Before, it was a cramped brick-and-concrete bunker of a building on Salisbury Street downtown, with a low-ceilinged catacomb of dark offices inside. Now, the elevator doors of the new Alfred Williams & Company location part to reveal an open vista of sleek, modern workspace, with a swooping custom-designed ceiling like a visible breeze and natural light pouring through the new glass front of the building.
That’s the payoff of months of brainstorming between client and architect over everything from window placement to the design of the conference room doors – hinged in the middle, so more people can fit. The entire front of the building was ripped off, and the ugly existing building transformed into a shiny new structure that nabbed an architecture design award for Vernacular Studios (now Gensler) this month from the American Institute of Architects of the Triangle.
“It’s like public art,” said Blount Williams, CEO of Alfred Williams & Company. “It evokes emotion.”
Two Raleigh buildings – Alfred Williams & Company and a private home – designed by Raleigh architecture firms nabbed honors in the annual AIA Triangle design awards this month. Raleigh-based Tonic Design was honored for work in Durham. That’s half of the six top awards handed to firms from the City of Oaks, winning out over 40 competitors from around the Triangle.
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Raleigh’s often staid architecture is punctuated by vivid designs that signal a city discovering its own architectural impact. There are newer buildings that show this, like the Raleigh Convention Center with its shimmering oak tree enlivening the skyline. Some older structures also show a forward-looking city, like the striking parabolic roof of Dorton Arena at the State Fairgrounds.
Raleigh’s nationally known design firms have helped contribute to the city’s experimentation, said Jamie McKay, president of AIA of the Triangle.N.C. State University’s highly regarded architecture and design programs also hold influence.
“Architecture is the fabric of a city. I think it defines a city,” McKay said. “It helps people experience a city in the best way possible.”
The idea of the design awards, he said, is to underline that importance. The awards have been around for more than a decade.
Shann Rushing, chairman of the awards, said they honor functionality and sustainable building practices along with aesthetics. Winners get a certificate and the prestige of recognition.
“Buildings are these kind of living, breathing organisms. They have a life of their own,” Rushing said. “As architects, we are really interested in not only the aesthetics of buildings, but how the spaces feel.”
‘It just fits better’
When Raleigh photographer Joel Collins and his wife decided to build their home on a wooded one-acre lot off Ridge Road, they wanted a nature-friendly house to live in through retirement. They chose Kenneth E. Hobgood architects to design it.
Their new glass-enclosed home is built to embrace the outdoors. Collins’ home office features a desk built into a window, so he has a 180-degree view as he works. The award-winning design also takes into account sunrise and sunset views, prevailing breezes and views out all the windows.
It was more expensive than picking a home from a builder’s book, but worth it, Collins said.
“It’s like buying a suit at Target versus getting measured for one,” he said. “It just fits better.”
Raleigh architect Chad Parker, formerly of Vernacular Studios and now office director of Gensler Raleigh, believes Raleigh is on the cusp of “one of the great transformations on the East Coast.”
“The more we get together and the creative aspect gets infused,” Parker said, “the more you will see buildings in the next 10 to 15 years that have a new life.”