North Little Rock’s downtown Argenta district is thriving, pandemic be darned, and hometown Taggart Architects is a big part of its recent renaissance.
A building boom of roughly $65 million in construction projects tied to the new Argenta Plaza, though sometimes slowed by the impact of the virus, is transforming the Main Street corridor on the north side of the river. Taggart is playing a big role in its development, having designed the new 600 Main Building the firm now calls home and working on the future Power + Ice building next door as well.
Bram Keahey, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, partner and project architect with Taggart, is optimistic for the district’s future despite a pandemic. In the following Q&A, he touches on Argenta, pandemic-inspired design trends, the power of aesthetics and more.
AMP: What trends are you seeing right now in the industry?
Keahey: Architecture creates places in society for people to work and play. Because of the pandemic, the way a person thinks about a workplace is changing. Many people are working from home. Many are struggling between the safety of technology and the need for personal business contacts. Many employees are working at different times than other co-workers in order to decrease the occupancy of the office building.
Others, deemed essential workers, only see efforts to distance themselves with protective gear. As the way people communicate and interact change, the built environment also changes. We are seeing the idea of the workplace moving away from a single place to do work to one that is more decentralized: where you work and live at the same place.
For those still in an office setting, the trend of the collaboration-friendly open office configuration is necessarily moving toward smaller, more controlled spaces. We see the cubical farm transform into taller walls and more separations. Conversely, we’re seeing public areas such as lobbies and waiting rooms (in banks and hospitals, for example) being enlarged and rearranged so that visitors can better distance themselves from each other.
The architecture and construction industries are also being changed by necessity. Material costs, time delays for materials and labor costs have all increased. Building technologies are adapting to the COVID-19 virus and the contagious nature it presents. Building owners, architects and contractors are considering upgrading HVAC systems to higher filtration standards and adapting to no-contact controls for elevators, lighting and security doors as well as toilet fixtures and water coolers. Soon, we’ll be able to move about the office and not touch a thing.
As far as the new construction projects we are seeing, health care projects continue to be a strong sector, but many commercial office buildings are on hold and being reevaluated because of stay-at-home preferences. Unfortunately, because of business closures, there are many existing buildings available to purchase instead of building new. On a positive note, multifamily projects are booming – with the emphasis of staying safe at home, people are improving what home is like.
In our industry, there are positive expectations and pent-up plans ready to rebound as soon as the pandemic is under control.
AMP: It feels like after a few decades of bigger is better, efficiency seems to be the name of the game now. What was the catalyst that led to the focus on LEED and environmental impact?
Keahey: Unfortunately, the built environment uses large amounts of non-renewable energy and valuable natural resources — not just to occupy and maintain the buildings but for the life cycle of the building as well. There was a need in the early ’90s to measure and reward “green building” strategies to decrease the building’s footprint on the environment. The U.S. Green Building Council (a nonprofit developed to establish guidelines for the design and construction industry) began a system to identify whole-building design practices and to reward the sustainable design efforts of architects and contractors. Through these guidelines, the design and construction industries gain expertise in sustainable building-material selection, efficient construction practices and recycle and reuse strategies.
The LEED movement also benefits the occupant in the built environment. Sustainable building strategies incorporate getting natural light deep into the building (also saving energy), mandating the latest heating and cooling standards and requiring user climate zones and personal comfort questionnaires.
TAGGART/Architects follows the trend of making sustainable, efficient buildings that are LEED-certifiable, even if the owner does not pursue LEED certification. The new cool kid on the block is efficient, sustainable and renewable.
AMP: Discuss the importance of aesthetics in a place. Does each structure/building/place exude its own vibe? Can you truly design a building to do so?
Keahey: In the past, buildings reflected the confidence and ambition of a society’s growth in knowledge, as seen in the rational, mathematical, Renaissance architecture. Buildings can also show the technical advancements in materials as seen in the thin, slim, lines of steel-and-glass Modernist architecture.
And today, buildings are often the reflection of society’s need to find value and inspiration in things around them. Today’s architecture emphasizes efficiency, sustainability and form. The aesthetics of today’s spaces and buildings reflect the context in which they are located and/or the response and creative use of materials that reflects the owner’s vision.
The Argenta Plaza in North Little Rock features landscape and water elements that emulate the “oxbow” topography seen along the Arkansas River. Similarly, the use of exposed steel and natural slate on the exterior of the building reflects the strength and natural aesthetic important to the client. A building can be both the expression of an emotional response to a place and a solution to the needs of its users.
AMP: Over the course of your career, what’s been your favorite project?
Keahey: Of my 28 years at TAGGART/Architects, the ASU Welcome Center/Centennial Bank branch may be my favorite design project. Centennial Bank made an investment in the Arkansas State campus by designing a building to be a campus hub and reflect the spirit of a proud university.
The Welcome Center is where a prospective student and their family first encounter the A-State experience: It’s where the student meets with campus orientation staff, where informational tours begin and where photo ops are taken next to the wolf head logo as a proud graduate. The building is basically a logo. There is a building-sized A-State Red Wolf head on an outdoor plaza, and multiple-sized university logos positioned around the building. I love the strong concept of a “building as a logo” that was fitting of a college campus where school spirit dominates.
The day it was finished, students were surrounding the logos taking photos — exactly what was intended. Additionally, working with the Centennial Bank staff made this an enjoyable, creative and rewarding experience.