Gardenside Plaza bus shelter being restored, 3 new ones coming

April 4, 2015

150405ArtInMotion0008The Gardenside bus shelter when it was new, circa 1960. Herald-Leader File Photo


The Gardenside Plaza bus shelter, with its 30-foot brick tower and sea-green neon letters, has been an Alexandria Drive landmark since 1959 — a bit of Miami Beach in Bluegrass suburbia.

In recent years, the mid-century modern shelter has looked pretty sad: burned-out letters, cracked concrete, dingy brick. But over the next few months, it will get a $41,700 makeover in one of Lexington’s most unusual historic preservation efforts.

The stainless steel letters spelling “Gardenside Plaza” were sent off for repair over the winter. They will soon be reinstalled with their neon lighting replaced by energy-efficient LEDs.

The white brick tower and its stainless steel crown will be cleaned and rewired. The concrete bench will be repaired and its angled roof patched and painted.

And there will be a new element: a period-appropriate ceramic mosaic mural on the back wall designed by Guy Kemper, a renowned local glass artist.

“I’m really excited about the partnerships that have come together for this,” said Yvette Hurt, founder of Art in Motion, a non-profit organization that since 2008 has worked with partners to build five Lextran bus shelters that are functional works of public art.

This is shaping up to be Art in Motion’s biggest year, with construction of three new shelters on Southland Drive, Leestown Road and Georgetown Street.

The Gardenside Neighborhood Association and Urban County Council member Peggy Henson approached Art in Motion about the Gardenside Plaza shelter in 2011.

Money for the restoration came from city “corridors” funding, Lextran, Gardenside Plaza owner Pierson-Trapp Co. and the philanthropic group Lexington Directions.

Art in Motion also is working with historian Karen Hudson at the University of Kentucky to compile an oral history of the shopping center and shelter. If you have memories to share, email:

Something built in the 1950s may not seem “historic” to many people. But high-quality mid-century modern architecture has gained a big following in recent years.

Architects say that, in many ways, it was the first American architectural style that took its inspiration from the future rather than the past.

Inspired by vacations in Miami Beach, Lexington developer David Trapp spent $8,500 in 1959 to build the sign and shelter for his shopping center. Public transportation was a big deal then.

“When the suburbs were opening up, women were basically trapped out there because most families, if they had a car, had only one,” Hudson said. “Women were the ones campaigning to get bus service” to new suburbs such as Gardenside, Meadowthorpe and Southland.

Between 1956 and 1972, as automobile registration in Fayette County more than quadrupled, the private bus company lost 36 percent of its paying passengers and went out of business. It was replaced by Lextran, a public agency, in 1973.

Public transportation is getting renewed interest because it is more environmentally friendly, reduces traffic congestion and is essential to many low-wage workers.

Hurt, an environmental lawyer, started Art in Motion as a volunteer project in 2006 because Lextran needed more bus shelters, she liked public art, and studies showed that transit systems that used public art in their facilities had higher ridership.

AIM built its first shelter, Bottlestop, using Ale-8-One bottles, on Versailles Road in 2008. Then came East End Artstop on Elm Tree Lane, Bluegrass shelter on Newtown Pike and Gardenstop on Euclid Avenue. AIM also helped the Columbia Heights Neighborhood Association with BankStop on the other end of Euclid.

AIM will begin work this month on Industrial Oasis, a shelter on Southland Drive in front of Good Foods Co-op. Contributors include Good Foods and shopping center owner Sanford Levy. It was designed by architect Adam Wiseman of Pohl Rosa Pohl and features steel work by sculptor John Darko.

When it is finished, work will begin on Chimneystop on Leestown Road at Townley shopping center with help from developer Dennis Anderson. Chimneystop was designed at UK by Justin Menke, Chad Riddle, Martin Steffen and Ryan Hargrove.

Marrillia Design & Construction will build both shelters, which will cost a total of $198,600. Funding comes from federal transportation grants, Lextran and partner donations.

Also this year, AIM will build a music-theme shelter on Georgetown Street at Lima Drive. It was designed by Gary Murphy of Prajna Design & Construction. Its $37,000 cost will come from city funds.

These shelters are designed to be functional, beautiful and durable. But Hurt said she has received some criticism about their cost.

“What I would argue is that we are creating work for local designers, craftsmen and firms that supply the materials,” she said. “Plus, we are creating both public art and basic amenities for public transit. It’s a good investment.”

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Alt32 architects find niche making furniture for their buildings

December 8, 2014

141120alt32-TE0023Alt32’s architects designed and used their computer-controlled router to manufacture office furniture and wall panels for the Plantory, a shared workspace facility in the Bread Box building at the corner of West Sixth and Jefferson streets. Photos by Tom Eblen


There is a celebrated tradition of architects designing furniture. Think Frank Lloyd Wright’s steel office desks, or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s chrome-and-leather Barcelona chair.

So when a client told Matthew Brooks and Mike Sparkman, principals of the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, it was planning to order a lot of Ikea desks and file units for office space they were designing, “a light bulb went off,” Brooks said.

“Mike and I both have a passion for making things,” he said, noting that they had rented a woodworking shop downtown a year earlier. “It started out as a place for us to work on our own stuff, for our houses and whatever.”

But the more they worked, the more they thought of ways they could create and fabricate fixtures and furniture for buildings they designed. That experimentation also became a passion for Michael Mead, a colleague who died in September.

141120alt32-TE0011It was all part of a creative evolution that Brooks and Sparkman, both 46, had been going through since they bought Lucas/Schwering Architects, a 25-year-old firm where they had worked for more than a decade. In 2012, they rebranded the firm Alt32, after a computer programming code for creating space.

Last year, the firm was hired to re-imagine a former two-car garage off South Ashland Avenue as a Greek restaurant, Athenian Grill. They used their workshop to recycle wood salvaged from the building for trim and fixtures. That led to other ideas, such as how to design and make furniture from birch plywood.

The big opportunity came as part of their work to design space for the Plantory, a shared office facility that was moving to larger quarters in the Bread Box building at the corner of Jefferson and West Sixth streets.

The Plantory serves mostly small, non-profit organizations, so its renovation was a low-budget project. Still, it was big enough to justify Alt32 buying an expensive CNC (computer numeric control) router.

With a CNC, designers use computer software to create intricate designs that can be cut from a variety of materials.

“It can do forms and shapes and geometries that traditional equipment can’t,” Sparkman said.

Alt32 made 64 desks and other furniture for the Plantory using birch plywood. Each desk was cut from a single sheet. Because the pieces were artfully arranged on the plywood before cutting, they left attractive “waste” sheets that could be used as decorative wall panels and stairway enclosures.

“In this case, the only waste is the sawdust,” Sparkman said.

Future products could include light fixtures, signage and even three-dimensional exterior wall panels made out of metal or plastic, which also can be cut on a CNC.

141112alt32-TE0065A“We’re just dipping our toe into the potential,” Brooks said. “But it’s a different kind of business from what our professional services are.”

The primary business they bought with Lucas/Schwering was designing Kentucky schools. That is still the firm’s bread and butter, and they want it to continue to be.

But they see fabrication, which now produces about 10 percent of their revenue and employs three full-time people in the shop, as a growth area that offers interesting ways to add value to their building designs.

For example, they have already made furniture for one school design. The firm designed interior space for Providence Montessori Middle School, which renovated the circa 1840s Florence Crittenton Home, and designed and built all of the school’s furniture.

Brooks and Sparkman said they have several upcoming projects, including new spaces for Crank & Boom ice cream and Lexington Pasta. They’re working on furniture prototypes that might fit the needs of those clients.

They also have thought of developing a line of ready-to-assemble furniture that could be sold online and flat-packed for shipping, as Ikea does.

Brooks and Sparkman said they want to keep their firm focused on Kentucky, and especially Lexington. Most of their non-school work is local, and they and all of the designers and interns in their firm are graduates of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design. They also want to keep Alt32 small enough to be flexible and creative.

“This has opened our eyes to different opportunities for how to manipulate materials,” Brooks said. “If you look at architecture now, it’s all about how do we manipulate all the materials we now have available.”

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‘What’s behind the wall’ beside Jefferson Street restaurants?

July 27, 2014


This rendering shows what the Apiary will look like when finished this fall. The catering company and event space is in the Jefferson Street restaurant district on the site of a special-effects company’s building that burned in July 2008. Photo: EOP Architects. 


Nobody paid much attention to the old industrial building on Jefferson Street until July 17, 2008, when a spectacular two-alarm fire gutted Star Light & Magic, a theatrical special effects company.

Jefferson Street is a much busier place now, having blossomed into a popular restaurant district, so a lot of people are watching and wondering about the construction going on there behind an elegant wall of brick, stone and wrought iron.

For nearly two years, the first phase of the project has been a commercial kitchen for Apiary Fine Catering & Events. When finished in October, the facility also will include The Apiary, an event space designed for an urban infill setting.

The Apiary is owned by Cooper Vaughan, 39, a graduate of Transylvania University and Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in London. Before moving back to his hometown in 2006, Vaughan was a chef at Blackberry Farm, the luxury resort in Tennessee.


Cooper Vaughan

Working in partnership with his parents, Neal and Derek Vaughan of Lexington’s G.F. Vaughan Tobacco Co., he hopes to create a unique 15,500-square-foot food and beverage destination. And, as the name implies, Vaughan said he also wants it to be a hive of activity, a gathering place for people interested in food, wine and cooking.

“We want to be a place other chefs can use when they don’t have the facilities,” he said. “That’s the sort of energy we want around here.”

The Vaughans’ vision for the Apiary included special architecture and landscaping, a place with modern lines but a warm, timeless feel. To achieve that, they hired three top-notch local professionals: architect Brent Bruner, garden designer Jon Carloftis and interior designer Matthew Carter.

The Apiary’s biggest venue will be the 2,000 square-foot Orangery room, which has a 10-foot by 30-foot skylight and 18-foot-tall windows designed to match antique French shutters. When finished, the room will contain orange, lemon and pear trees. There also will be a 1,000-square-foot Winter Room, an intimate tasting room beside the kitchen and a French limestone terrace that can accommodate a big tent.

Salvage materials are a big part of the design. Reclaimed brick, wood flooring and beams came from old tobacco warehouses. Stone was salvaged from a farm that belongs to Vaughan’s uncle. Pavers were once part of a barn at Hamburg Place horse farm. Massive pine doors came from Argentina, and two antique stone fountains in the courtyard are from Europe.

The brick and stone courtyard walls are accented with custom wrought iron created by artists Matthew and Karine Maynard of Maynard Studios in Lawrenceburg.

“They wanted it to have a substantial feel that at the same time is modern and fits into an urban setting,” said Bruner, a principal at EOP Architects. “The level of craftsmanship they wanted is not what you see a lot these days.”

Good planning allowed Carloftis to get a head start on the landscaping so it wouldn’t look new when the Apiary opens. It includes a “green” wall of plantings in the courtyard and a well-established pear tree cultivated espalier-style.


Brent Bruner of EOP Architects

Since the kitchen opened, Vaughan has given rent-free office space to Seedleaf, a Lexington nonprofit. Seedleaf works to increase the supply of affordable, nutritious and sustainably produced local food for people at risk of hunger in Central Kentucky. It sponsors community gardens, restaurant composting programs and classes that teach cooking and food-preservation skills.

The outdoor event spaces will include raised-bed vegetable and herb gardens designed by Carloftis and cared for by Seedleaf. Ryan Koch, Seedleaf’s founder and director, said they will both supply Apiary with food and subtly educate guests.

“It will be a unique opportunity to show how beautiful perennial herbs and some vegetables can be and how important local food is,” Koch said. “If we can help Apiary buy less food off the truck and get more out of their yard, I think people enjoying the space will appreciate that.”

The Seedleaf gardens and other landscaping will be irrigated with rainwater collected in a 12,000-gallon underground storage tank.

Vaughan declined to say how much his family is investing in the Apiary.

The designers’ goal with the building and grounds is to create indoor and outdoor spaces that gradually reveal themselves to visitors as they walk through. Vaughan hopes guests will notice something new each time they come.

“One thing we’ve been able to achieve is that not any one element screams,” he said. “A great event always has these elements of surprise. What’s behind the wall?”

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Lexington brothers, classmate win international design contest

April 14, 2014

MTCA rendering of the design for a mobile rural health care clinic for Southeast Asia. The design won Building Trust International’s Moved to Care competition. Below, designers Patrick Morgan, left, Simon Morgan, center, and Jhanéa “Jha D” Williams. Photos provided


The email from London looked genuine, but it arrived before dawn on April 1.

“Everybody we told thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” said Patrick Morgan, a young architect from Lexington. “I don’t think Jha D believed me. She just wanted to go back to sleep when I called her at 6:30 in the morning.”

The email was from Building Trust International, a London-based charity that works to improve life in developing countries with good shelter design. It told Morgan that he, his brother, Simon, and his architecture school classmate, Jhanéa “Jha D” Williams, had won the organization’s fifth international design competition, to create a mobile health clinic for use in Southeast Asia.

Their design was chosen from among more than 200 entries by student and professional architects. The best student entry won a small cash prize. “Our prize is that it actually gets built and used,” Simon said.

There were nine professional runners-up in the competition, from India, South Korea, Australia, Italy, Denmark, Ireland and Malaysia.

“It’s still a shock that we won,” Patrick said.

Patrick, 26, has a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and works for Interface Studio Architects in Philadelphia. Simon, 24, has a master’s in public health from Columbia University and works for a firm in Washington, D.C., analyzing health policy.

The brothers have been interested in design and construction since they were boys, helping their parents, John Morgan and Linda Carroll, restore historic houses in downtown Lexington.

“That was quite a bit of it,” Patrick said with a laugh. “Having a wheelbarrow in my hands at 6 months old.”

For their Eagle Scout service projects, they built a patio and landscaping at St. Paul Catholic Church.

As an architect with the Lexington firm Thought Space, Patrick designed the interior of an early 1800s cottage his parents restored on East Third Street. It is beside the offices of their company, Morgan Worldwide, a consulting firm that specializes in reducing the environmental impact of mining.

MTCteamPatrick said he saw Building Trust International’s Moved to Care competition advertised on an architecture blog and suggested developing an entry with his brother and Williams, who works for the architecture and planning firm Sasaki Associates in Boston.

“This sounded perfect for what Simon and I wanted to do together,” he said. “We had always been thinking about trying to work together on projects that would combine our skill sets.”

The idea is that health care services and education can be more effectively delivered in rural areas by bringing small clinics to people rather than asking them to travel to clinics for medical treatment, vaccinations and hygiene education.

“We had been talking about doing something like this for two years,” Simon said. “I studied in South Africa as an undergraduate, and I thought something like this was a much better way to deliver care.”

Patrick said several things about their design seemed to impress the judges. It is easily portable, folding out from a standard tractor-trailer bed. It uses a lot of color, which makes the clinic look welcoming and provides visual clues for usage in a region where dozens of languages are spoken. The design also allows outdoor deck space to be customized for each location.

“The idea is they would fold down from the trailer, but then the community could come in to use their knowledge to build the sun shading and the railings,” Patrick said. “So the local community would feel involved with it.”

Patrick and Simon said they hope to stay connected to the project as it is built and put to use in Cambodia in a pilot project late this year.

“We definitely want to get to Cambodia and stay as involved as possible,” Patrick said. “We’ll get to test the ideas we had in the design and see how they work in the real world, and then be able to tweak it for future models. The idea is that this won’t just be one clinic, but over time they will build more and more of them.”

The Morgan brothers hope to do many more projects together, combining aspects of public health and innovative design.

“It’s just really nice that the first time Simon and I worked together, doing something we plan on doing for a long time, that we were able to win,” Patrick said. “It shows that our ideas meld together nicely.”


1910 Coal & Feed Co. building redone as corporate headquarters

February 24, 2014

140218BCWood0016Brian C. Wood, founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, stands in the lobby of the company’s headquarters as Jeannette Crank works behind the front desk and a meeting is conducted in a second-floor conference room. Wood said the renovated circa 1910 Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. building has been a perfect space for the business. Photos by Tom Eblen 


A couple of years ago, Brian Wood, the founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, took the company’s president, King Offutt, down West Fourth Street to show him where Transylvania University, his alma mater, was building new athletic fields.

That part of town was beginning to see dramatic change, including conversion of the huge Eastern State Hospital property into a new campus for Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

While driving around, they turned down Henry Street, a byway that connects to West Third Street. It runs along railroad tracks and old grain elevators near Newtown Pike.

Then they saw it: a hulk of a brick building. It had been built in 1910 by the legendary millionaire horseman James Ben Ali Haggin to house his Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. Since then, though, it had suffered at least two fires and years of vacancy.

“We had been looking for a building for a couple of years” to house the growing company’s headquarters, Offutt said. “We wanted a building with character.”

140218BCWood0032At the time, the company worked out of Eastland Shopping Center, one of more than 30 retail properties with 5.5 million square feet of space that BC Wood Properties now owns and manages in eight states.

“It was love at first sight,” Wood said of the three-story building. “A diamond in the rough.”

After they looked around the outside and in a few windows, Offutt reached for his cellphone and called the owner. “We want to buy your building,” he said.

Considerable work and a couple of million dollars later, BC Wood Properties has one of the coolest office spaces in Lexington: foot-thick, exposed brick walls; warm wood everywhere, including massive hewn posts and beams; big windows that fill the space with natural light.

The company’s in-house construction experts did most of the renovation. Local craftsmen made long trestle tables for shared conference space between offices and custom metal signs.

140218BCWood0025A huge wooden sliding door was preserved on one wall. Casual seating around the building includes old wooden pews bought on eBay from a Wisconsin church. The façade along Henry Street preserves the painted sign for another long-ago tenant, Central Kentucky Blue Grass Seed Co.

“It works really well,” Offutt said of the building. “It’s certainly improved morale among our employees. They love the building and coming to work in it.”

The building had a modern metal addition on the back, which Wood turned into an employee gym and basketball court. The company pays for a fitness trainer to come in three times a week to work with employees, and the benefit has proven popular, he said.

Preserving the building’s industrial character was their approach to the renovation, Wood said.

“We wanted to keep the essential historical nature, and not try to turn it into something it’s not,” Wood said, noting that is a key principle of the company itself.

Wood started BC Wood Properties 20 years ago and has focused on a specific niche: modest shopping centers in high-traffic locations where middle-class people shop regularly for things they need to live. He said the strategy has worked well: its properties remained more than 90 percent leased throughout the economic slump.

It also helps that the company handles all management, construction and maintenance in-house, rather than outsourcing it, to ensure that properties stay in good shape. That requires a strong team, Wood said, which includes a full-time staff of 18 in Lexington and another 14 employees elsewhere.

Last year, the company raised a $43 million private equity fund for acquisitions, about one-third of it from local investors. That allowed it to purchase 11 shopping centers in five states last year, Wood said.

Wood and Offutt are both 41-year-old Lexington natives, and they said they enjoy being part of the revitalization of Lexington’s northwest end.

“This building reflects who we are,” Wood said. “We didn’t want a high-rise presence. We enjoy being on Henry Street beside grain bins and Blue Stallion Brewery. This is us.”

Added Offutt: “This area is going to change so much in the next five years, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

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Warwick: historic Kentucky home meets a scholar’s imagination

January 18, 2014


Clay Lancaster lived in the circa 1809 Moses Jones house at his Warwick estate. The small but elegant house was built by a successful merchant along the Kentucky River in Mercer County. Photos by Tom Eblen


SALVISA — Warwick, the 205-year-old brick cottage that architectural historian Clay Lancaster restored and embellished with “folly” structures from his rich imagination, will be open Sunday afternoon for a rare public tour.

The open house is being given by the non-profit Warwick Foundation, which Lancaster created before his death in 2000 to care for the property and promote his many interests, which included historic preservation and cross-cultural understanding.

140116Warwick0053In additions to tours of his home, drawings gallery and two “folly” buildings, visitors can buy copies of some of the more than two dozen books Lancaster wrote. They include everything from scholarly tomes to illustrated children’s books on subjects ranging from early Kentucky architecture to Asian philosophy.

The event is the first of several the foundation plans this year to help more people appreciate Warwick and Lancaster’s brilliant legacy as a scholar, writer, artist and Renaissance man.

“He had so many interests,” said Paul Holbrook, the foundation’s president and a friend of Lancaster. “He was driven by his interests.”

Lancaster was born in Lexington in 1917 and grew up in the Bell Court neighborhood, where his father built two homes. They sparked Lancaster’s interest in bungalow architecture, which led to his book The American Bungalow (1985).

He studied at the University of Kentucky before moving to New York, where he taught at Columbia University, Vassar College and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also was curator of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

140116Warwick0083Lancaster wrote about architecture in Brooklyn and on Massachusetts’ Nantucket Island, where he restored an 1829 house and lived for several years. He became an influential advocate for historic preservation, both in the Northeast and in Kentucky.

The New York Times said his book, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb, “provided the historical and intellectual ammunition for the successful argument in 1965 that Brooklyn Heights should become the city’s first historic district.”

Lancaster is best known in Kentucky for his photographs and research documenting antebellum homes. His meticulous scholarship added immeasurably to public knowledge of and efforts to preserve Kentucky’s outstanding early architecture. His books on the subject are the authoritative reference works: Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass (1961), Vestiges of the Venerable City(1978) and Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky (1991).

When a friend, architectural historian and retired Herald-Leader reporter Bettye Lee Mastin, notified Lancaster in 1978 that the Warwick property he had long admired was for sale, he bought it and moved back to Kentucky.

The property along the Kentucky River in Mercer County includes a brick cottage of superb craftsmanship built by Moses Jones, a pioneer entrepreneur, between 1809-1811. The house’s elaborately carved woodwork includes basket-weave patterns on the mantels that were inspired by Jones’ 9-year captivity as a child among the Chickasaw tribe in Tennessee.

Lancaster meticulously restored the Moses Jones house and added a wing for his bedroom, kitchen and library. He furnished it with Kentucky antiques, as well as art and furniture from Asia, a place he never visited but studied and wrote about in such books as The Japanese Influence in America (1983) and The Breadth and Depth of East and West (1995).

Lancaster was a vegan, a yoga enthusiast and a convert to Buddhism who, nevertheless, delighted his many friends each year with whimsical Christmas cards he illustrated.

Thanks to a windfall from the sale of farmland inherited from his father, Lancaster built two architectural “follies,” fanciful structures he had delighted in drawing since childhood. The first was Warwick Pavilion, a small, elegant Georgian tea room connected to a stockroom for books he wrote and published.

The second folly is a three-story, octagonal guest house, modeled after the 1st Century BC Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece. No more than 25 feet at its widest point, the tower is a masterpiece of compact design with three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, studio, winding staircase and elegant, elliptical parlor.

The guest house, meticulously built by Calvin Shewmaker and other local craftsmen, is now used for visiting scholars, including UK’s annual Clay Lancaster Scholar.

“It’s such an interesting collection of buildings and a lovely setting,” Holbrook said. “We’re trying to figure out how to get more people there to see it.”

If you go

Warwick Foundation open house and book sale

When: Noon — 4 p.m. Jan. 19.
Where: Warwick is on Oregon Road about six miles off U.S. 127 near Salvisa.
More information: (859) 494-2852,

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Don’t approve CentrePointe without good design, proof of financing

October 8, 2013

Full page photo

 CentrePointe version 6.1, which will be up for approval Wednesday before Lexington’s Court House Area Design Review Board. Rendering by CMMI/Atlanta.


If there is one thing Lexington officials should keep in mind over the next few weeks, it is this: there are far worse things you can have in the center of your city than a grassy field.

Developer Dudley Webb will be back before the Court House Area Design Review Board on Wednesday seeking final design approval for his long-stalled CentrePointe project. Webb must convince the board that his proposed development of offices, apartments, restaurants, shops and a hotel is compatible with the surrounding area.

In Webb’s last appearance, Aug. 21, a divided board reluctantly gave partial approval to his latest design — CentrePointe version 6.0 — but wanted more work on some elements. The board’s reluctance stemmed from the fact that CentrePointe 6.0 was a big step backward from the previous, well-designed version.

In response to the board’s concerns, Webb last week unveiled his design “tweaks” as he calls them. But CentrePointe version 6.1 is another step backward. It reminds me of the uninspired stuff that was being built around Atlanta when I lived there in the 1980s and 1990s.

What the board must decide is whether CentrePointe 6.1 is good enough to meet the city’s criteria. Board members should base their decision on a careful evaluation of the design, not pressure from a developer citing the urgency of his own deadlines.

Throughout this process, Webb has made claims about urgency that amounted to nothing. The board was too quick to allow demolition of the block five years ago. Despite all of Webb’s promises, CentrePointe remains an empty field.

At the Aug. 21 meeting, Webb said he needed the board’s quick approval because he risked losing a big office tenant if he didn’t begin construction in October. We are more than a week into October, but Webb has not shown the evidence of financing he needs to get building permits.

One recent development is unlikely to inspire confidence among board members.

EOP Architects, the Lexington firm that designed the excellent CentrePointe 5.0 and presented CentrePointe 6.0 on Webb’s behalf at the last meeting, has quit the project and filed a lien against the property, claiming its fees have not been paid.

You have to wonder at what point city officials — from review board appointees to the mayor and members of the Urban County Council — need to start asking themselves this question: is CentrePointe real or a mirage? That question is important for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, the city asked for state tax-increment financing for public improvements related to CentrePointe. The state is likely to allow Lexington only so much TIF financing authority. While CentrePointe has languished, other downtown projects have emerged that would seem to have much more economic development potential. Is CentrePointe still a horse the city wants to hitch its cart to?

And there is the larger issue of financial viability. Remember the unidentified financier who supposedly promised Webb money but died without leaving a will? If Webb has secured more solid financial support since then, he has yet to prove it.

The biggest risk of CentrePointe is not that it ends up being ugly, but that it ends up being ugly and unfinished. The next-biggest risk is that Webb is allowed to begin construction, runs short of money and then forces the city to make further concessions to keep the project from being abandoned.

Before city officials issue Webb permits to do anything on that grassy field, they should demand two things: show us good design, and show us the money.

Landscape architect helped shape the face of Lexington

September 23, 2013


Retired landscape architect D. Lyle Aten.  Photo by Tom Eblen


You may not have heard of Lyle Aten, but if you live in Lexington, you see his life’s work every day.

Since moving here in 1952, the landscape architect has had a hand in creating master plans and site designs for more than 60 projects in Central Kentucky.

Aten and his firm helped design neighborhoods such as Eastland, Cardinal Valley, Lansdowne, Stonewall, Merrick Place, Hamburg, Hartland, Beaumont and Wellesley Heights.

His shopping centers include Lexington Green, Hamburg, Beaumont, Tates Creek Center, Lansdowne, Lansbrook and Palomar.

Aten helped with the realignment of Main and Vine streets downtown and the epic reconstruction of Paris Pike. He worked on the IBM campus, Commonwealth Stadium, Coldstream Research Park and the Lexington Legends’ baseball field.

He helped plan Lexington’s Jacobson and Phoenix parks, as well as several state parks, including the lodge complex at Lake Barkley.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” said Aten, 86. “I was in the right place at the right time. And, most of the time, I had clients who let me do what I thought was right.”

Aten grew up in Macomb, Ill., and didn’t know what a landscape architect was until a career counselor gave him an aptitude test and pointed him toward the profession and the University of Illinois.

“Fortunately, I was on the GI Bill or I couldn’t have done it,” he said.

His timing was perfect: one of his instructors was Hideo Sasaki, who would go on to become one of America’s most influential landscape architects and the longtime head of Harvard University’s landscape architecture program.

After graduation, Aten joined the Peoria, Ill., firm Scruggs & Hammond, which sent him to Lexington to work on a couple of projects. Kentucky had only a half-dozen landscape architects at the time, he said.

“That was good and bad,” Aten said. “People didn’t know what a landscape architect was. It wasn’t about putting bushes around a house.”

As Lexington began an era of rapid growth, the Scruggs & Hammond office Aten headed found plenty of work and grew to 30 employees. In addition to design work, Aten taught as a longtime adjunct at the University of Kentucky, wrote several local environmental ordinances and, after retirement in 2000, served eight years on the city planning commission.

All of that made me think Aten would be a good person to talk with about development in Lexington — the successes, the mistakes and lessons for the future.

Lexington has a better history of planning and managing growth than most places. That has included protecting rural land and fertile soils with the nation’s first Urban Services Boundary and the Purchase of Development Rights program.

“Very few places in the United States have gone through this process, where we give value to our environment,” he said.

But a lot of mistakes were made, too.

“The first thing you have to do is to find out what nature is doing and respond to nature’s systems,” Aten said. “When you start to conflict with those systems, you get into some expensive problems.”

Among Lexington’s mistakes: trying to bury or reroute streams, which contributed to flooding and water-quality problems. The best example of that was the decision a century ago to bury Town Branch Creek beneath downtown.

“Now we’re going back and rediscovering the quality of that drainage way there and making it an asset rather than something you turn your back on,” he said.

Aten has been impressed with the master planning processes being used for the Rupp District and Town Branch projects downtown, he said.

“I think it can work out real well,” he said. “I really appreciate the approach that the mayor is taking to these things.”

The key to good planning and design decisions, Aten said, is a process that includes sound research, a collaboration of talented professionals and public involvement.

Metro Lexington must find better ways to increase density, do more mixed-use development and limit sprawl, especially in low-tax counties surrounding Fayette where tax revenues never manage to pay for sprawl.

“We have to learn to live closer together in more quality ways,” Aten said. “But you fit the city to the land. You don’t alter the land to fit the other pattern.”

KET, architects ask public to rank Kentucky’s best buildings

September 3, 2013


Kentucky’s Old Capitol in Frankfort, designed by Kentucky architect Gideon Shryock and built in the late 1820s, is a Greek Revival masterpiece that has a self-supported double stone staircase and a dome that floods the interior with light. It was Kentucky’s Capitol from 1830 until 1910. Photos by Tom Eblen


Kentucky has such beautiful natural landscape that the built environment often gets short shrift. Kentucky Educational Television and the American Institute of Architects Kentucky hope to change that.

The two organizations asked the public in April to nominate buildings for two lists, “50 of the Best Kentucky Buildings” and “10 Buildings that Changed Louisville.” The list of 50 was compiled from more than 300 suggestions.

KET and AIAK are asking the public to vote online ( before the end of September to rank those 50 buildings. A professional jury will choose the “10 Buildings that Changed Louisville.” The rankings are to be announced in mid-November.

These sorts of lists are subjective, but compiling them is fun, because it offers a chance to step back and reflect.

The 50 finalists represent a good cross-section of style, function and location. They include most of the iconic buildings you would expect, such as the State Capitol, Churchill Downs’ Twin Spires and Federal Hill (My Old Kentucky Home). Others are not so familiar, such as the Begley Chapel, a modernist masterpiece at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia.

Not all of the finalists are specific buildings. One is Lexington’s Calumet Farm, which in the 1920s set the style for Bluegrass horse farms’ elegant blend of natural and built environments.

Before you go online to vote, let me tell you about five buildings I like and voted for — plus one that didn’t make the list, but should have.

The State Capitol is magnificent, with lots of marble columns and a dome reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol. But I have always been charmed by the Old Capitol, which was used from 1830 until it was replaced by the current one in 1910.

The Old Capitol is a Greek Revival jewel box of Kentucky River limestone. It was the first building designed by Kentuckian Gideon Shryock, who was then in his mid-20s and had studied under the famous architect William Strickland.

The windowless front façade looks like a Greek temple, with Ionic columns and a triangular pediment. As with many great buildings, the best stuff is inside: a dome that fills the interior with light and twin self-supported staircases made of stone. They create one of Kentucky’s most magical spaces.

Another of my favorites isn’t a building, but the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial on a hillside overlooking Frankfort. It honors the state’s 125,000 Vietnam War veterans and pays special tribute to the 1,103 who died there.

What makes the memorial unique is that it is a giant sundial — a large, granite plaza carved with the name of each fallen soldier. A 14-foot steel gnomon casts a shadow on each name the day he or she died.

The memorial was designed by Lexington architect Helm Roberts. Two years before he died in 2010, Roberts gave me a tour of the memorial and explained how he figured out the mathematical calculations to make it work. The result is literally a moving tribute to fallen warriors.

My last three favorites on the list are a dormitory and homes designed by two of America’s most famous architects.

Centre Family Dwelling at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill was designed by Micajah Burnett and built between 1824 and 1834 of locally quarried limestone. The largest building at the Mercer County village housed as many as 100 of the celibate Shakers until the religious sect’s last members died around 1910. The building’s symmetry and use of space, light and materials make it a masterpiece of elegantly simple Shaker design.

The Jesse Zeigler house in Frankfort is the only building in Kentucky designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the most influential architect of the 20th century. He created it in 1910 for a Presbyterian minister he met on a voyage to Europe.

The modestly sized, four-bedroom house has the strong horizontal lines of Wright’s “prairie” style and is a forerunner of today’s open floor plans. Leaded-glass windows and Roman brick on the fireplace came from Wright’s Chicago studio. It is now the home of Ed and Sue Stodola.

My final favorite may be one of the most architecturally significant houses in America, despite a history of abuse. Pope Villa in Lexington was designed in 1811 for Sen. John Pope by Benjamin Latrobe, America’s first great architect. His most famous work includes parts of the U.S. Capitol.

Latrobe used Pope’s commission to express his ideas about how a “rational house” in America should be designed. It is a perfect square with a dome in the center, service areas on the first floor and the main rooms on the second.

Latrobe’s design was so radically different than most American mansions of the 19th century that succeeding owners did everything they could to alter it to look more conventional. Pope Villa was eventually divided into student apartments, and it was heavily damaged by fire in 1987.

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation acquired Pope Villa after the fire and has slowly been working to return it to its original glory. The Trust is seeking National Landmark status for the building, which could make it easier to raise restoration money.

One building that didn’t make the top-50 list, but should have, is the Miller House in Lexington. It is not much to look at from the outside, but inside, the use of volume, space and light is amazing.

The Miller House was completed in 1992 for Robert and Penny Miller. It was designed by José Oubrerie, a protégé of the modernist French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who went by the name Le Corbusier.

After Robert Miller’s death, the 21-acre property was sold for development and the house was vandalized. The damage was repaired, and the house has recently been for sale. Unfortunately, surrounding development has compromised much of the view out its glass walls.

In many ways, the Miller House is the late 20th-century equivalent of Pope Villa: a radical rethinking of home design that people either love or hate. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that is what makes best buildings rankings so interesting.

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Kroger on Euclid a chance for Lexington to do urban infill right

July 20, 2013


A recent rendering of the design for the exterior of the new Kroger store on Euclid Avenue, incorporating ideas from architect Graham Pohl.  Photo provided


The design of a new grocery is usually of little interest beyond its neighborhood. But the Kroger reconstruction on Euclid Avenue offers some important lessons for Lexington as the city focuses more on urban infill and redevelopment.

Kroger has had this Chevy Chase grocery for decades, a suburban-style box behind a wrap-around parking lot. As the neighborhoods surrounding it have become more dense, the store has become more crowded.

While new, small markets such as Town Branch and Shorty’s have filled an important niche, this Kroger is the only supermarket close to Lexington’s increasingly popular intown neighborhoods. Residents there want more shopping options without having to drive to the suburbs.

Kroger plans to spend $19 million building a new store on the site, plus four adjacent quarter-acre lots it acquired. The grocery’s size will increase from 38,000 square feet to 65,000, although some of that new space will be basement storage. In addition to a surface lot, there will be a ramp and parking on the roof.

A larger store requires a zoning change, which has been approved by the Planning Commission and will go before Council on Aug. 13.

Kroger’s initial design was uninspiring — a plain, suburban-style box oriented toward a parking lot rather than the street, as are most buildings in that neighborhood, most of which was developed during the first four decades of the 20th century.

Architect Graham Pohl of the firm Pohl Rosa Pohl offered to donate his services to Kroger to help improve the exterior design to make it more compatible. He also wanted the store to be more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, since that is the way many of Kroger’s customers get there.

“My passion is good design, and I wanted a building that responded to the urban setting and looked like it had been designed, not a building that looked like an afterthought,” said Pohl, who has lived and worked in the neighborhood — and shopped at that Kroger — since 1980.

Pohl said Kroger has been very receptive to his ideas for improving the store’s design. “I have seen a real effort on their part to do the right thing,” he said.

Pohl attributes much of that to city leadership. Mayor Jim Gray has made it clear to Kroger and other developers that infill projects must be well-designed and appropriate to their surroundings.

That is the first important lesson: When city officials and residents make it clear that mediocre design is no longer good enough for Lexington, developers will respond. If a city wants design excellence, it must insist on it.

Pohl, who said he was paid nothing for his work, showed me recent versions of the Kroger design that are dramatically better than the initial ones, in both function and appearance. If Kroger follows through, the store will be better-looking, more compatible with the neighborhood and a more pleasant place to shop.

FortKrogerBut some of the store’s neighbors still aren’t happy, and they are opposing the zoning change. Driving through the neighborhood last Thursday, I saw three yellow yard signs that said, “No to Fort Kroger.”

Opponents say the new store is too big for the site and will create traffic congestion. Pohl thinks some of their fears are exaggerated, but he said city officials should continue to work with Kroger to address several issues. Those include outdoor lighting, pedestrian and cyclist safety, the addition of a bus shelter and limits on when delivery trucks can idle at the loading docks.

City officials should work with Kroger on sensible compromises to make this bigger grocery succeed. Still, it is unlikely every neighbor will be satisfied.

We say it all the time in Lexington, to the point that it has become a cliché: we need to grow up, not out, if we want to preserve our unique rural landscape from more suburban sprawl.

That kind of growth means more infill and redevelopment, and that often means increasing population density. People in Lexington have never been comfortable with increasing density, but that must change.

The Euclid Avenue Kroger project is an excellent opportunity for Lexington to learn more about good urban design and increasing density, and to figure out how to do it right.


Business now looks to designers as problem-solvers

April 9, 2012

One of the great things about living in a university town is the ability to attend educational lectures and symposia, which are almost always free and open to the public.

I recently went to a symposium at the University of Kentucky marking the 40th anniversary of the School of Interior Design. One reason I went was I knew very little about interior design or the education of interior designers.

I was like most people, school director Ann Dickson said: “They think it’s about teaching people how to choose the color of drapes.”

Modern interior design is about creating the environments where we spend most of our time. It is not just about making interior spaces more attractive, but more comfortable, efficient, functional, healthy and safe.

In an increasingly complex world, designers of all kinds are more problem-solvers than anything else. Many of the problem-solving approaches discussed by this symposium’s speakers and panelists are useful no matter your business.

Robin Guenther, a New York-based principal with the big architectural firm Perkins + Will, is a specialist in designing health care spaces. Why should anyone but health care professionals care about that?

Well, at 18 percent of gross domestic product and growing, health care is one of the nation’s biggest industries, Guenther noted. So much health care construction is being done that it is uniquely positioned to drive the research and innovation that eventually will influence virtually all construction.

Guenther gave a fascinating presentation about how the hospital building boom is leading to innovations in energy-efficiency, environmental sustainability, comfort and safety.

Most hospitals built in the late 20th century were poorly designed, she said. Patients and staff had too little natural light and ventilation, which has proven health benefits. Guenther cited studies that show the average U.S. hospital uses as much energy as 3,500 homes — and 40 percent more energy than comparably sized hospitals in often-colder northern European climates.

In addition, she said, too little attention was paid to the array of chemicals used in carpet and other non-renewable building materials. The body absorbs many of those chemicals, which can contribute to everything from cancer to obesity.

“Shouldn’t we be building cancer centers that don’t contain known carcinogens?” Guenther said. “This is really a design question. How we design our materials, our supply chains.”

The marketplace drives innovation, she said, and designers will increasingly be asked to play key roles in making businesses more efficient and competitive.

“Hospitals talk about a nursing shortage,” Guenther said. “There’s not a shortage of nurses so much as a shortage of nurses who want to work in most hospital environments.” That is because today’s nurses have so many more professional opportunities.

A key ingredient to successful design and innovation is what speaker Prataap Patrose called “disruptive partnerships” — bringing together people from different realms of thought and experience to solve problems.

“Problem-solving is no longer linear; it is three-dimensional,” said Patrose, who directs the Urban Design Department of the Boston Redevelopment Corp.

Inclusive, structured problem-solving processes are sometimes criticized as inefficient because they take time. But Patrose said that what may seem inefficient in the short-term is often more efficient in the long-term. That is because better processes produce more effective solutions.

Patrose said 80 percent of his job is negotiation — something he never studied while in college to become an architect and urban designer.

Mayor Jim Gray, who was among a group of panelists asked to respond to Patrose’s remarks, emphatically agreed. He said his background as a construction executive has been invaluable as mayor.

“Construction is fundamentally about project management and problem-solving,” Gray said. “The skill sets that we have so much need for involve collaboration — designing systems to get things done.”

Gray cited Lexington’s recent Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force as an example of a project that combined creative vision with “disruptive partnership” collaboration and a well-designed process for translating ideas into a plan.

“It’s about being on the balcony strategically thinking,” he said, “and also being on the dance floor tactically thinking.”

Patrose and Gray both emphasized that effective problem-solving requires being able to measure needs and results.

“The measurable becomes understandable,” Patrose said. “The understandable becomes personal and the personal becomes solvable.”

CentrePointe soap opera needs good ending

October 30, 2011

I knew that a successful partnership between Lexington developer Dudley Webb and world-class architect Jeanne Gang would require a triumph of hope over experience.

At the urging of Mayor Jim Gray, Webb hired Gang in March to re-imagine CentrePointe, his stalled hotel, retail, office and residential development that for two years has been a conspicuously empty field in the center of the city.

CentrePointe, version 1

Webb’s initial CentrePointe designs were towering monstrosities. But Chicago-based Studio Gang developed a plan that was elegant, inspirational and appropriate to the human scale of downtown Lexington. Gang’s creative approach — and the thoughtful process by which she explained it — charmed a skeptical public.

So what did Webb do? He dumped her.

Gang is becoming one of America’s most sought-after architects. She has designed innovative, successful buildings around the world, including Chicago’s new Aqua tower. Last month, she became only the third architect to receive one of the MacArthur Foundation’s $500,000 “genius” grants.

Webb, on the other hand, has a record of building towers in downtown Lexington that look as if they belong in a suburban Atlanta office park. Works of genius? Not even close.

CentrePointe, version 2

Rather than cap his career by building a Jeanne Gang creation — and score a big marketing coup for himself and Lexington — Webb said last week that he had chosen to go in a “different direction.” He replaced Gang with EOP Architects, one of five Lexington firms that she had brought in to help her.

EOP does not have Studio Gang’s world-class stature, but it has done some excellent work. The firm is capable of producing a good design for CentrePointe, especially if it sticks with Gang’s vision.

That vision includes a varied, human-scale facade along Main Street that complements the interesting old buildings across the street; breathing space inside the block rather than one dense mass; and towers along Vine Street that look special and don’t overwhelm their neighbors.

But an architect can only be as good as his client allows. EOP’s biggest challenge on this job might be keeping its own good reputation intact.

CentrePointe, version 3 compared with version 2

Gang’s departure from CentrePointe is disappointing, but she leaves an important legacy. She set a high bar for new architecture in Lexington. She also showed how builders can honestly engage a community that finally seems to understand that good design will contribute to Lexington’s beauty, functionality and economic success.

The CentrePointe fiasco has made Lexington more demanding of high-profile developments, both their quality and their process. People are less willing to accept the way developers used to do business here: make plans in secret, unveil them with a “like it or lump it” attitude and bulldoze through opposition.

The University of Kentucky’s new Davis Marksbury building has set a high standard for good, environmentally sensitive architecture by which future UK projects will be judged.

Barry McNees has worked hard to incorporate good design and public participation into his plans for the Lexington Distillery District along Manchester Street.

Bluegrass Community and Technical College President Augusta Julian hired talented professionals and encouraged public input for plans for a new campus on the former site of Eastern State Hospital.

The Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force has hired world-class architect Gary Bates to oversee a public process for planning the long-term redevelopment of 46 acres of underused city land that include Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center convention complex.

Meanwhile, the Urban County Council’s Design Excellence Task Force is looking at ways to change laws and standards to encourage higher-quality downtown development than what Lexington has seen in recent decades.

All of this work is more significant than CentrePointe. Still, Lexington has a lot at stake in what happens on the block in the center of the city. People will be paying close attention to how Webb and landowner Joe Rosenberg handle that responsibility — assuming, of course, that anyone lends them the more than $200 million needed to build Webb’s dream.

Will CentrePointe help usher in a new era of good architecture in Lexington? Or will it become just another Webb development? I’m still pulling for a triumph of hope over experience.

Jeanne Gang's CentrePointe concept

Keeneland shows the value of good planning, design

October 11, 2011

Keeneland is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, a colorful pageant of fast horses and the people who come from everywhere to watch them run.

Keeneland also is a place that can teach many lessons about success. Now celebrating its 75th year, the organization is a model of excellence in racing, hospitality, marketing, community investment, strategic vision, long-range planning and good design.

Those last three lessons were on my mind over the weekend, as Keeneland began its fall racing meet. Perhaps that was because I was there with a group of architects and planners brought together by the University of Kentucky’s College of Design.

Among them was Henk Ovink, a top planner for the government of the Netherlands, a compact nation that does urban planning as well as any on Earth. Ovink has visited Lexington many times, but this was his first time at Keeneland.

He was impressed.

“It is so well done,” Ovink said as he gazed at the track and the farmland beyond. “They have integrated a very big facility beautifully into the landscape.

“If you can do it with this, you can do it with a residential development,” he said. “It isn’t that hard. You just have to pay attention to what you are doing.”

That got me to thinking about one of Lexington’s ironies.

Keeneland might be the ultimate expression of Lexington’s most famous attribute: a uniquely beautiful landscape of horse farms, bounded by stacked-stone and wood-plank fences and dotted with elegant mansions and handsome barns. It is an environment that makes the most of Central Kentucky’s natural beauty.

But it is a built environment — no more natural or accidental than the colorful chaos of an English garden.

The irony is that Lexingtonians, surrounded by this well-designed rural landscape, have paid so little attention to the design and quality of their urban landscape. Unlike Louisville or Cincinnati, this city has little history of appreciating good, innovative architecture, and it has a hit-and-miss record of urban planning.

Since the 1940s, dozens of beautiful downtown buildings have been torn down for parking lots, or replaced by bland boxes of concrete and glass. Lexington has some lovely suburban neighborhoods — but many more cookie-cutter subdivisions of vinyl-clad boxes and cheaply built apartments, some of which quickly became slums.

Local developers have often seen design professionals as costs to be cut rather than as resources to be used to improve functionality and create both beauty and long-term value. Until recently, few residents or politicians objected when Lexington’s landscape was littered with generic junk. “Oh, well, it’s their property,” people would say, rather than, “Is this how we want our city to look?”

As Ovink was admiring Keeneland, I told him some of what track president Nick Nicholson has told me about the thought, planning and attention to detail that his organization puts into the design and care of the buildings and grounds.

Nothing about Keeneland’s look happens by accident, whether it is the architecture of a building, the placement of a bush or the trimming of a tree. Visitors might not realize it, but design excellence is at the heart of the Keeneland experience.

Of course, Keeneland has a lot of money to work with. But that hasn’t always been the case. When the founders turned Jack Keene’s stables into a racetrack, they did it on a shoestring budget during the Great Depression. Still, from the beginning, Keeneland’s leaders focused on excellence and long-term value.

This is a good time to think about Keeneland’s example. One Urban County Council task force is studying opportunities for urban infill and redevelopment, and another is looking at incorporating “design excellence” into the city’s planning and zoning laws and processes.

Meanwhile, a community task force is creating a master plan for the redevelopment of 46 underused acres of city-owned property downtown that includes Rupp Arena and Lexington Center. It is a thoughtful process, and the task force has engaged some world-class design professionals to consider the possibilities.

Quality costs more than junk, but good design doesn’t have to be expensive. As much as anything, it is the result of careful thought and good planning. Will Lexingtonians finally insist on an urban landscape worthy of the rural one that surrounds it?

UK design college’s River Cities project gets notice

April 25, 2011

How do you turn liabilities into assets, then use them to improve the economy? That is a challenge facing the University of Kentucky’s College of Design and leaders in three Kentucky cities along the Ohio River.

While the work in Henderson, Paducah and Louisville is still in early stages, it could soon get some international attention. UK hopes to receive confirmation next week that its Kentucky River Cities project has been chosen for inclusion in the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam in April 2012.

The architecture and urban planning exhibition, held every other year in Holland, says it “aspires to stimulate a wider discourse on the relationship between our environments and the quality of our lives.” Next year’s Biennale will explore new ways of planning and creating more sustainable cities, which over the next few decades are projected to house 80 percent of the world’s people on less than 3 percent of the earth’s surface.

The exhibition will focus on three cities — Rotterdam, Istanbul, and Sao Paulo, — but will include other examples of innovation around the world. “It’s a big deal to be included,” said Michael Speaks, dean of the UK College of Design. “They get a huge number of applications from all over the world.”

Henk Ovink, director of national spatial planning for the Netherlands and a Biennale organizer, has visited Kentucky three times to speak at the college and observe the River Cities project.

The River Cities project began nearly four years ago as a five-day design workshop in Henderson by the college and the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, where Speaks then directed the graduate program. Several people from those schools were Henderson natives, and they were trying to help local business and civic leaders imagine how to redesign and revitalize the cities to adapt to the changing economy.

After Speaks moved to UK a year later, “The Henderson Project” was broadened to include other Ohio River cities that face similar issues. Along with local leaders and design professionals, the college is working with UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research and architects from Los Angeles, Detroit, Holland and Norway.

“It’s an opportunity to show that design is not just about aesthetics,” Speaks said. “Good design can be a real economic value-adder, and it can change the economics and cultural makeup of cities.”

UK students also are working on redevelopment ideas for an area of Louisville’s West End near the Ford Motor Co. plant and investigating long-term possibilities for reusing a former uranium enrichment plant in Paducah.

But most of the work has been in Henderson, with a focus on the Henderson Municipal Power & Light Plant No. 1, an old coal-fired plant that was decommissioned a few years ago.

Originally, city leaders thought the power plant needed to be demolished to redevelop the area. But Speaks said that has turned to looking for ways to renovate the huge plant for uses such as a convention center, offices for energy-related companies or even an IMAX movie theater.

“We have tried to make ourselves part of these communities,” Speaks said, by working closely with local leaders to help create design solutions that will meet their needs and achieve their goals.

The River Cities project is an example of how Speaks wants the college to become a state resource, offering design-related help for economic and social issues. Another example is a project that has designed attractive, affordable and energy-efficient homes that can be mass produced at idle houseboat factories around Lake Cumberland. Another idea on the horizon: creating a Kentucky Mayor’s Institute for Design to help local officials with urban planning issues.

This kind of collaboration could have applications far beyond Kentucky, which is why the Biennale is interested in showcasing UK’s work.

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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.”

TEDx event showcases Kentucky creativity

April 23, 2010

The month-long focus on creativity in Lexington is about over, but let’s hope it’s really just the beginning.

April began with the Creative Cities Summit, included numerous other events and ended Friday with a TEDx seminar at Buster’s club that attracted about 200 people.

Technology executive Kent Lewis organized the local version of the informative seminars and video lectures produced by the TED organization. Standing for Technology, Entertainment and Design, TED’s theme is “ideas worth spreading.”

Jim Bates, who spends much of his time in Kentucky, is general manager of HRTV, a television-based multimedia network about horse racing. Bates called for more creativity in the horse industry, saying there’s no reason technology can’t help reverse racing’s decline in popularity.

“It’s the perfect sport for today’s instantaneous society,” he said. “It’s a two-minute event! A golf tournament takes four days!”

Bates, one of ESPN’s first employees, talked about how the 24-hour sports network has helped change the nature of sports in America — and not all for the better. He lamented that childrens’ sports has become highly organized by adults, which too often keeps kids from learning leadership, problem-solving and social skills.

Stanley Hainsworth, who was born and raised in small-town Western Kentucky, discussed his career as a top creative officer at Nike, Lego and Starbucks. He now owns a brand-development company, Tether. “Life is too short to not do what you’re passionate about,” he said.

Among the other speeches:

■ Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., discussed space research.

■ Community gardener Jim Embry talked about the importance of society reconnecting with the earth.

Christine Kuhn, an artist and former research scientist, talked about why art is important.

■ Artist Marjorie Guyon discussed her work.

■ Software developer Todd Willey talked about how technology can better connect people in the future.

Karen Gerstandt, a German-born scientist at the University of Kentucky, discussed her research into clean water and energy that was used in a new kind of power plant that opened last November in Norway.

■ Bill Cloyd talked about his company, Newton’s Attic, that uses play to teach kids science.

Wes Keltner, founder of a virtual technology firm, discussed how video games create emotional attachments.

■ Former Kentuckian Britt Selvitelle talked about his work as one of the lead software engineers for Twitter.

Lewis said he plans to organize another TEDx event in Lexington this fall, focused on children and creativity. He already has signed up his first two speakers; they’re both 12 years old.

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Design, politics and lessons for Lexington

March 31, 2010

When he was mayor of Owensboro 20 years ago, one of David Adkisson’s goals was to improve the design and look of his community. Adkisson said he quickly discovered that unless he exercised strong leadership, two people had much more influence than he did.

One was the district engineer for Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, because he controlled Owensboro’s main roads. The other was the chief executive of the local electric utility, because he controlled power lines, poles and towers.

“The mayor is perhaps a weak third,” said Adkisson, who is now president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Adkisson now lives in Lexington, where those observations ring just as true, especially when you consider the Newtown Pike Extension project, foot-dragging on two-way streets downtown and those ugly new power poles on Euclid and Woodland avenues.

Design isn’t just about making cities look better; it’s about making them function better. And it’s too important to be left to chance and engineering. That was the message of a symposium Saturday at the Downtown Public Library that focused on the intersection of architecture, urban design and politics.

The symposium was sponsored by the University of Kentucky College of Design. As usual, The college’s dean, Michael Speaks, brought in some world-class talent to fuel the discussion.

Henk Ovink is director of national spatial planning and research, design and strategy for the Dutch Ministry of Environment and one of the most important planners in the Netherlands. Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and author of a dozen books, has an extensive background in international design and architecture.

Casey Jones is a leading architect and urban planner who was appointed last August as director of the U.S. General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program. He is a key player in America’s biggest real estate development organization, which oversees 400 million square feet of federal office space in 2,000 communities.

Jones talked about how, before World War II, the federal government’s philosophy was that public buildings should be well-designed structures that inspired citizens. After 1949, when oversight of federal buildings moved from the Treasury Department to the GSA, the emphasis shifted to cost and schedule. The result was mediocre architecture that often detracted from communities.

The GSA created the Design Excellence Program in 1994 to try to make new government buildings more functional, more “aspirational” and more environmentally friendly. The program brings innovation and new talent representing “the finest contemporary American architectural thought” to federal construction projects.

Some of the most interesting discussion occurred during a panel that the presenters had with three Kentuckians: Adkisson; Paul Kaplan of the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet, which has set some of the nation’s most ambitious standards for environmentally friendly design of new state buildings; and Holly Wiedemann, whose Lexington-based AU Associates restores old buildings for affordable housing.

Betsky said America must break its costly addiction to sprawl and the ethic that “land is something to be developed” and become more creative about reusing old urban areas.

He and Wiedemann said that, too often, development is an adversarial process of conflict on the back end rather than brainstorming on the front-end and collaboration among all stakeholders throughout the process. Economics is always an issue, they said, but good design doesn’t have to be more expensive, especially when long-term value is considered.

Betsky and Jones said design professionals must be more proactive about showing citizens, businesses and government leaders design possibilities they would never have imagined. Public architecture competitions are one good way to do that, Jones noted.

All of the panelists said well-designed development depends on citizens demanding excellence and government officials providing leadership. And, as Adkisson noted, political leaders making the case that excellent design is good for economic development.

It was similar to the message that Joseph Riley, the nine-term mayor of Charleston, S.C., delivered a month ago: Successful cities plan well and demand excellence.

It’s a message that Lexington needs to embrace. Because so much about Lexington has always been good, there’s often no urgency about trying to do better, little interest in innovation beyond the status quo.

“Lexington has the blessing and curse of being a wonderful place to live,” Adkisson said. “The curse is that it stifles aspiration.”

Charleston mayor’s ideas right for Lexington, too

March 6, 2010

Joe Riley is an evangelist for historic preservation, good urban design and proven strategies for making cities more livable and economically successful.

He founded the national Mayors’ Institute for City Design. The Joseph P. Riley Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Studies at the College of Charleston is named for him. But Riley’s best credential is his day job: since 1975, for an unprecedented nine terms, he has been the mayor of Charleston, S.C.

People who know Charleston often remark on what a great city it is — the beautiful waterfront, the Spoleto arts festival and the colorfully painted historic homes. Those old enough to remember what the city used to be like talk about how much it has improved.

During Riley’s tenure, Charleston’s annual tourist trade has increased from 1.7 million to 4.4 million visitors. At the same time, the city has often made lists of the best places to live and do business.

Riley was in Lexington last Wednesday to speak to an overflow crowd at the Downtown Public Library. Many civic leaders were there, as well as all four candidates for mayor.

With a rapid-fire PowerPoint presentation that lasted for more than an hour, Riley flashed slide after slide showing Charleston’s transformation from the time when “our downtown almost died.”

The pictures showed dozens of dilapidated buildings restored to elegance and commercial success; modest but well-designed public housing so attractive that expensive condos were later built across the street; neighborhoods and commercial streets rescued from neglect by city leaders who demanded and got high-quality private development; an elegant public park on what was once a waterfront eyesore.

“A big challenge was this vacant lot right in the middle of downtown,” Riley said at one point, prompting the crowd to erupt in laughter. “Oh, you have one of those, too?”

A key factor in Charleston’s success has been historic preservation. “We work hard to keep the bulldozers out,” he said.

Historic preservation hasn’t been so much about preserving the past — “we’re not a movie set or a theme park,” Riley said — but about creating an authentic, irreplaceable and human-scaled environment where people naturally want to be. The city also insists that new development be well-designed, well-built and, well, worthy of being in Charleston.

That means having effective laws and regulations, but also the kind of professional architectural review processes Lexington lacks. Such a process helps ensure that new development is appropriate, well-designed and in the best interests of the entire city and not just an individual developer or property owner.

“Try not to plop things down,” Riley said of new development. “Make it work. Make it fit.”

Excellence is often achieved with that last 5 percent of effort, the mayor noted. He repeatedly gave examples of using his political skills to make sure old buildings were saved, money was found to restore them and proposed new construction added to rather than detracted from the rest of the city. Riley said he once called then-President Bill Clinton to insist that a new federal building respect Charleston’s downtown esthetic.

“There’s never an excuse to build anything that doesn’t add to the beauty of a city,” Riley said, acknowledging that “the political land mines are all over the place.”

Successful cities put a lot of emphasis on beautiful public space that attracts people. “The things of value are increasingly the things we own together,” he said. “When you build a great public realm, the private money and development will follow.”

Riley’s strong leadership is controversial; he has always had a re-election opponent, and last time he had three. But Riley’s approach has clearly worked for Charleston and most of its citizens. He was re-elected for an eighth time in 2007 with 64 percent of the vote.

City-building is a complicated stew, but the principles Riley outlined are simple: vision, leadership, and a commitment to long-term value for the entire city rather than just short-term profit for individuals.

When Lexington has followed those principles, it has enjoyed some of its greatest success: creating the Urban Services Boundary in 1958; restricting rural lot sizes in 1964 and 1999; starting the Purchase of Development Rights program in 2000; and creating historic districts over the past 50 years (often, though, after significant damage was already done.)

Lexington has failed when it ignored those principles and allowed tacky, vinyl-box housing, commercial sprawl, haphazard architecture and, since the 1950s, the destruction of classic downtown buildings to make way for parking lots, drab concrete boxes and ego-driven glass towers.

“Our success as a culture, economic and otherwise, will depend on our cities,” Riley said. “We must treat them as precious heirlooms that we inherit and hold in trust for future generations.”

Let’s talk more to, not just about, the creative class

January 6, 2010

Lexington’s political and business leaders often talk about the importance of the “creative class” in building a vibrant 21st-century economy.

It makes sense that an economy based on innovation and technology needs young, creative, well-educated innovators.

On the Sunday after Christmas, I spent the afternoon listening to members of the creative class — a dozen or so of the smartest young people Kentucky has produced in recent years.

We sat in a circle of chairs inside the Miller House, a little-known landmark of modernist architecture that a small group of fans rescued from vandals, restored and is struggling to preserve.

Most of the people there were in their late 20s or early 30s. Some were former Gaines Fellows at the University of Kentucky. Others were Lexington natives, spouses and significant others with educations from Harvard, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They were architects, educators and entrepreneurs in the arts and technology. Some were back in Lexington after a few years in larger cities. Others were home visiting family, on break from successful careers in New York and Boston. I could sense, though, that they hoped to return to Lexington. Someday. If only.

The question that brought them together was this: How can Lexington do a better job of keeping its brightest young people and attracting more? Rather than suffering from brain drain, how could this city become a brain magnet?

Several of them had begun the discussion Labor Day weekend at a retreat organized by former Gaines Center director Dan Rowland and Vice Mayor Jim Gray. After I left, the talk continued at a reception at Gray’s home.

Among the laments: Lexington doesn’t have enough economic opportunities, especially in technology. UK and other universities aren’t integrated enough into civic life. Too few people are risk-takers. Lexington leaders look elsewhere for innovation but often don’t recognize it under their noses. The local arts community is vibrant — and growing more so — but lacks the acceptance and philanthropy found elsewhere.

Their expectations weren’t unrealistic. They didn’t want to change Lexington so much as to expand its horizons. Things are moving in the right direction, they said, just more slowly than in many of the cities Lexington competes with economically.

What they loved about Lexington was its beauty, people and authentic culture. It’s a place big enough to have world-class amenities yet small enough that an individual can make a difference.

They loved Lexington’s quality of life, livable neighborhoods and the potential of its human-scale downtown. They wondered why there wasn’t more connectivity with Louisville and Cincinnati, which are so close yet seem so far away.

They saw great potential for reviving parts of town that have seen better days, such as the Distillery District and old Northside neighborhoods. They wondered why Lexington doesn’t do more to capitalize on local treasures, such as McConnell Springs, the Kentucky Horse Park and the Miller House.

None of these young professionals seemed to be horse people. Yet they were excited about next fall’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, and they were surprised more people in Lexington seem not to be.

These young people understood that an international event like the Games can have a transformative effect on a city. But when they started talking about how people should take advantage of it, there was an interesting dichotomy.

Several of those living here said they were confused about how they could harness the Games to develop or promote their slice of Lexington. Who is in charge? What is the process?

It doesn’t really matter, the people living in Boston and New York replied. Organize your own events, activities and celebrations around the Games. While it’s nice to be part of the official program, it’s hardly necessary. Seize the day and put your stamp on it. Just do it.

It’s good to read books and listen to consultants. But if Lexington really wants to tap the creative class, we must recognize and listen more to its members. Many of them are right under our noses. And many more would like to come home, if given the right opportunity.

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:

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.”

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