Igniting the Controversial Fiery Origins

23 Apr, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong

Boston architect redefines modernism with ArchiCAD.

Charlestown architect Bob Augustine likes to cite Daniel Libeskind, an architect who said, "Tradition is veiling of fiery origins." In his own work, Augustine seeks to examine those origins and "infuse them with modern sensibilities, functional design, and smart technology." He said he was "looking for the spark of insight embedded in the tradition, not its bonds of authority and heavy-handed dogma."

Recently, he found out just how controversial it was to remove the traditional architectural facades people have grown accustomed to over the years. He recalled an anonymous phone call he received.

"Is this Bob Augustine? Are you the architect for that house on Grove Street in Cambridge?" asked the caller. Once he answered in the affirmative, she unleashed a torrent of emotion, beginning with, "Hideous — it's hideous!"

Recounting the incident on his Web site, he wrote, "I knew the house was modern and possibly controversial, but I was not quite prepared for the extremes of reaction it has drawn out."

Augustine has practiced architecture for more than 30 years and taught it for nearly 10 years at the Boston Architecture College as director of the Architectural and Interior Design Thesis Programs. His introduction to BIM (building information modeling), a decidedly modern approach, didn't come until he'd left academia. But now that he'd discovered a smart technology, Graphisoft's ArchiCAD, he wasn't about to go back to the way he used to work 30 years ago.

A Colonial Rehabilitation
Asked to explain modern architecture, Bob Augustine told the Boston Globe, "It's about putting a fresh eye to things. Looking at what materials are out there now and how we live, and not trying to go back and live like it was 150 years ago" ("Modern Love," April 23, 2006).

The project that had prompted the unforgettable phone call was formerly a Colonial-style house, built circa 1950, overlooking Cambridge's Fresh Pond and downtown Boston. He envisioned completely transforming it with copper panels, glass windows, red cedar side walls, and a flat roof. In doing so, he would be updating the place with sunlit spaces, open balconies, and a warm exterior.

Boston Architect Bob Augustine didn't anticipate the controversy he'd generate with the house on Grove Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, representing his approach to modernism.

At its inception, the Cambridge House (as the project is come to be known) was to be built on spec for Duncan MacArthur, a creative builder/developer, who was willing to take a chance on some new design and not rely on any formulaic builder's style. Nevertheless, Augustine said, "He and his family ended up liking the house so much, they moved in."

He said, "Sometimes the only way I can get a client to buy into the design is to sit down with them and interactively reshape, resize, and move things around with the ArchiCAD BIM model so that they can see all the possibilities."

The configuration of the third story — a new addition to the existing structure — took quite a bit of give and take. "We wanted to find out just how it would look and what would be visible from the ground level," Augustine said.

As Augustine and his client engaged in negotiation, ideas flew back and forth between them in the form of JPEG images. "I love to work with ArchiCAD's [LightWorks] rendering program," said Augustine. "I usually attach [rendered images] to my plans and construction documents to show the client and the builders what the perspectives are supposed to look like."

To share his ideas for the Grove Street house with the client, he took photographs of the red cedar planks and copper panels from a preexisting house, and then loaded the images into the software as textures. When applied to the 3D model, the rendering gave an accurate representation of how the finished house would look.

"I'm an artist at heart," he said, "so the ability to create three-dimensionally and experiment with different materials is the best design format for me."

Augustine selected copper for its recyclable properties. According to the Copper Development Association, "Each year in the U.S.A, nearly as much copper is recovered from recycled material as is derived from newly mined ore. When you exclude wire production, which mainly uses new refined copper, the amount of copper used by copper and brass mills, ingot makers, foundries, powder plants, and other industries shows that nearly three-fourths comes from recycled copper scrap."

Double-Sided Sun Block
Using ArchiCAD's sun-angle animation feature, Augustine was able to determine the volume of sunlight the new design would be exposed to. The ability to define the transparency of the materials made it possible for him to see that, especially in the morning hours, one side of the home could warm up significantly.

The exercise, he said, "led us to respond more aggressively. We came up with specialized window treatment. We decided on a two-sided window blind that you can roll up or down. It has a light color on one side, darker on the other. The light color reflects the sunlight outward" to mitigate heat gain.

The result of the sun-angle study on the house revealed the rear of the house was exposed to potential heat gain in the morning hours.

He had recently been experimenting with ArchiCAD's terrain modeling tools. "I find that the software has a quick, intuitive way to pick up [landscape elevations], so I'm not just working on a flat surface all the time.

"ArchiCAD has its own land/elevation model," Augustine pointed out. "I was applying only a rudimentary use of its terrain modeling feature in the Cambridge House as it was only the first project I had done using ArchiCAD. I'm better at it now, and have used a plug-in called ArchiTerra, which lets you import roads, etc."

Augustine recently discovered a terrain-modeling plug-in called ArchiTerra. He began using it in the design for a solar home, intended for the desert landscape of Phoenix, Arizona.

Modern Redefined
"The Boston Architectural College, where I taught and worked, is renowned as perhaps the chief advocate in the country for a concurrent curriculum that seeks to integrate practice and academic curricula," Augustine remarked. "Steeped in this perspective, it was very natural, when I started to develop my own practice, to look for ways to inform the practice of building with the inquiry into why we build."

After a decade of teaching, Augustine is once again practicing the craft he loves. He simply calls his firm ARCHITECTURE. He felt somewhat vindicated when he received another random call from someone who saw his work. Coming home one Labor Day weekend, he found a voicemail that said, "Is this Bob Augustine, the architect for that house on Grove Street? I was out walking my dog and went by that house. I thought it was the coolest house I've ever seen."

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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