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A different model for civic engagement

On April 19, 2012, about a dozen young professionals from the BSA’s Emerging Professionals Network (EPNet) and I took the Orange Line to Roxbury Crossing and climbed a steep hill to Roxbury’s Fort Hill neighborhood to tour “Powahouse,” a three-unit housing development being constructed by a new Boston design/build firm called Placetailor.

Placetailor takes design/build to a whole new level. It was founded in 2008 by Declan Keefe, Simon Hare, Evan Smith and Kevin Young, and these aspiring architects and contractors have teamed up to improve, repair and make indoor and outdoor places in their community. Placetailor combines design and construction by having everyone actually do everything, from sharpening pencils to strapping on tool belts. In the case of Powahouse, Placetailor is the developer, too. The building’s three units will hit the market soon.

We saw the project in mid-construction. With a slab-on-grade foundation and framed in wood, the three-story structure on a corner lot across from a little neighborhood park had just been closed in and was receiving rough plumbing and electric work. A piece of plywood on sawhorses served as a presentation table for Keefe’s PowerPoint. The three unique condominiums were being designed and built to conform to meticulous Passivhaus standards that would squeeze energy demand so low that the occupants would be able to heat their homes with what equated to the annual energy used by an electric hair dryer.

Imagining folks bringing hair dryers to bed with them on a cold night, we dug deeply into the design approach. The double exterior-wall framing was hard to miss. Keefe explained the value of discontinuous studs and unbroken insulation. Kneeling to point to the floor-slab edge, we saw how an insulated gap in the slab would create a thermal break around the entire building envelope.

We then squeezed between two-by-fours to get a look inside Placetailor’s job-site trailer: 50 square feet of space at best in a portable box that also served as the team’s offices, corporate headquarters, drafting room, conference room and lunch room. With no chance of the whole EPNet group fitting into the space, we took turns marveling at its design. Sleeper cars and space capsules came to mind.

Most of the group’s questions were of the hard-hitting construction-savvy variety. Being the only licensed architect in the room, I had a different perspective. Yes, Keefe explained, they do work with a licensed architect when necessary. Most of them have professional degrees and plan on becoming licensed someday. But they are cognizant of the disconnect that too often happens between designers and builders, and their focus is on erasing that boundary and gaining enough hands-on experience to experiment with confidence. Rather than an alternative to conventional practice, though, they saw what they were doing as an entirely viable practice model for architecture.

And experimentation is exactly what was happening. Again in response to a question, the Placetailor team didn’t see “green building” as their goal, just better building. They aspire to design and build housing units without heating systems at all so that sunlight, appliances and the heat from peoples’ bodies produce enough heat to create a comfortable indoor environment. This would certainly be risky business, but those are the kinds of chances that this organization could take. And although the team may not use the words “sustainable design,” this building looks like it’s completely ready for the 2030 Challenge.

Beers were served on the roof deck as the sun set behind the towers of the Longwood Medical Area and Northeastern University. Realization slowly dawned that this lively, engaging group of young professionals wasn’t the only thing that was emerging. A new way of designing and a different model for civic engagement were also taking hold.


Mike Davis FAIA, principal and vice president at Bergmeyer Associates, is the 2012 president-elect (2013 president) of the BSA. The former public policy commissioner to the BSA board of directors and co-chair of the AIA Massachusetts Government Affairs Committee, Davis is also civically engaged as acting chair of the Boston Civic Design Commission and a board member of the Boston Foundation for Architecture. He blogs about the AIA 2030 Commitment at mikedavisfaia.wordpress.com.

Above image courtesy of Placetailor.