Archive for the 'Downtown' Category

Efroymson Conservation Center


The Efroymson Conservation Center is one of the best new buildings in Indianapolis.  It has several innovative features that make it a great fit for The Nature Conservancy. I encourage everyone to go explore it and see what it can teach us about conservation in the urban age.

The center serves as the main office and gathering space for conservation efforts in Indiana

It’s hard to explain why this building is so important, but it all comes down to holistic design.  Every piece works towards the greater goal, establishing a synergy that few projects have realized.  If sustainability is the key metric of contemporary architecture then this project is a landmark worthy of its accolades.

The building has an F.A.R. of about 0.5, which is lower than the nearby Maxwell Commons and lower than a typical downtown project.  But the stats don’t tell the whole story.  This project is just as much about the outdoors as the indoors.  1/3 of the one acre site is native landscaping, combining a bioswale and representative ecologies of Indiana.  The land serves other purposes as well, collecting stormwater and containing a Geothermal system.  So, when one considers that the project designers used every bit of square footage to further TNC’s mission, it is clear that this building is a success.  (see this brochure for a summary of the design)

Just like the Cultural Trail, this is one project that people around the country recognize as important and worth attention.  Here are some photographs of the Efroymson Center in case anyone has not had a chance to visit yet.

The center serves as the main office and gathering space for conservation efforts in Indiana A view of the Ohio Street frontage Another view of the street frontage More reclaimed wood and shading structures All of the bricks are reused from the original building on-site The entry hall is decorated with Indiana hardwoods I am a big fan of the detailed structural elements The bricks are mixed in with Indiana limestone elements The Nature Conservancy hosts walkthroughs - the building is expected to achieve LEED Platinum Much of the wood was selectively harvested from TNC managed lands The high efficiency lights dim when daylight is sufficient The HVAC is an automated geothermal system A typical office space Conference rooms are in the middle with windows on both sides Another office - note access to daylight and underfloor register The Nature Conservancy has an important mission A view of the basement meeting room with light well and living walls A closer view of the living walls A view of Ohio Street and the roof meadow An accent planter Recycled materials are used throughout the building The green roof A view of the Easley Winery just to the East The green roof has some special break-in requirements A view of downtown and the Maxwell Commons to the West More of the green roof material The green roof is compatible with conventional building infrastructure The green roof filters the rainwater before it is collected and stored in the basement cistern A specialized water distribution system handles clear water and grey water The tank can store enough water to last through the typical Indiana dry spots Another shot of the special plumbing The center will soon have wind turbines installed here A little bit of design for the street furniture The West elevation is all business Reclaimed brick screen walls hide utility space A view of the light well on the back side A closeup of the living wall from above All of the plants on site are native to Indiana The parking lot is actually a stormwater catchment device All rainwater that hits the property is treated and absorbed on-site (this is quite an accomplishment) The native stone paving transitions nicely from auto to pedestrian use More views of the native species and the North elevation The North elevation and Maxwell Commons beyond Plants are spread throughout the space An accent wall with green elements The floors are low maintenance stained concrete in this area Exposed structural elements were selected for their appearance, sound, and insulation properties A secondary grey water system is used whenever possible to preserve treated water for potable uses The break room An extra room used for workout space with adjacent lockers and a shower

Fixing Ugly Buildings


Recently the question has been raised how to fix an ugly building, mostly in regards to the Di Rimini (and here and here and especially here).  It is a hard question to answer without first discussing what “ugly” means. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there are obvious problems with treating a building purely as sculpture and ignoring its contribution to the urban environment beyond aesthetics.


Buildings can be ugly in many ways.  Some turn their back on the street, showing a blank concrete or sheetmetal wall.  Some use such cheap materials that their facades disintegrate within a decade.  Some are unconscionable mixtures of architectural styles that blend into an incoherent bloody mess.  Some are multiple offenders.

Fortunately, designers have many ways to improve a building’s appearance and functionality without wiping the slate clean.  An industrial building in my neighborhood serves a good first example.  The structure was built right in the heart of the historic district and presented a brutal precast concrete face to the neighborhood.


Adaptive reuse by a local firm in 2008-2009 resulted in a new appearance and some good activity within the space. By using a modern scheme of awnings and accentuating the windows, the designers drew out the positive aspects of the building.  It’s not a perfect fix, but it shows that the space is cared for and that the owners care about its place in the neighborhood.

The renovated building now hosts a design factory, an architecture firm, and technology firms

The updates were simple but effective

Another example of an ugly building is the site at the corner of Virginia and Washington.  One of the most important street corners of Ralston’s original plan for Indianapolis, it has been host to some of the best and the worst buildings in Indy history.  The fun part about this one is that the votes for best and worst flip around depending on who you ask.

The original building was a ornate flatiron style building called the Indiana Trust building.  (See Vance-Block building history).  This was demolished in 1959 to make way for a modern building for Merchants Bank. It lost the urban density, street-level retail, and historic urban texture of the previous building.  The new structure also introduced a drive-thru and a facade meant to be appreciated at 40mph.

The "Zipper Building" was a famous Modernist landmark

The quest for modernism claimed another victim in 1959, but the result was a structure that some hoped would be even more timeless in its beauty.  The debate over the new building was a reflection over a more universal debate:  what is the role of historic preservation in our cities?

The new owners changed the facade of the zipper building in 2007.  I will recuse myself for professional reasons and not offer an opinion on this one, but I am interested in what people think.  Was the loss of a modernist building just another missed opportunity to preserve our heritage, or does the new facade and street level commercial space fix an ugly building that was never meant to be there?

The new Broadbent building recalls the historic buildings once on site

The newer design allows for a more active streetscape

Most importantly, do these examples give us any ideas on how to deal with our current stock of ugly buildings?  Should we enthusiastically preserve ugly buildings as part of our urban history or should we focus on converting them into buildings that fit downtown?