Consider it the educational link in Raleigh's long chain of landmark designs.
The city that's given this state some of its most innovative lessons in architecture - from the 1840 Capitol to the 2010 N.C. Museum of Art - now offers a new icon for a new era: A building dedicated to sustainable design for the 21st century.
It lies on a pork-chop-shaped site framed by Peace and Wilmington streets in downtown Raleigh, where the American Institute of Architects N.C. Chapter has opened its new Center for Architecture and Design.
Were it intended to serve only as a laboratory for the group's 2,200 architects across the state, it would be effective enough. But its ambitions reach beyond the needs of membership alone. It's also meant to enlighten students, developers and the public - and perhaps most important, the influential legislators and state employees who work on the other side of Wilmington Street.
"It's there to teach about sustainable design, which the legislature needs to be more aware of," said Walter Teague, a Greensboro architect who has served since 2004 on a series of AIA NC committees to make the new building a reality. "The site selection played into that."
Architect Frank Harmon, whose firm won the commission over 49 others in a 2008 competition, agrees.
"It's highly visible," he said. "It's on the edge of government, and an embassy for architecture."
Its lively yellow cypress cladding lights up the 12,000-square-foot office building, in sharp contrast to a humdrum palette of mauve, taupe and buff exteriors on the government offices across Wilmington. Those buildings, part of an austere quintet on the legislative plaza, are holdovers from a very different architectural mindset during the 1970s and '80s, when brute-force engineering triumphed over careful, sensitive design.
"There's been quite a maturing and shifting in priorities since then," Teague said. "This building is designed to be more responsive to the environment."
It takes its form from the agrarian sheds that dot farmsteads from mountains to shore across the state. Its south facade is oriented to take advantage of natural elements unique to the Piedmont.
"It takes note of where the sun rises and sets, of where the good winds come from and where the bad winds blow," Harmon said. "The site is a very active player in this. The building is long and thin, and faces south for the ideal sunlight orientation. People have been using that orientation for hundreds of years. Every room has good daylighting on two to three sides."
That should translate into energy savings of between 50 percent and 64 percent - because little, if any, artificial light will be needed. If the lights do come on, they'll be set to just the right level, automatically adjusted by a donated computer server.
The building is equally miserly with water. Every raindrop that falls upon the structure is captured in a bio-retention center, where it's stored and cleaned for three days before being discharged to storm drains. Plantings of sedge on a landscaped slope will filter runoff before it empties into the Neuse River watershed, in contrast to the nitrogen- and herbicide-fed fescue on the legislative plaza.
Stone and wood
But the pièce de résistance of the project's sustainability features lies 300 feet below grade - a geothermal heating and cooling system composed of 20 wells. Water from the wells is transferred to heat pumps in the building's basement for heating and cooling, then returned to the wells to renew the cycle.
"We had to hit the granite bedrock because that's where the constant temperature is," said David Crawford, AIA NC's executive vice president. "It was a fairly complicated process, because we had to make calculations based on the square footage of the building and also the solar gain from the windows, and then figure out the right depth to drill." The cost to run the pumps is significantly lower than a traditional air conditioning system alone.
Outside, the vibrant yellow siding may be the first feature the eye is drawn to, but that's only a skin-deep symbol of a thoughtful and informative kind of architecture. Like the strategically placed building itself, the shiplapped siding has a history and a meaning beyond its eye-catching color.
Harvested from the Great Dismal Swamp on North Carolina's coastal plain, the cypress was milled there too, then shipped to Greensboro to be polyurethaned. About 10 percent of the building's materials, like its warm tan and brown stone, come from North Carolina. And though AIA NC relied partially on federal stimulus bonds to finance construction, architects across the state pulled out their own checkbooks and pledged $600,000 toward its $5.4 million cost. Local firms donated many of the materials. All of this occurred in the long, dark night of the recession, symbolizing AIA NC's deep faith in the profession it represents.
A look to the future
Though AIA NC will occupy one floor and has leased part of another, office space is still available on the third. That level offers dramatic vistas that frame the Archdale Building and others on the legislative plaza, yielding what may be their most flattering perspective ever.
In the distance, the pyramids atop Edward Durell Stone's legislative building, the globe of Verner Johnson's Museum of Natural Sciences, and the limestone-clad Capitol by Ithiel Town, Alexander Jackson Davis and David Paton rule the lower Raleigh skyline. As it happens - and this seems no accidental gesture from Harmon - a straight line of sight looks directly to the Capitol dome.
This is a building dedicated to a new era of construction in North Carolina - an era when resources, both physical and economic, are becoming more scarce every day. It's a building that addresses the high costs of energy consumption - in dollars as well as in consequences - that are ratcheting up rapidly.
It's a building that behaves like the skilled diplomat it was designed to be. It articulates a direct response to its time, its environment and its audiences - through careful example, coupled with bold action.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for regional and national publications. He also publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.