The Main Street designs, left to right, are by Brent Bruner of EOP, David Biagi, Richard Levine of CSC and Graham Pohl of Pohl Rosa Pohl. The proposed pedway across Upper Street goes behind the circa 1846 McAdams & Morford buiding to the Lexington Financial Center parking garage.

The Lexington architects designing portions of CentrePointe facing Main Street presented renderings at a public meeting at ArtsPlace last week. Here are renderings they provided of their designs. Click on each image to enlarge it.

From Brent Bruner of EOP Architects:

From David Biagi:

From Richard Levine of CSC:


From Graham Pohl of Pohl Rosa Pohl:



Looks great: See latest CentrePointe designs

March 1, 2012

Here are the latest architectural renderings for CentrePointe. Click on each image to enlarge it. Credit: EOP Architects.

Good editing makes for better writing. It seems to make for better architecture, too.

EOP Architects and the Webb Companies hosted a packed public meeting Thursday evening at ArtsPlace to show off nearly finished designs for Webb’s proposed CentrePointe project. The designs look terrific, thanks to a long, difficult but ultimately very productive process of architectural refinement and public input.

EOP kept Chicago-based Studio Gang’s basic site plan, which broke up the monolithic tower and pediment from earlier versions of the design, creating a more human scale. Key to that was pushing the tower back along Vine Street and making the Main Street facades more compatible with the rest of the street. Charged with designing a much bigger hotel tower and ballroom that Studio Gang was asked to do, EOP’s Rick Ekhoff and his team have done a fine job of making it look less massive.

EOP’s best addition to Studio Gang’s work is this creative design for the corner of Vine and Limestone streets, which would house a Jeff Ruby’s restaurant, an Urban Active gym and a roof garden. I predict Lexingtonians will either love it or hate it. I love it.

This rendering shows the view of the CentrePointe block from the old Fayette County Courthouse square. The white blocks are just placeholders for four buildings that EOP and three other local architectural (Graham Pohl, Richard Levine and David Biagi) have designed.  I don’t have a rendering of them to share, but they are some of the best-looking parts of the block. They each add individuality to Main Street, yet blend well together, thanks to two months of weekly meetings among the architects.

The hotel tower, which Webb Companies hopes to lease to Marriott, is still a very big space. But EOP has done its best to reduce the monolithic appearance of previous versions. This is the view from across Vine Street.

Ekhoff said the building’s lighting will be key, and this rendering shows an attractive night view that emphasizes the transparence designed into the block.

One big improvement is CentrePointe’s treatment along Upper Street, which by necessity will serve as a service entrance. But this latest design doesn’t turn its back on Upper Street; it minimizes the usual ugliness of loading docks and adds a lot of glass and detail. A ballroom balcony will overlook the street, as will a restaurant and bar.

There’s still a pedway planned to connect CentrePointe to the Lexington Financial Center parking garage across Upper, running between the historic McAdams & Morford Building and the red 19th century building that houses McCarthy’s Bar and Failte Irish Imports. But I suspect the chances that the Courthouse Area Design Review Board will allow the pedway are somewhere between slim and none.

Will CentrePointe be built? That’s a business question that will depend on developer Dudley Webb’s ability to attract financing and tenants. Webb says he has several solid tenants, including Jeff Ruby and Urban Active.  Most hotel people I have talked to still doubt the market for another major convention hotel downtown, especially an upscale Marriott. But that’s for the market to decide.

After four years of controversy, four major redesigns and lots of tweaking, the Webb Companies now has a great plan to sell to lenders and tenants. And he finally has a design that is both practical and an attractive potential asset for downtown Lexington.

New Fayette school sets energy-saving standard

November 14, 2011


Lexington architect Susan Hill just couldn’t figure it out. Soon after Locust Trace AgriScience Farm opened this school year, lights in the main building started turning themselves on and off in the middle of the night.

That was not good. The Fayette County Public Schools’ most innovative new facility is designed to generate as much energy as it consumes. Conservation is essential to this goal. To that end, sound-and-motion sensors operate lights so energy won’t be wasted when nobody is in a room.

Hill and her team puzzled over the mystery until it finally, well, dawned on them.

“We had a rooster in the animal science lab who was getting up at all hours and causing lights to go on and off all over the place,” she said. Lighting sensors were quickly adjusted to respond to motion only. Problem solved.

Architects usually don’t have to think about cock-a-doodle-doo-proofing a building. But this kind of issue has been the challenge and the fun of the project for Hill, a partner in the Lexington firm Tate Hill Jacobs, who has been intrigued by environmentally sustainable design since she studied under pioneering solar architect Richard Levine at the University of Kentucky.

Locust Trace is a different kind of public school, designed to prepare high school juniors and seniors for careers in the equine industry and agriculture, where a return to sustainability is the trend. School officials wanted their facility to set a good environmental example — and be less expensive to operate and maintain.

The $15.5 million campus is one of the most “green” developments in Kentucky. It also has become a laboratory for new building methods and materials that is attracting national attention from architects, builders and educators.

Locust Trace was built on 82 acres off Leestown Road that the federal government donated to the school system. From the very beginning, Hill and other planners studied the site’s location and topography to make the best use of it.

The design team collaborated with dozens of people from the school system, community and various industries. That included everything from seeking the advice of Kentucky Horse Park experts about footing in the livestock arena to technical assistance on air-flow technology from Lexington-based Big Ass Fans.

Sunlight and prevailing winds were analyzed to orient the classroom building and large arena building to make the best use of sunlight and natural breezes. The buildings use 21 Big Ass Fans — large high-volume, slow-speed fans — to help regulate indoor air flow and temperatures.

The arena building, for instance, is heated and cooled with five large fans that pull air through louvers along a roof gallery that are opened and closed manually or with automatic sensors. Clerestory windows along the gallery provide most of the arena’s light.

Both buildings make extensive use of solar energy. Sunlight is maximized by window design and “solar tubes” that funnel magnified sunshine through the ceiling. Roof-mounted photovoltaic panels convert sunlight into as much as 175 kilowatts of electricity.

Power not needed immediately is fed into the Kentucky Utilities grid to offset power drawn from it on cloudy days. Electricity is shut off at night, except for a few outlets needed to run things like fish tanks.

“We spent a lot of time with school officials to see what we could cut out, what we didn’t need” to minimize energy use, Hill said.

She said the main building’s roof has the nation’s third-largest array of solar thermal cells, which heat water to supplement the building’s geothermal heating system. Buildings are made of metal, limestone and insulated concrete. Floors are low- maintenance polished concrete and rubber.

A well provides pure limestone water for animals. Eventually, if state regulations allow, well water could be used for human consumption.

Permeable pavement, rain gardens and a green roof manage storm water runoff. Rain is collected in underground tanks for use with livestock and irrigation. An artificial wetland was built to naturally process the campus’ wastewater. Shredded paper and plant matter are being composted for fertilizer.

“It’s a different kind of curriculum, a different kind of student,” Hill said. “But it allows us to try out lots of ideas that might be appropriate for a regular school once we learn more about them.”

The architect said the best part of working on Locust Trace has been trying new techniques, materials and designs to reduce energy use — and operating costs.

“There was a great willingness on the part of school system officials to take a little risk to learn the lessons,” she said. “That’s really important.”

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CentrePointe architect wins $500k ‘genius’ grant

September 20, 2011

Jeanne Gang, left, discusses her CentrePointe design with Richard Levine, one of several Lexington architects working with her on the project, at a public meeting in Lexington in July. Photo by Tom Eblen

Lexingtonians aren’t the only ones impressed with architect Jeanne Gang, whom developers Dudley and Woodford Webb hired earlier this year to redesign their stalled CentrePointe project downtown.

Gang, 47, was chosen today as one of 22 winners of an unrestricted, $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

The prestigious grants are given each year to talented U.S. citizens or residents who have shown “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.”

In choosing the architect for the award, the foundation said this: “Always responsive to the specific geography, social and environmental context, and purpose of each project, Gang creates bold yet functional forms for residential, educational, and commercial buildings.”

Gang and her Chicago-based firm, Studio Gang Architects, have built projects all over the world. Her best known building is the 82-story Aqua tower, which opened in Chicago last year.

“An emerging talent with a diverse and growing body of work, Gang is setting a new industry standard through her effective synthesis of conventional materials, striking composition, and ecologically sustainable technology,” the MacArthur Foundation said.

The foundation’s Web site has more about Gang here.

For information about the MacArthur Foundation grants and other winners this year, click here.

Click here to read more about Gang’s work on Lexington’s CentrePointe project.

Here is a short video the MacArthur Foundation produced about Gang.

New CentrePointe process a ‘beacon’ for Rupp area

July 16, 2011
Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, left, with staff members Michan Walker and Beth Zacherle, discusses a model of her proposed design for CentrePointe after a public meeting Thursday at the State Theatre with Richard Levine, right, principal in one of six Kentucky architecture firms she chose to work with her on the project. Photo by Tom Eblen

Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, left, with staff members Michan Walker and Beth Zacherle, discusses a model of her proposed design for CentrePointe after a public meeting Thursday at the State Theatre with Richard Levine, right, principal in one of six Kentucky architecture firms she chose to work with her on the project. Photo by Tom Eblen

It would be hard to imagine a bigger contrast between the CentrePointe public meeting that filled the State Theatre last Thursday and the one that filled the same room a little more than three years ago.

At the meeting in March 2008, citizens pleaded with CentrePointe developers Dudley and Woodford Webb not to tear down a block of historic buildings to construct a massive tower that could have just as easily been designed for downtown Austin or suburban Atlanta.

Public anxiousness later turned to anger as the block was demolished. But before CentrePointe construction could begin, financing evaporated and the two-acre block became a vacant lot.

Fast forward three years. The crowd that filled the theater this time came to hear Jeanne Gang of Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects discuss her plan for redesigning CentrePointe. She also introduced the team of Lexington architects who will help her give the complex variety and local flavor.

Most people in the audience liked Gang’s designs for CentrePointe’s cluster of buildings and were impressed by the thought that went into them. It was easy to see why.

Five low-rise buildings facing Main Street, which will have retail space on the ground floor and residences above, will be similar in scale and variety to the century-old buildings across the street — and the ones that were torn down. An eight-story asymmetrical office building is imaginative, and street-level spaces look as if they will be pedestrian-friendly and inviting.

The proposed 30-story tower that would house a hotel, condos and apartments is simply stunning: light and airy with lots of visual variety, including roof gardens on various levels. The more you look at the tower, the more interesting details you notice. It looks like a place you would want to spend time in.

CentrePointe has been transformed from a project many people hated to one those same people are eager to see built. (Not everyone likes the new design; but not everyone likes anything.)

Mayor Jim Gray has gone from being the Webbs’ biggest critic to a valuable ally. He introduced them to Gang, and the mayor said Thursday he will do what he can to help CentrePointe succeed. “As somebody said, a little creativity goes a long way — in this case, a lot of creativity,” said Gray, who called the redesign “awesome.”

The big question, though, is whether any of it will be built. Can the Webbs find tenants and more than $200 million in financing?

It won’t be easy in this economy, but I have to think their odds are much better now that they are selling a beautifully unique complex designed by one of the world’s hottest architects rather than a generic monolith.

“Where else in the world is a city’s center available for an inspiring piece of architecture?” asked Gray, who has spent his career in the construction business.

Whether or not this CentrePointe is built — and I hope it is —Lexington will have learned some valuable lessons about successful city-building. Dudley Webb, who more than any other developer has shaped the face of downtown Lexington over the past three decades, said he has certainly learned some things.

“In the old days, it was about free enterprise and you just went out and did it,” he said. “Now, there’s a lot more public interest in what you want to do. Everybody perceives it as their downtown, which is good.”

Why are these lessons important? Think of CentrePointe — as big and important as it is — as the dress rehearsal for something much bigger and potentially more important. That would be the redevelopment of Lexington Center, Rupp Arena and 40 acres of surface parking that surrounds them.

CentrePointe began as a typical Lexington “like it or lump it” real estate deal, the product of one entrepreneur’s vision and effort. It has become a model for creativity, collaboration and public engagement that could be better for the city and more successful for the developer.

All of this newfound creativity, collaboration and public engagement will be needed to make the Lexington Center property live up to its enormous potential. If done well, it could redefine much of downtown Lexington for decades.

“CentrePointe has become a beacon in terms of process,” Gray said. “It’s a wonderful testimony for how we can learn from difficult experiences, move on and accomplish more than was ever hoped.”

Thinking solar for your home? Lots of options

May 16, 2011

I heard from readers when I wrote about the pioneering solar home that Lexington architect Richard Levine built for himself in the 1970s and recently upgraded with new technology.

I heard from more readers when I wrote about Warren County’s new “net-zero” school, designed to generate as much power as it uses.

Many readers wanted to know this: How could they use solar power and innovative design to help the planet and lower their utility bills?

As solar technology gets better and cheaper, it is becoming a viable alternative for more Kentucky homeowners, said Andy McDonald, director of the Kentucky Solar Partnership, an advocacy organization in Frankfort. Options range from solar-powered water heaters to super-insulated “passive” homes.

Because Kentucky isn’t sunny year-around, McDonald said, “Many people believe that solar is not viable here, but that isn’t true. Germany leads the world in solar energy, and Kentucky has better solar resources than Germany does.”

The difference, McDonald said, is government policy and incentives. The United States lags many countries in policies promoting renewable energy, and Kentucky lags many states in incentives. But help is out there.

Since 2004, Kentucky homeowners have been able to hook solar generators into their local utility, getting credit for power they feed into the grid to offset power they draw at night and on cloudy days. It is possible for homeowners to break even – and even earn a profit if their utility’s power comes from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The federal government since 2005 has offered tax incentives for installing solar and other renewable energy systems. The state also offers some incentives, and the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development has flexible loans for some systems installed in Eastern Kentucky.

The most popular systems are solar water heaters, like the one Dave Kollar had installed in his Madison County home two years ago. The water heater is powered by two small solar panels on his roof that charge batteries. When the sun isn’t shining, the water heater can run on regular current. Solar water heaters in Kentucky typically produce about 70 percent of a home’s hot water over the course of a year.

Kollar said the system cost him about $5,000, after incentives. With what he is saving so far, he estimates it will pay for itself within 12 years. “For me, though, that’s just part of the equation,” said Kollar, chief engineer for Fox 56 television.

“I don’t know that we’re saving the planet, but fossil fuel is a finite resource and it seems silly to waste it,” said Kollar, who also supplements his home’s furnace with a wood stove. “Besides, I didn’t want to go through another ice storm without hot water and heat.”

For homeowners wanting to do more than heat water, there is one key thing to understand: Success is not so much about how much power your solar system can produce; it is about how energy-efficient you can make your home so it uses as little power of any kind as possible.

The first step toward lower utility bills is weatherizing an existing home or designing a new home to minimize energy loss and take advantage of natural sunlight.

Basic design principles include having a home’s long axis facing south, with windows that let in winter sunshine but are shaded against summer heat. Likewise, minimize windows on a home’s west side, which gets a lot summer sun, and the north side, which catches winter winds, McDonald said.

While Kentucky may be behind other states in solar incentives, it is ahead of most when it comes to green building design. Levine, who last year received a “pioneer” award from the American Solar Energy Society, runs an architecture practice that is bringing European “passive” home design to Kentucky.

So-called passive homes are so heavily insulated that little energy is lost. They use only about 10 percent of the energy needed to heat and cool a well-built conventional home. Because these houses are so air tight, they are equipped with special ventilators that bring fresh air in from the outside with minimal heat and cooling loss.

Levine’s firm, CSC Design Studio, is designing five passive “net-zero” homes for Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. intended for sale to middle-income people. The first is under construction near Williamsburg.

CSC also recently designed a net-zero home for a client who will begin construction in July along the Kentucky River, said Michael Hughes, an architect who works with Levine. Power needed for these passive homes will come from solar panels on the roof.

Passive homes can cost as much as 25 percent more to build than conventional homes, but Hughes thinks prices will fall as more builders learn how to build them and domestic companies step in to compete with European manufacturers of super-insulated doors and windows. “I think it’s the future of homebuilding,” Hughes said.

Solar Resources

  • The first step to lower utility bills isn’t solar technology – it is making your home more energy efficient. A good place to get more information about that the Kentucky Housing Corp.’s Web site:  KyHomePerformance.com
  • The Kentucky Solar Partnership’s Web site is a good place to find information about solar home technology, from a list of contractors to available incentives. The organization is planning a training session in August for contractors interested in learning how to install solar systems.  Kysolar.org
  • Additional information about incentives for energy efficiency and solar technology can be found at: Dsireusa.org and Solar.calfinder.com/rebates/Kentucky
  • The Rural Energy for America program offers grants to some farms and rural businesses for installing renewable energy systems: Reapgrants.com
  • Information about solar and other renewable energy options: SouthFace.org
  • Several magazines offer resources, including Home Power at HomePower.com, and Solar Today at SolarToday.com
  • CSC Design Studio in Lexington designs custom passive and solar homes: CSCDesignStudio.com

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New photo book focuses on Kentucky originals

December 5, 2010

Guy Mendes is a photographer, a writer, a producer of TV documentaries and a collector of interesting friends. Many of the latter, including some of Kentucky’s most interesting artists and characters, are the subjects of his new book, 40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits.

“All of the people in the book were friends, family, mentors and teachers,” Mendes said. “In their own way, they showed me the way.”

An exhibit of 25 of Mendes’ striking portraits opens Dec. 9 at the tiny North Limestone gallery of Institute 193, which published the book. The entire collection will be displayed next year at a new gallery in the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, and then go on a two-year tour of galleries around the South.

The book includes writers Wendell Berry, James Still and Ed McClanahan; artists Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Robert Tharsing, Edgar Tolson and Ann Tower; performers Ashley Judd and Ben Sollee; and characters Carlos “Little Enis” Toadvine and Bradley Picklesimer. Mendes wrote a short essay with each portrait, telling something about the subject and the circumstances of the photograph.

“Taken together, these photos give lie to the notion that Kentucky is a backward place without much culture,” Mendes said. “Kentucky has been home to some very creative thinkers and talented artists and musicians.”

The cover image isn’t of anyone famous — or even from Kentucky. It is a 1977 picture of Robert Bass, Mendes’ childhood friend and “adventurous alter ego,” standing on a beach wearing a scuba mask, flippers and his underwear, and holding a lobster. It was chosen, Mendes said, “because it lets you know fun is involved.”

In many ways, the book represents Mendes’ personal journey. Born and raised in New Orleans, where his grandmother had been the Queen of Mardi Gras in 1904, he came to the University of Kentucky in 1966 to study journalism. Except for a summer in Houston, where he was an intern for Newsweek, and a year in Connecticut, Mendes, 62, has lived in Central Kentucky ever since.

After studying under Berry, Mendes changed his major from journalism to English. He also quit UK’s student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, to help publish one of the era’s best underground papers, The Blue-Tail Fly.

As a boy, Mendes had a Polaroid camera, “and I made some experimental pictures of my cat and my feet,” he said. Then, in college, he met Meatyard, a Lexington optician who, after his death from cancer a week before his 47th birthday in 1972, became an icon of 20th-century art photography.

Meatyard and Robert May — whose bequest to The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky launched its photography collection and lecture series — took Mendes along on weekend picture-taking excursions. With old houses and the Bluegrass landscape as backdrops, they used people, props and special effects to create art. The trips had a profound effect on Mendes.

“I began to see that photography could be a means of expression and not just a recording tool,” he said. “Wendell Berry and Gene Meatyard changed the way I thought about words and pictures.”

Another influence was the poet and photographer James Baker Hall. The longtime UK professor took Mendes into his Connecticut studio as an apprentice in 1971, when Hall was teaching photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and literature at the University of Connecticut.

“Jim always said that a good portrait is not taken, but given; it is a collaboration between the subject and the photographer,” Mendes said. “The people in this book all had an energy I admired, and I wanted to get a little of that energy in the picture.”

Mendes joined Kentucky Educational Television in 1973 and became a writer and producer of award-winning documentaries before his retirement in 2008. “I was lucky to have a job where I could put words and pictures together,” he said.

But his passion was always black-and-white still photography, which he taught at UK for 14 years. “It was always the work I did for myself,” he said. “I’m still excited about the next picture and what it might look like.”

Mendes lived in a rented farmhouse in rural Woodford County from 1974 until 1990, soon after he married Page, a painter and Web designer. They and their two sons — Wilson, 16, and Jess, 14 — now live in Ashland Park, where Mendes works from a backyard studio designed by the pioneer solar architect Richard Levine.

Digital technology has revolutionized photography, but Mendes still prefers to shoot film and use an enlarger and chemicals to make high-quality prints, which he sells through Ann Tower Gallery.

Mendes published a book of his photographs in 1986, Light at Hand, an assortment of landscapes, portraits and figure studies. The idea for the new book came from Phillip March Jones, a young Lexington artist who started the non-profit organization Institute 193 last year to promote the region’s less-celebrated artists.

Jones said he was sitting in Mendes’ studio one day last year looking at portraits and listening to him tell stories about their subjects. He was struck both by the quality of Mendes’ work and the fact that nobody else had made such a visual record of this slice of Kentucky life.

Jones edited the book, which was designed by Carly Schnur. To raise money for printing, they turned to Kickstarter.com, a Web site that organizes backers for creative projects. Within two months, 150 backers had pledged $9,235. Most signed up to buy the book for $25. (Since the printing, nearly 400 more copies have sold at the $35 retail price, Jones said.) Some also pledged more money in return for special benefits.

“Now I must sing for my supper,” Mendes said with a smile. He will give private tours of his studio to 15 backers, take portraits of four others and teach two-hour photography workshops for three more. He also will make two special-edition books with hand-printed photographs.

“This book would not have happened without a little help from my friends,” Mendes said. Both the friends who helped produce the book and those who, over the past four decades, have given their portraits to his camera.

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Guy Mendes: ’40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits’

Exhibit: Dec. 9-Jan. 29 at Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and by appointment. For more information, visit Institute193.org.

Gallery show opening reception: 6-9 p.m. Dec. 9 at Institute 193.

Book signing: Noon Dec. 11 at The Morris Book Shop, 408 Southland Dr. Call (859) 276-0494 or visit Morrisbookshop.com.


The book 40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits is available in Lexington at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Morris Book Shop, Black Swan Books, Institute 193 and online at Institute193.org.

Solar energy pioneer sees changes coming soon

July 19, 2010

A few miles down the Kentucky River from where Daniel Boone built his frontier fort, there lives another kind of pioneer.

Richard S. Levine, a University of Kentucky architecture professor, was recently honored with the 2010 Passive Solar Pioneer Award by the American Solar Energy Society. It recognizes Levine’s four decades of innovative work in building design and urban sustainability.

Levine, 70, developed some of the first integrated approaches for making buildings more energy-efficient, and they have been widely adapted around the world. He holds several patents, has designed award-winning solar buildings, is a frequent international lecturer and is the author of more than 200 publications.

The biggest impact of his work may be yet to come. Levine thinks rising energy prices will soon prompt America to follow Europe in radically changing the way buildings are constructed to save both energy and money.

Levine was a young architect thinking about a home for his family when the 1973 Arab oil embargo first focused America on alternative energy. He decided to use his 32 acres of woods along Raven Run Creek near the Kentucky River in southeast Fayette County as a live-in laboratory for energy-efficient design.

Raven Run House, which Levine designed and largely built himself, was unique because it combined many kinds of solar-energy technology with good insulation and design elements to minimize energy use and environmental impact. The home has been widely publicized in architectural journals, and many of its approaches have been adapted by others. (I wrote about Levine’s home in January.)

Levine said his house prompted a former classmate to hire him in 1978 as design and energy consultant for the new Hooker Chemical Co. headquarters in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Before he had to leave the project because of injuries received in an automobile accident, Levine developed the basic design and systems of the revolutionary building.

The Hooker Building’s double glass walls and automated panel systems used sunlight and a “thermal chimney” effect to control inside temperatures so the structure used only 12 percent of the energy required by a typical office building in that climate, according to an analysis by Progressive Architecture magazine.

“It became the granddaddy of thousands of commercial buildings that used the same principles in more and more sophisticated ways,” Levine said.

America was the world’s leader in alternative energy research in the 1970s, but that came to a sudden halt when incentives, subsidies and research funding were slashed after President Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Since then, most solar innovation has come from Europe, with huge advances being made in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia.

Much of Levine’s consulting work has been in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He is co-director with political science professor Ernest Yanarella of UK’s Center for Sustainable Cities and research director of Oikodrom: The Vienna Institute for Urban Sustainability in Austria. Levine also has his own company, CSC Design Studio.

Levine said one lesson he learned working in Europe is the importance of insulation. He thinks new building techniques that use insulation and better design to minimize energy loss will play a huge role in American construction very soon.

Levine’s most recent design work has focused on “net zero” houses, which use innovative design and better insulation to reduce energy consumption by 90 percent. Increasingly cheap photo-voltaic panel systems are then used to generate the remaining 10 percent of power.

Because utilities allow such systems to feed electricity into the grid on sunny days and pull it out on cloudy days and at night, ongoing energy costs can be reduced to nothing, saving homeowners hundreds of dollars each month. The cost of construction can be comparable to conventional building methods, he said.

“These approaches are just starting to attract attention here,” said Levine, who is still pioneering new methods and strategies. “More and more, people will see that they can’t afford to do anything else.”

A Q&A With Richard Levine

New technology can be a game-changer. It is how automobiles replaced horses, computers replaced typewriters, compact discs replaced phonograph records and MP3 players are replacing compact discs.

Richard S. Levine, a University of Kentucky architecture professor who recently received the 2010 Passive Solar Pioneer Award from the American Solar Energy Society, thinks advances in building techniques and alternative energy technology, combined with rising fossil fuel prices, will soon do the same for construction. I talked with Levine about that last week. Here are excerpts:

Question: Your recent work has been on passive houses. What are they?

Answer: “This is a way of building that saves 90 percent of the heating and cooling requirements of a house and somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 percent of total energy requirements. A third of all new and retrofitted buildings in Austria are built to this standard. That’s the way we’re going to be doing things in the future. And it will end up costing a good deal less because energy bills will be very low.

Now we’re building zero-energy homes where there won’t be an energy bill. So if you now have a $200 energy bill each month, you can afford a more expensive house or put that money in the bank or someplace else.”

Q: How important is good insulation?

A: “Insulation is cheap and it’s the most cost-effective thing you can do. The thing to do is build a tight house. Even the best conventional house leaks like a sieve. It’s not just around windows and doors; it’s everywhere. And you pay for this continually with your heating bills.

Another place houses leak is through thermal bridges. We think of wood as being a relatively good insulator — it’s many times better than glass — but even wood conducts a lot of heat to the outside. All of the hundreds of studs in a house are leaking heat through the wall at an unacceptable rate.

Our passive house strategy is to almost eliminate these thermal bridges with good insulation. We can build a house now that costs only a little bit more than a conventional house and uses only a fraction of the energy. There aren’t many builders who are familiar with these techniques, but they’re not rocket science.”

Q: What are the obstacles and opportunities?

A: “A speculative builder won’t go to the trouble unless they know they have a market. And the people who finance construction loans and mortgages won’t be so keen unless they know that everyone else is on board. But we are at a moment in time where with the recovery funds, with federal and state programs, with 30 percent tax credits that are available for doing this, it probably would lower the cost to below conventional.

Now that we have saved 90 percent of the heating costs, with that last 10 percent we can afford to spend money on more expensive renewable (energy) systems like photo-voltaics. The price is coming down amazingly. It would be an enormous cost if you had a conventional house, but if you only have to do 10 percent, you need a fraction of the system. It’s very affordable.

Another thing is that you don’t have to supply all of the electricity all of the time. You tie into the grid, and when you’re producing excess electricity the utility buys it back from you, and at night when there’s no sun, you buy it back from them. We’re designing houses that on a net basis go even with the utility company and you don’t have any electric use.”

Q: How soon do you expect widespread change?

A: “The way we’re building today is not the way we’ll be building in four or five years. It will completely change, which will mean that conventional houses’ value will go down significantly relative to the new way of building.

Right now there seems to be a lot of movement. I think even the homebuilders are looking for new marketing strategies. It’s the kind of revolution that once it starts, there will be some early adopters and people will see how well they work and how good an investment it is.”

A solar pioneer takes his home to the next level

January 4, 2010

Richard Levine has heard all of the arguments about why solar energy won’t work in Kentucky.

And he has been defying them for three decades.

Levine, a University of Kentucky architecture professor, designed and built one of the nation’s first solar homes on 32 acres he bought in 1974 near Raven Run Nature Sanctuary. He has been living there ever since.

Last month, he finished adding new high-tech solar panels to the roof of a studio next to his home that will make both buildings “net zero.” That means, over the course of a year, the photo-voltaic cells will produce as much electricity as the buildings consume.

“But to do it I may have to unplug my hot tub and convince my daughter to turn off her computer at night,” Levine said with a smile.Raven Run House has been written about in books, magazines and architecture journals all over the world but has received little attention in Kentucky. That’s mostly because Levine’s late wife, artist Anne Kemper Frye, who died in 2005, wanted privacy.

Levine, co-director of UK’s Center for Sustainable Cities, is continuing to use his live-in laboratory to explore new home design and energy technologies he thinks will become more important as utility rates rise and environmental concerns grow.

“All of these things are pointing to the fact that in the coming years we’re not going to be building houses the way we do now,” he said. “It’s coming very quickly.”

Levine was a young architect in the early 1970s when the Arab oil embargo and the fledgling environmental movement first got Americans thinking about renewable energy.

At the time, solar energy was the province of scientists and hippies; few architects paid much attention to it. Levine thought buildings would need to become more energy-efficient, so he decided to explore the possibilities.

He spent nearly a year researching and designing his home to use both kinds of solar energy: “passive,” in which design exploits the sun’s natural light and warmth, and “active,” in which mechanical devices capture and store it.

Levine began work on the house in 1975. The project took eight years, mostly because he and students did most of the construction — and because the Levine family lived there the whole time. He has never figured the total cost, but said, “It wasn’t terribly expensive.”

The design Levine created was a 40-foot cube, sliced diagonally to create a large hexagonal surface. That surface faced south at a 54-degree angle, the optimal position to catch winter sunlight.

On that 32-foot sloping surface, Levine installed vertical rows of solar collectors, which warmed air and stored it in bins of crushed stone in the basement to provide heat with a system he patented. He alternated those collectors with rows of narrow windows he called “sundows” that let in natural light and warmth.

A greenhouse at the base of the slope also helps light and heat the home, and it provides a year-round growing environment for vegetables and exotic plants.

The tall sides of the home that face northeast and northwest have many small, square windows of three kinds. Double-layered glass windows provide views and light. Screened ones provide ventilation; cool night breezes coming up from Raven Run Creek make summer air conditioning unnecessary. Translucent windows made of six layers of plastic (for insulation) light each room.

The home’s walls were well-insulated by 1970s standards, but the materials weren’t nearly as good as the super-insulation available today. Likewise, most of today’s high-efficiency windows didn’t exist then, so Levine designed and made his own window systems.

Levine installed two composting toilets in the house, which have worked well with minimal maintenance. There are several experimental energy systems he installed — but rarely needs to use — such as a geothermal heat pump, a highly efficient wood-burning boiler and an air-circulating fireplace.

Levine’s decision to take 1970s technology as far as he could resulted in a home that is as weird-looking outside as it is strikingly beautiful inside.

The living area is open and airy, with white walls, oak woodwork and a central oak staircase that provides a visual centerpiece. Variously shaped rooms on multiple levels open to the staircase, making the 3,000-square-foot space seem larger.

Levine just added 30 new photo-voltaic panels to the roof of his studio to generate electricity. The panels have micro-inverters that make solar-generated power usable at a lower cost than old inverter systems did. Each panel’s performance can be monitored by computer; you can see it from a link on Levine’s Web site: www.cscdesignstudio.com.

He doesn’t need batteries to store the power his photo-voltaic cells produce, because “net metering” allows him to feed power to his utility company on sunny days and draw from it on cloudy ones. Over the course of a year, it should balance out.

Some utilities, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, buy from small renewable power producers, allowing them to make a profit. In Central Kentucky, though, utilities are only required to swap power, so the best a solar-generating homeowner can do is break even.

Levine thinks changing Kentucky’s net-metering law to allow producers to profit would encourage more solar generation by both homes and commercial buildings.

In addition to Levine’s studio renovation, construction is wrapping up on a weekend home he designed on Herrington Lake for another UK professor. It has well-insulated walls and windows and a $10,000 photo-voltaic system that will make the home net-zero.

“That’s really very little to pay for energy independence,” Levine said. Solar systems are getting better and cheaper all the time, and tax credits provide attractive incentives for installing them.

Once the first energy crisis passed in the early 1980s, Americans went back to then-cheap fossil fuels and paid little attention to renewable energy. European countries have become the technology leaders.

“It’s just amazing how far ahead they are in many ways; even China is ahead of us,” Levine said. “It’s very sad, really. They used to come here for ideas.”

About 40 percent of all U.S. energy is consumed by buildings. Levine thinks “green” architecture for new buildings — and retrofitting of old ones — will become more popular as energy prices rise. Homes offer some of the best opportunities for better design, better insulation and small-scale renewable energy systems.

“I think it’s something that any rational homeowner will want to consider,” Levine said with the pride of a pioneer. “I can’t see a better, more guaranteed investment.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Good design can make cities more sustainable

December 7, 2009

The most overused word in the English language these days may be sustainability.

Not that I’m complaining.

It will be a key word in Copenhagen this week, where world leaders are gathering to try to figure out ways to cope with climate change. And it comes up again and again as businesses try to figure out what kind of economy will emerge from this ugly recession.

People seem to realize that the future will be a lot different than the past — or at least different than the consumption binge that America has been on since the end of World War II. That just wasn’t sustainable.

Sustainability is usually defined as the ability to meet the needs of the present without jeopardizing future generations’ ability to meet their needs.

Facing up to those issues could be good for the country, and good for business. It will force companies and industries to think more about long-term value, and not just short-term profit. And it will emphasize the need for good planning, good design, creativity and innovation.

For example, everyone knows that crime is bad for society. But did you ever stop to think that it’s also bad for the environment? I didn’t, until I attended the Sustainable Communities Conference last week in Lexington.

The conference was put on by the UK College of Design, Eastern Kentucky University’s Center for Crime and the Built Environment, the Lexington Division of Police and the London Metropolitan Police (from that other UK across the pond).

Calvin Beckford of Britain’s Association of Chief Police Officers said London Metropolitan Police officers drive 66 million miles a year patrolling that city. Goods stolen and property damaged by crime must be replaced. And when crime makes people feel so unsafe in their neighborhood they want to move, that contributes to petroleum use and suburban sprawl.

Beckford said researchers determined that, all told, crime each year contributes about 13 million tons of carbon to the United Kingdom’s environment.

He heads an effort called Security Secured by Design that seeks to make British society safer, and its environment greener, by using good design principles to reduce crime. That means everything from more secure doors and windows to better design for neighborhoods to discourage crime before it occurs.

The conference included a discussion about development projects that are planned near the Red Mile that could bring much-needed revitalization to Lexington’s South Broadway corridor. But when some conference participants looked at those plans, they also saw the potential for trouble.

That’s because the developments have characteristics that researchers say can lead to crime and urban decay if they are not carefully designed and managed.

Residents in those developments would be renters and mostly students — people of similar ages and schedules that would leave the neighborhood transitory and lightly populated during many times of the day and months of the year.

“This would not be a place where anyone living in it has a stake in it or any particular reason to look out for others living there,” said UK architecture professor Richard Levine.

All of those issues are worth discussing now, before construction begins, so plans can be improved to prevent crime and decay, conference participants said.

Of course, these developments will serve a specific niche. But what makes average neighborhoods both socially and environmentally sustainable is that they’re places where diverse groups of people want to live and stay — rather than move away from to something newer, nicer and safer.

Michael Speaks, the dean of UK’s College of Design, said good design will be key to social, environmental and economic sustainability.

“Design has to be a more expansive practice than problem-solving,” Speaks said. “It must be about looking at situations and speculating about what might be. It means solving problems before they exist.”

More on Vancouver, Lexington and sustainability

August 26, 2009

Last spring, I wrote about two University of Kentucky professors who have studied Vancouver, British Columbia’s successes in urban redevelopment and sustaintability and how some of those lessons could apply to Lexington.

As part of their work, Ernest Yanarella, a political science professor, and Richard Levine, an architecture professor, organized a conference here in May. Yanarella has just published a Web site with more information on the subject.

Vancouver development offers lessons for Lexington

June 4, 2009

I first visited Vancouver to cover the opening of Expo ’86. When I next returned in 2002, I noticed that a lot had changed in western Canada’s largest city.

I didn’t realize how much had changed until last Saturday. That’s when I attended a seminar at the University of Kentucky, Planning for Livability and Sustainability: Lessons of the Vancouver Achievement for Lexington and the Bluegrass.

It looked at how Vancouver’s focus on people-friendly development has improved the quality of life. In fact, the research arm of Britain’s Economist magazine calls Vancouver the world’s most livable city.

The seminar was organized by UK professors Ernest Yanarella and Richard Levine. Like the annual Commerce Lexington trip, it was an opportunity to look at other cities’ experiences.

Of course, it’s not that Lexington doesn’t already have a lot going for it. It could teach other cities a thing or two. But Vancouver is a good example of a city that never seems to be content with good enough.

Vancouver is twice the size of Lexington, with a metropolitan area population seven times larger. But the cities have some similarities, such as being surrounded by uniquely beautiful landscapes that are both valuable assets and barriers to growth that increase the cost of living.

The seminar’s main presenter was Ian Smith, Vancouver’s former senior planner and now project director for a large mixed-use development that will begin life as the 2010 Winter Olympic Village.

Smith said Vancouver’s approach to city planning and development has changed dramatically in the past two decades. The process began with Expo ’86. When the world’s fair was over, its 165-acre site became the first of several old waterfront industrial areas to be redeveloped into mixed-use urban neighborhoods.

It isn’t just the look of Vancouver that has changed, Smith said. It is the development dynamic. Vancouver has become more aggressive about working with developers to make sure projects are as good for the city as they are for the developers.

“We needed to create a different model between the city and private developers that was win-win,” Smith said. “Local government needs to take a leadership role. It can’t be left to chance.”

Smith’s description of Vancouver’s development process reminded me of a similar system in downtown Columbus, Ohio, that I wrote about in February. Rather than asking developers to submit detailed plans based on a complex set of rules to a fragmented city bureaucracy, there’s a collaborative process aimed at making developments the best they can be.

That process includes public participation and a professional urban design review board, which in Vancouver’s case has 12 members — six architects, two landscape architects, two engineers, a developer and a city planning commission member.

Vancouver emphasizes good urban design, especially human-scale streetscapes friendly to pedestrians, bicycles and public transportation. Planning for large mixed-use projects doesn’t just consider utilities, roads, stores and schools, but child care, parks, indoor recreation facilities, public art and environmental impact.

Vancouver’s housing prices are among Canada’s highest, largely because of the constraints of being surrounded by water and mountains.

But Vancouver has shown that high-density, mixed-used neighborhoods can be great places to live.

With each new development, Vancouver has pushed for environmental innovation. A showpiece is the 2010 Olympic Village, the first phase of a new urban neighborhood that by 2018 could have 18,000 residents.

Like other cities Lexington has looked to for ideas, Vancouver has plenty of flaws. But its experiences offer some good lessons:

Lexington’s mayor and council must be aggressive about setting standards that encourage exceptional development. That means articulating a clear vision for high-quality downtown growth rather than reacting to disparate projects as developers propose them.

It also means engaging the public in meaningful participation and empowering the city’s professional staff to focus more on innovation and excellence than local politics.

One more thing: Lexingtonians must get comfortable with increasing density in urban neighborhoods. More density is good for the environment and will protect precious farmland. It also can make neighborhoods better. That will require leadership.

Vancouver seminar brings out Lexington issues

May 30, 2009

It takes a pretty good seminar to keep me inside on a warm, sunny Saturday when I could be out biking. But Planning for Livability and Sustainability: Lessons of the Vancouver Achievement for Lexington and the Bluegrass was fascinating.

The seminar today at the University of Kentucky was organized by UK professors Ernest Yanarella and Richard Levine. It was a followup to a similar seminar at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2007.

About 40 people attended, including Vice Mayor Jim Gray, Urban County Council member Diane Lawless and David Mohney, chairman of the Downtown Development Authority. I wish some others from council, the city planning staff and Commerce Lexington whose name tags I saw on the registration table had been able to come.

Ian Smith, Vancouver’s former senior planner and now project director for the 2010 Olympic Village, gave a terrific presentation about how his city has in just the past two or three decades transformed itself by bringing many segments of the community together around the goals of making Vancouver a model for urban livability and environmental sustainability.

Early next week, I’ll write more about that, as well as about the presentation by Mark Roseland, director of the Centre for Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver. He talked about what that university is doing, and the role universities can play in helping a city and region improve its environment and economy.

But here was an interesting sidebar from today’s session:

Gray, who has been critical of the Downtown Development Authority for supporting the secretive development of the controversial CentrePointe project, said during a discussion that Lexington’s council members and the mayor need more help and leadership from senior planning staff members to make good policy decisions.

“We don’t have the level of competence that our city deserves in these roles,” Gray said. He added that Lexington government needs a change of political culture to allow senior staff members to feel empowered to seek out innovative ideas and help lead policymakers and the public toward good solutions.

That brought a sharp response from Mohney, who in addition to being the DDA chairman is a UK College of Design professor and former dean who has worked for years to involve students in helping Lexington do a better job of urban planning.

“It’s a tough town to make this work,” Mohney said. “It’s going to take time.” (quote corrected from initial post)

Lawless jumped in, complaining that the city’s bureaucracy is too fragmented. “It’s often like a shotgun, with each pellet being powered by a different division,” she said. “We need an urban planner who has that over-arching vision.”

Lawless said the result is a slow decision-making process where each interest group works with a different part of city government, but there’s too little coordination, leadership or vision. To help with that, she is pushing to have 16 recommendations from the lengthy Downtown Master Plan process finally adopted into  law.

Mohney noted that Lexington was at the forefront of American urban planning in 1958 when it created a growth boundary to protect Bluegrass horse farms. “The problem is we did nothing after that to redefine our growth strategy,” he said.

Lawless said this is a good time to do that, noting that the current mayor and council seem to have the political will to address tough, long-neglected growth issues. “The only way it’s going to happen is for us to roll up our sleeves and do something about it,” she said. “Now is the time.”

Soon, it was time for Roseland to begin his presentation. But the discussion continued for a few minutes on Twitter, with Gray, Mohney and Lawless — along with me and local bloggers Eric Patrick Marr and Taylor Shelton — typing away on their BlackBerrys.

Thanks to that social media platform, several hundred people could follow that conversation. It even prompted one of them — Rob Morris, owner of Lowell’s Toyota repair shop downtown and a budding blogger — to leave work and come over to listen to the rest of the seminar.

Saturday seminar: lessons from Vancouver

May 27, 2009

If you missed Commerce Lexington’s trip to Madison,Wis., last week – or even if you went – there’s another opportunity to see what metro Lexington can learn from other cities.

The University of Kentucky is sponsoring a seminar Saturday, “Planning for Livability and Sustainability: Vancouver’s Lessons for Lexington and the Bluegrass,” at the Hilary J. Boone Center on Rose Street.

The seminar looks at Vancouver, British Columbia’s success over the past two decades at reviving its downtown and becoming an international model for urban planning, livability and sustainability — and how the lessons Vancouver has learned could be applied to Central Kentucky.

The seminar begins at 9 a.m. with remarks by UK President Lee Todd. Featured speakers are: Ian Smith, former senior urban planner in Vancouver and current project director of the Winter 2010 Olympic Village; Mark Roseland, Simon Fraser University geography professor and director of the SFU Centre for Sustainable Community Development; and Rick Balfour, an architect and director of the Vancouver Metro Planning Council.

The seminar — organized by Ernest Yanarella, a UK political science professor, and Richard Levine, a UK architecture professor — is sponsored by the Kentucky Environmental Council, Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection and Todd’s office. The session is a followup to a March 2007 seminar at the Kentucky Horse Park, and it is being coordinated with Bluegrass Tomorrow’s InnoVision2018 project.

All sessions Saturday are free and open to the public.