Designing a Future 

Local architects envisioning tomorrow’s Missoula today

“First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.”
—Winston Churchill

While many Missoulians favor the notion that we are shaped largely by our natural environment, it’s increasingly difficult to dismiss the impact that our man-made environment—including our buildings—have upon us. As they gradually stretch across the valley floor and up the grassy hillsides, both the quantity and quality of our edifices become more apparent. Our infrastructure isn’t just growing out, either: Urban lots that have lain empty for decades are being filled with new developments, new people and new ideas, and the process is quickly, and conspicuously, changing Missoula’s look and feel.

And yet, there seems to be no forum for thorough, productive discussions about the architectural direction in which this city is headed, at least not outside of professional architecture circles. Every now and then a controversial project pops up and burns brightly before City Council’s podium, but the buzz inevitably fades and the larger discussion of what Missoula wants to look like goes unaddressed.

The buildings we create today will impact Missoula and its citizens long into the future, and it seems foolish to discuss issues like density and land use without also addressing development from a design perspective. As we spoke with various architects around town in pulling this issue together, we discovered they, too, hungered for a more substantial community dialogue about Missoula’s emerging look.

Most recently, Missoulians saw fierce passions awakened by Jake Terzo’s proposal for a modern, three-story building downtown on Alder Street. That’s when we decided it was time to move beyond limited discussions about one project that Missoulians hated and/or loved and look instead at the visions that local architects have for Missoula’s future.

Rather than discuss architectural vision generally, we wanted to see particular visions as expressed in particular projects. So we went looking for a variety of in-progress developments around town and sat down with their owners and architects to explore the ideas behind them. Of these, we’ve selected a sampling of seven public, residential and commercial projects that captured our interest and herald a forward-looking style. We hope this glimpse into Missoula’s architectural future sparks more thought and more discussion about the shape of buildings to come, because they’re coming.

Owner’s vision: Ken Smith envisioned a “contemporary single-family residence designed for somebody who wants to live and work downtown, possibly an artist or professional.” He sought to make the structure compatible with the surrounding neighborhood without parroting the style of nearby historic buildings.

How the architect accomplished that: Smith incorporated contemporary design and materials “to attract that kind of energetic, forward-thinking person” he had in mind. In addition to utilizing unconventional curves and angles, the house takes its distinctive look from a combination of stucco, horizontal sheets of steel and wood paneling.

Challenges: The small size of Smith’s downtown lot—29 feet wide by 90 feet deep—made it difficult to create a house with adequate square footage while maintaining enough open space to keep it from feeling shoehorned in, Smith says. He also put a lot of thought into making the scale of the house compatible with the neighborhood while maintaining its own character. Though Smith’s project is two doors down from Jake Terzo’s controversial modern project, neighbors largely supported it because it’s a single-family structure with a height matching that of nearby homes.

Goodies: The two-bedroom house features a stair tower leading to a rooftop garden, and stained concrete floors with radiant heating. Smith also hopes to install Grass Pave, a porous paving system that grows grass and absorbs moisture but also supports cars, in the home’s parking area.

What it says about Missoula’s architectural future: “I hope it points toward a greater variety in future building styles, especially for residential projects,” Smith says.

Project cost: $285,000.

Status: After clearing the Design Review Board process Jan. 11, Smith looks forward to breaking ground on the project in spring 2006.

Owner’s vision: During a lengthy public input process, locals expressed their desire for an aquatics center that strayed both from the institutional look of past decades and the Caribbean- or Hawaii-themed water parks other communities have developed. Donna Gaukler, director of Parks and Recreation, says she was happily surprised that citizens instead wanted to emulate Western Montana’s alpine lakes, streams, mountains and trees.

How the architect accomplished that: Kent Means introduced plenty of natural materials—like logs and wood structures—and warm, natural colors to convey a Montana atmosphere. The overlapping roof pitches represent the mountains and sloping valleys surrounding Missoula, and the predominance of glass allows natural light and a view of the outdoors. “There’s a really clear connection between the outside landscape and the interior through the use of windows and the way the building is sited relative to the park and pond,” Means says.

Challenges: A tight budget, multiple sites and rapidly increasing construction costs made for difficult decisions, Means says. After exceeding the price tag approved by voters, various aspects had to be stripped from the project, and Means says many primarily aesthetic details—a mass of log columns at the entrance, for instance—were the first to go.

Goodies: Means says the aquatics facility—with its slides, zero-depth entry and wave pool, among other features—will bring an entirely new pool experience to Missoulians.

What it says about Missoula’s architectural future: “From an architectural standpoint, I hope that it encourages people to consider some unique and modern forms and materials,” Means says. “It represents a quality community space that encourages openness and a warm, comfortable place for people to be.”

Project cost: The McCormick Park center costs $4.9 million; the project as a whole totals $12.2 million.

Status: Construction began last July, and the McCormick Park structure is about halfway completed. The McCormick Park center will open in August, though the other projects will open early summer.

Owner’s vision: Joe Easton’s primary focus was to rehabilitate an existing in-town property and adapt it for use in 2006 and beyond. The idea was to feature a brand new retail space on the first floor of the former grocery store and incorporate five nontraditional living units. “I wanted to do something with the building that was going to stand out on that street,” Easton says.

How the architect accomplished that: “We’re going to reuse all of the exterior perimeter walls as well as the existing foundation,” explains Posewitz. The ground level exterior will feature a traditional red-brick façade giving way to more modern shapes and forms on the 2nd and 3rd levels.

Challenges: Reusing the existing footprint, walls and floors was one of the biggest challenges in redeveloping the century-old building, as well as getting cooperation from neighbors. “The contractors will have to get permission from landowners from the west to stage machinery on their property when we begin work on that side of the building,” says Easton.

Goodies: A butterfly roof that slopes inward to a valley will catch the eye of those used to traditional gable roof-lines. “We basically cut the roof in half and flip it around to create a form and shape people aren’t used to looking at.” The design allows for higher ceilings and windows at the perimeter of the living spaces, allowing more natural light to fill the room. The third-floor condominium also features sliding glass walls that recede into pockets, opening the south-facing living room to an outdoor patio.

What it says about Missoula’s architectural future: “We hope it’s a little more daring than the average project being built right now,” says Posewitz. “Hopefully this project is part of a gradual process of preparing the city for more modern ideas.”

Project cost: $800,000.

Status: The project is out to bid and construction will likely begin in February.

Owner’s vision: Developer and builder Ken Ault sought to produce medium-density, multi-family housing on a 1.5-acre lot near the old Champion Mill site. He wanted to market the project to people seeking low-maintenance, stair-free homes, particularly Baby Boomer empty-nesters.

How the architect accomplished that: Jamie Hoffman designed the three-story, 32-unit Ashlyn Place so all units have their own garages and are arranged as second- or third-floor flats. The location in a former industrial neighborhood led Hoffman to embrace features like steel siding, concrete blocks and fabric window awnings.

Challenges: While the site itself presented few challenges in terms of space or zoning, Hoffman says he strove to make the large project interact well with its surroundings. By placing entries, patios and large windows on the exposed sides of the project that neighbors drive or walk by, Hoffman tried to ensure that the condos don’t come off as unapproachable or too internally focused. “It’s the right urban design thing to do,” Hoffman says, adding that too often condos neglect to take their surroundings into consideration.

Goodies: Each unit has a private patio or deck that provides private outdoor space, and the three-story complexes include three elevators as well as stairs for accessibility.

What it says about Missoula’s architectural future: Hoffman predicts that Missoula will soon see many more similar developments, due to rising land costs, shifting demographics and a booming urban center. As Baby Boomers age, he says, there will be more demand for high-value flats that offer more freedom, though younger professionals will seek them out as well for their modern style and central location.

Project cost: Unavailable.

Status: Ault, who’s a builder as well as the project developer, will break ground next spring and hopes to have the homes occupied by winter 2006.

Owner’s vision: The renovation and expansion of the Missoula Art Museum, housed in the old Carnegie Library downtown, was driven by a practical need for more room for galleries, classrooms, collections and visiting areas. Another major driver was the old museum’s inaccessibility due to the lack of an elevator.

How the architect accomplished that: Warren Hampton says he sought to create a contemporary addition to the museum that distinguishes itself without overwhelming the historic structure. A prevalence of glass serves to make the museum more inviting to people on the street than the existing monolithic building, and decorative elements of red sandstone and granite serve to relate the new building to the old. The new museum increases exhibition, visitor and collection space by more than 50 percent and education space by 100 percent.

Challenges: Hampton says it was challenging to connect the modern addition to the historic existing building, especially given the wide variety of input offered by the public. A glass wall joins the structures, and two bridges on the second level serve as walkways between the buildings.

Goodies: “I think what people are going to be blown away by is entering the atrium though the glass canopy and looking up 45 feet,” Hampton says. The building and its new collection vault also feature precisely controlled lighting, humidity and temperature, and the galleries are all wired for Ethernet to accommodate multimedia exhibits.

What it says about Missoula’s architectural future: To be a successful public space downtown, Hampton says, any project needs to be “expressive of its use, respectful of its context, and it needs to contribute to the urban life of the city.”

Project cost: $4.3 million; $2 million for the addition and $2.3 million for the renovation.

Status: Construction is underway, and the renovated museum is scheduled to open mid-summer 2006.

Owner’s vision: Partners (and trained architects) Elizabeth Thompson and Luke Phinney envisioned a fluidity of movement between interior and exterior spaces, and wanted to emphasize natural processes. Conceiving of their domicile-to-be as a piece of furniture, Thompson and Finney aimed to create an heirloom.

How the architects accomplished that: Lots of glazing lets in natural light, and a utilitarian concentration of functional rooms (kitchen, bath, bed) attached to an expansive pavilion-style living space keeps the footprint tidy. A plastered straw bale exterior wall and shutters help retain warmth. Natural materials designed to allow for disassembly suggest reusability and a future outside the landfill. Stacked and consolidated mechanical systems minimize construction costs.

Challenges: Getting the lot, carved from a neighbor’s oversized holdings, rezoned proved to be a moving target in a climate of heightened sensitivity to infill, even though the reconfiguration left two larger-than-average building lots. Atypical and innovative construction methods necessitated the expertise of an engineer and six sets of permit revisions. Still, Thompson and Phinney say they’ve found Missoula to be more amenable than most cities to such an idiosyncratic project.

Goodies: A malqaf—a 2,000-year-old middle-eastern passive ventilation technology—in the stair tower; a straw bale north wall; a garden roof plus deck over the living room; and Luke’s favorite apricot tree.

What it says about Missoula’s architectural future: That attractive, sustainable and personal architecture can be designed and built by regular people on a reasonable budget in a manner respectful of the community and open to the public life of the city.

Project cost: $75,000

Status: Ground is broken and the partial basement is in. Thompson and Phinney hope to occupy their home by next summer.

Owner’s vision: Jake Terzo set out to create a residence for urban professionals, with the prototype tenant being a younger version of himself. That meant a low-maintenance structure and yard, and multiple stories. “I wanted something kind of edgy, distinctive,” Terzo says. “Everybody’s personality is different, so why should all their places to live look the same?”

How the architect accomplished that: Jeff Anderson says the building reflects International Style, architecture’s version of minimalism, though he tried to avoid the style’s characteristic sterility. He reduced the building’s environmental impact—and created an industrial look—with a material focus on concrete, glass and steel.

Challenges: A contentious public process, during which neighbors termed the proposal a monstrosity and decried its modern expression, led to major compromises. The four-story building was scaled back to three, and a proposed commercial component was dropped. Anderson and Terzo are satisfied with the outcome, but Terzo says it was a challenge to “change it in a way that kept enough of what I wanted while still giving part of what others wanted.” Anderson says his major challenge was working within the constraints of the narrow downtown lot and utilizing every square inch of the site.

Goodies: The building will feature radiant heating, a penthouse master suite with a 1,000-square-foot roof garden and a translucent collapsible wall system in each apartment allowing for various room configurations.

What it says about Missoula’s architectural future: “Hopefully it points toward buildings that are of a more modern expression that take into account their construction methods and their impact on the environment,” Anderson says. Terzo hopes the building contributes to an eclectic mix of styles and dwellings in the neighborhood.

Project cost: $500,000.

Status: Terzo hopes to break ground in February and complete the project in time for the 2006 Parade of Homes in late September.

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