1. Haverford College’s new VCAM building is one of four projects to win an AIA Minnesota Honor Award

    AIA Minnesota has honored four projects with 2018 AIA Minnesota Honor Awards, including Haverford College’s new Visual Culture, Arts, and Media (VCAM) building, designed by MSR. The awards were announced at the A’18 MN Minnesota Conference on Architecture on Thursday, November 15th. The Honor Awards recognize outstanding architecture and urban design by AIA Minnesota members and member firms. The VCAM building is the only non-Minnesota project to have received an AIA Minnesota Honor Award this year.

    A highly flexible, 24/7 learning environment of intersecting spaces, the VCAM building is designed for interpreting and making visual media. The project involved repurposing a neglected 1900 gym, while honoring the building’s legacy. The design preserves the old gym’s strong, fundamental geometry as a single volume encircled by the existing suspended running track, while inserting a new three-story box that houses stacked functions of making, editing, and viewing. The old serves as a container for the new, creating continuity between Haverford’s rich history and its future, focused on an inventive academic agenda. The project is currently registered for LEED-NC v3 Gold certification.

    79 projects were submitted for the 2018 AIA Minnesota Honor Awards program and evaluated in five categories: architecture; interiors; renovation and restoration; and urban design and master planning. Three internationally-renowned architects evaluated the submissions for their degree of design invention, attention to detail, advancement of sustainable design, and other factors. The 2018 Honor Awards jury included Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, Distinguished Professor and E. Fay Jones Chair in Architecture at the Fay Jones Scholl of Architecture at the University of Arkansas; Allison Grace Williams, FAIA, founder of AGWms_studio and adjunct lecturer at Stanford University in California; and Kim Yao, AIA, principal of Architecture Research Office in New York City. Recipients will receive their awards at the annual AIA Minnesota Awards Dinner on December 7th at International Market Square in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

    Learn more about this year’s AIA Minnesota Honor Awards program here.


  2. What I learned with WUFI modeling software

    Architects spend a lot of time trying to understand thermal and moisture performance of building assemblies and the likelihood that temperature and moisture variables might add up to catastrophe. This year, MSR sponsored a six-week research project in which I looked at integrating thermal and moisture simulation into our design process workflow. Conclusions? Given the complexity involved in a simulation approach and the fact that the tools involved are “engineer-friendly” at best, this approach may not be needed on every project. However, in some cases, thermal and moisture modeling may be beneficial even without deep expertise, as long as you understand the limitations.

    Read more about the process and managing expectations in my guest blog post on the website.

  3. Places of inclusion: there’s still work for us to do

    MSR principal Traci Engel Lesneski was recently interviewed by Leonard Novy as part of the Goethe Institut’s “Future Libraries” series of articles and interviews that shed light on challenges and trends facing libraries, as well as examples of success for the future of the library. The interview uncovers the need to go beyond merely talking about diversity and inclusion within libraries to ensure that the future of the library is welcoming for all.

    Asked about what it takes to design an inclusive library, Traci states, “The health of any ecosystem relies on biodiversity. Likewise, the health of a community, and of a library as a reflection of its community, depends on its capacity for diversity. Libraries serve a wide variety of people. As facilities housing inclusive organizations, they should be designed to support as broad a cross-section of people as possible. People experience buildings differently, depending on their own cultural, social, economic, and physical circumstances, yet many buildings are designed to accommodate a narrow slice of the human population. In some cases, inequity is being constructed into the built environment. . . . Creating an inclusive building requires an inclusive process.”

    Read more here.

  4. Welcome to all: design’s role in creating an inclusive, safe, and beloved community destination

    MSR principal Traci Engel Lesneski recently presented a paper entitled “Welcome to All: Design’s Role in Creating an Inclusive, Safe, and Beloved Community Destination” at the 2018 International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) World Library Information Congress (WLIC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The theme for this year’s WLIC was “transforming libraries, transforming societies.” Traci uses the renovation and expansion of the Madison Central Library as a case study to illustrate how a public library, city, community, and design team worked together to create a library environment that is welcoming to all.

    Paper Abstract: “As places that serve all, public libraries often find themselves at the forefront of serving community members who are experiencing some combination of homelessness, mental illness, joblessness, or social dislocation. Libraries are responding creatively by expanding or adapting services to address these needs more effectively. At times these efforts alienate other community members who are uncomfortable, or feel threatened by, sharing space with the community’s so-called ‘undesirables.’ How can a library building become a place that not only serves everyone, but also feels welcoming to everyone? The building design process and the design itself can serve as powerful tools for creating a comfortable, safe, relevant destination for the entire community. This paper uses the renovation and addition project for Madison Public Library’s Central Library (Wisconsin, United States) as a case study. Through extensive community outreach, focus groups with local social service providers, and design critiques by members of local law enforcement, the design team identified several ways the reimagined building could address comfort, safety, and troubling behaviors. The resulting inclusive library building provides on-site assistance for those in need. In the words of a long-term Madison Public Library administrator, ‘MSR turned our library from a fear-based program to a hope-based program.’”

    Read more here.

  5. Process to product: inclusive libraries by design

    MSR principal Traci Engel Lesneski recently presented a paper entitled “Process to Product: Inclusive Libraries by Design” at the 2018 International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) World Library Information Congress (WLIC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The theme for this year’s WLIC was “transforming libraries, transforming societies.” Focusing on the need for an inclusive design process in order to create an inclusive library building, Traci states, “It is crucial to find ways to obtain input from the people who rarely participate in public meetings, especially underserved or vulnerable communities.”

    Paper Abstract: “People experience buildings differently, depending on their personal cultural, social, economic, and physical circumstances; yet many buildings are designed to accommodate only a narrow slice of the human population. In some cases, inequity is being constructed into the built environment. Awareness of potential barriers to use when considering the built environment can make the difference between places that support inclusion and ones that do not welcome all users. Foundational to creating inclusive buildings is the design process itself. No one person can embody all perspectives. Creating an inclusive building requires an inclusive process. This paper demonstrates how process, flexibility, and choice can be powerful tools in the quest for equitable library buildings.”

    Read more here.

  6. MSR at the 2018 ILFI unConference: Part 2

    The Living Future Unconference (LF18) is always simultaneously awesome and hard. On one hand, it’s amazing to see case studies of projects with high aspirations for sustainable design—actual built projects that are net zero energy and net zero water made out of nontoxic, sustainably sourced and manufactured materials. Amazing!

    Then again: A number of architecture firms have signed this thing called the AIA 2030 Commitment. Buildings are responsible for 40% of US carbon emissions. These firms have committed to reducing the energy usage in our new buildings by 70% compared to the baseline for each building typology we work on, and by 80% starting in 2020. But the average energy use reduction across project types, among firms reporting their progress is less than a 50% reduction. The hard truth is that we, as an industry, are not meeting this goal.

    The distress in the room at this year’s LF18 2030 Challenge report-out was palpable. Designers who care deeply about doing their part to reduce carbon emissions are distraught that we are not succeeding.

    Over the course of the four days of sessions and workshops, I kept wondering why we can’t routinely deliver buildings that meet the 2030 Challenge. We know how to do it technically; we’ve done it before. The equipment is tested. The products are off the shelf. The data is out there showing that this stuff works. Combined with ambitious design thinking on the part of ourselves and our clients, astonishing (but also quietly balanced, aesthetically perfect) things are possible. We want to be doing this work. Why is it so difficult to make a 70% reduction a reality?

    In my mind, the barriers boil down to two major factors, underscored by the case study projects shared at LF18.

    1. Energy and water aren’t expensive yet, and codes don’t require extreme efficiency. This fact is tough for designers and clients alike at the moment. It means the right choice is currently not the incentivized or required choice. It means naysayers do not have to work hard to argue against best practices when the payback period for a given strategy is decades.
    2. The other major, big picture factor is the urgent need for committed collaborators.


    Collaborators meaning consultants. A great mechanical or structural engineer is fundamental to the delivery of a high performance project. When the engineer is not on board with the spirit of a high performance project, the architect and client will simply never know what could have been possible.

    Collaborators meaning general contractors and subcontractors. Sustainability and health goals in buildings can fly or die at the hands of the general contractors and subcontractors who physically build the project. How can the builders be empowered to own their sphere of influence when it comes to making a sustainable project happen? How can we better support collaborators who are already performing their trades in more sustainable ways, or those who want to do better?

    Collaborators meaning clients. Designers may have the technical expertise to deliver net zero energy and water and the knowledge base to specify healthy materials, but we can go only so far if the client is not 100% on board.

    We can’t change #1 (but we can keep talking about it) for the moment.

    Item #2, however, should be our top priority. We are always looking for good collaborators. Going where others have not gone before takes guts. If you are this collaborator, we want to talk to you. I’d love for next year’s 2030 Challenge reporting out to be different. Let’s hit that 70% reduction target. Or better yet, let’s strive for all of our projects to embody the conservation ethic of net zero. We want to do this work.

  7. Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center featured in Architect Magazine

    Architect Magazine features an article on the unique truss design of the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center. You can also view a short video on the project.

    The article features a quote from MSR Principal Tom Meyer: “[I]t is a kind of bellwether project for the future of sustainability,” Meyer says. “A lot of buildings in the last generation are unnecessarily complex,” but the near-net-zero-energy bee center “has a kind of modesty. It’s not cheap, but the money that’s spent on it is [spent] toward performance.”

  8. MSR at the 2018 ILFI unConference: Part 1

    Knowing your values at a gut level is relatively easy. Articulating your shared values as part of a practice strategy is harder. Translating firm-wide values into professional practice on a daily basis is an exercise in determination, commitment and patience. Attending the International Living Futures Institute unConference this year in Portland, Oregon proved to be a great resource for understanding how a range of practitioners from the single to the multi-national, have translated their values for sustainability and ethics into how they run their firms and projects.

    Our firm’s strategic goal is to be the leading design firm that achieves inspiring, generative impacts across the board on every project by 2026. Embedded in this statement are aspirations about leadership within the profession, achievements in design excellence, and exploration of sustainability and high-performance through a design approach which yields creative, engaging, and yes, inspiring outcomes. Ambitious, across-the-board goals require specific, incremental, and consistent action. This year’s conference presented lessons learned from a range of businesses and organizations who have made similar commitments, offering different pathways for translating written goals into implemented business strategies.

    A consistent theme was that of a strong voice of leadership: from Amy Johns, Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College, to Tim Weller, Manager of Codes, Standards, and Sustainability at Allegion (a global hardware, security, and technology company), speakers showed that advocacy of values is critical at every step of a project – whether from planning through design of a single building or from acquisition of firms through reconciliation of international standards and regulations. These voices of leadership speak up at every opportunity: truly being the voice of the institutional values in rooms where decisions are made. It is imperative that as any and every decision is made, that these be held up against the stated values and goals; this ensures mindfulness in decision-making and ensures that no decision great or small pulls action away from aspiration.

    At the institutional level these champions are fundamental requirements to ensure the viability of achieving sustainable and performance goals, as they hold both individuals and collective decision-making bodies accountable at an internal level. But how can we make a difference when we take our values outside the walls of our practice? Chris Trott, Head of Sustainability at Foster + Partners, offered a great piece of advice: “If you can’t win the communication game, you can’t win at all.” It is all too common for performance achievements to be endless metrics or complex graphs; per Chris’ advice it pays to remember that as design professionals we need to connect and communicate our values and our achievement targets to our clients – individuals and groups without our same backgrounds in design and visualization. For us to succeed in bringing our values to life on a project requires our ability to clearly and succinctly communicate the value of investing in infrastructure and responsible material and assembly choices in ways which resonate with our clients.

    As we continue to make progress towards our strategic goal, our firm continues to nurture advocates at all levels: from practice management through project managers and design staff so that both internally and externally we have many voices at the table speaking up and out for our values. We continue also to explore new ways of communicating: using different graphic techniques and working towards standards that allow us to lay out target benchmarks and projected performance in ways that transform our clients into advocates themselves.

  9. MSR’s “Living Edge” proposal wins first place in Madison’s Reimagining Warner Beach Design Competition

    Clean Lakes Alliance, in partnership with Madison Community Foundation and City of Madison Parks, has announced MSR as the winner of the conceptual design contest to reimagine Warner Beach in Madison, Wisconsin. Clean Lakes Alliance aims to foster a renewed investment and pride in the city’s local beaches through the “Back to the Beach” initiative designed to highlight park assets and identify opportunities for improvement. The conceptual design contest called for participants to envision a future for Warner Beach in which the area is enhanced in terms of water quality, sustainability, community access and placemaking to promote health, happiness, and well-being.

    Perched along the shores of four of the Yahara Lakes, the City of Madison’s location has attracted generations of residents and visitors and created a unique genius of place for the Wisconsin State Capitol building. Lake Mendota’s predevelopment lakeshore consisted of fluctuating, routinely inundated forest, marsh, and wetland areas where plants, sun, soil, fish, wildlife, and other organ-isms maintained a dynamic equilibrium and clean, healthy lake. By contrast, much of the current lakeshore is blanketed with lawns or armored with riprap and bulkheads, drastically reducing the environment’s ecological contribution. Increased development and associated urban runoff, more frequent and intense storms and flooding, and encroaching invasive species have compounded the loss of natural shoreline. “The Living Edge,” MSR’s design proposal for Warner Beach, responds to these conditions by tripling the beach’s effective shoreline area along the 1/4-mile stretch of Lake Mendota. This replicable approach aims to build resilience in the face of climate change, enhance biological diversity, and restore ecosystem function. In addition to amplifying ecological perfor-mance, the increase in lake edge expands experiential opportunities for visitors and nurtures a natural affinity for the water’s edge.

    The Reimagining Warner Beach design competition continues MSR’s long-standing relationship with the City of Madison. The firm also designed the award-winning renovation and expansion to the Madison Central Library, renovation to the Madison Municipal Building (currently under construction), and a new learning center and greenhouse for the Olbrich Botanical Gardens (currently in design).

  10. MSR’s research initiative called Holistic Assessment Protocol (HAP) moves forward

    MSR’s research and development initiative known as Holistic Assessment Protocol (HAP) establishes an approach to pre- and post- project analysis to better understand outcomes and to inform future design success. A multidisciplinary team of architects, interior designers, sustainability experts, and outside research consultants has come together to compile reference benchmarks and standards during Phase I and to refine proposed categories of inquiry relative to the firm’s strategic goal (to be the leading design firm that achieves inspiring generative impacts across the board on every project by 2026).

    Focusing on beauty, performance, and human impact, the team’s data collection and observations encompass community, site, building, room, element, and body scales. During Phase II, the team will prepare recommendations for an office-wide baseline template, including metrics, data collection and analysis templates, and occupant survey questions. These recommendations will be tested on current MSR projects and used to establish add-on metrics for typology, scale, and other unique attributes.