BNIM - AIA Firm of the Year
While sustainable architecture may be BNIM's hallmark, and indeed infuses all of its work, the firm strives to combine environmental considerations with social and economic sustainability. BNIM's expertise includes community redevelopment projects, urban planning, and campus master planning, and its diverse portfolio ranges from an array of government office buildings to single-family homes for Make It Right in New Orleans to a relocated 1892 freight bridge that serves as a pedestrian link in downtown Kansas City.
BNIM was formed in 1970 as Patty Berkebile Nelson Love Architects, named for its four young architect cofounders: R. Bruce Patty, Berkebile, Tom Nelson, and Bill Love. Ever since the early days of the practice, BNIM has sought to strengthen urban cores with projects that create a strong civic identity. Some of the firm's first major projects were renovations and restorations of landmark urban buildings in Kansas.
For example, BNIM was involved in restoring and expanding the Folly Theater (1900) in downtown Kansas City starting in 1974, a multistage process that lasted until 2000. In 1983, the firm worked in a joint venture with Harry Weese & Associates to renovate the Old Post Office (1884) in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, creating space for federal government offices, shops, and restaurants.
The name Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell Architects (BNIM), which dates to 1991, when Patty left the firm, recognizes the contributions of David Immenschuh, who joined the firm in 1970, and Steve McDowell, who joined in 1978. Those current four named principals — now all fellows of the AIA, or, in Immenschuh's case, of the International Interior Design Association — are joined by six other principals and a staff totaling about 100 employees at offices in Des Moines, Iowa, Houston, Texas, and Los Angeles and San Diego, California, along with the Kansas City headquarters.
A seminal event occurred in 1981: the fatal collapse of two skywalks at Kansas City's Hyatt Regency hotel, which Patty, Berkebile, and Nelson had codesigned with fellow local firm Duncan Monroe Lefevre. Fault for the structural failure, which killed 114 people, was found to lie with the structural engineer.
The soul-searching that Bob Berkebile experienced after the tragedy, both before and after being officially absolved, prompted him to seek ways to build that were more respectful of people, ultimately leading to the cutting-edge thinking in environmental design through which he and the firm have helped shape the sustainable design movement.
Even as it has opened offices in other cities, BNIM has remained firmly rooted in Kansas City, the place of its founding 41 years ago. Without adhering to a specific style or design language, the architects describe themselves as Midwestern regional architects.
"What's become national or global are strategies, but they must always be grounded in the deep culture of a place," remarks Berkebile. "Because we live here, we know more about this place. When we've had impact on the rest of the planet, it's with the concepts we develop and transferring those strategies to other parts of the world grounded in their places and culture."
"That's probably one of the passions that really linked me into the firm," says Steve McDowell, "the ability to work on great projects but also have an active role in the community and shape public policy."
A sense of place forms the basis of any BNIM design. A project always begins with the climate where the building is located. "We build a climate chart for every site before we design," explains McDowell. "We follow through, focusing on orientation and doing everything we can to get the building open to sunlight and ventilation, working on envelopes, and doing everything we can at the outset to understand what the requirements are."
Along the way, BNIM and its contemporaries have also evolved in the way they incorporate information and expertise. Sustainable design has long been a catalyst in changing the building industry towards a more integrated design process, requiring larger and more collaborative teams of experts that include owners, clients, architects, engineers, and various subcontractors contributing to the design in order to ensure efficiency and constructability.
McDowell says that while collaboration is vital, it's also important that architecture firms have learned to bring some of that expertise in-house, relying more on their own data and research collection in anticipation of the integrated design process.
"One of our early LEED projects started with 118 people in an early charrette to set the aspirations," McDowell recalls. "Today, I don't think we'd find that the right way to go. We've figured out how to be smarter and more effective in collaboration."
McDowell continues: "When is the right time to have the critical discussion about building systems, or the performance of the space? How do we best utilize the mass of the structure for thermal reasons? Ten or 12 years ago it was a largely intuitive design process for us and most other architects. You'd kind of have the engineers make it work.
"We realized it wasn't just about having engineers model things and understand what the influences are on a design from a demand side. It was important that we really bring those scientific tools into the design studio, and measure those early in design — using it to help us decide which alternative to pursue. We started using building information software. We kind of went from intuitive to scientific, and we started using tools to start predicting experience, how a space will feel."
Office in Overland Park
Located in Overland Park, Kansas, the Mast Advertising & Publishing Building (1984) was an important milestone for BNIM, coalescing what the architects had learned about holistic, energy-efficient design. The six-story, 122,000-square-foot (11,300-square-meter) building comprises two blocks of offices connected by a vertical circulation core, which serves as a reception and public area.
Besides performing architectural design, BNIM — at the time known as PBNI, for Patty Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh — also helped select the project site and provided interior design services. Handling a range of services in-house helped the architects address one of the client's central needs: flexibility to accommodate change over time.
Most office buildings, even in milder climates than Kansas City's, incur greater operational cost from cooling spaces than from heating them, due to the heat generated by occupants and equipment as well as the "greenhouse effect" of glass enclosures. So, for Mast's former headquarters, BNIM made sure to minimize unwanted solar heat gain, even at the height of blazing Midwest summertime sun.
The building is oriented east-west to allow daylighting and passive heat gain in the winter while limiting direct solar penetration in the summer. An overhanging roof shades the top levels, and surrounding mature trees provide additional summer shade as well as a barrier to harsh winds. BNIM also designed a special deep window frame to provide extra shading on large areas of glass. The office interiors benefit from diffuse, glare-free daylight.
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