Recalling our climb to the top of Zervreilahorn, the 9,500-foot peak overlooking the Vals quarry in the Swiss Alps, I appreciate what makes Jim Durham of Quarra Stone a unique force in the world. A stone supplier without a quarry and no particular stone to market, Durham combs the globe for new variations and sources. He is a consultant who can do as well as teach, a fabricator with a forte for computerized cutting and shaping. Exuberant and thoughtful, curious and proactive, he is focused on listening to and acting on the goals of architects who seek him out. “I think stone is different from other materials,” he says, “because it is more of a place; it is a holder of meaning and of history.”
Our path to Zervreilahorn began in 2002 with the defining moment in our firm’s design of two new residence halls for Swarthmore College. It happened when we saw-cut a piece of Wissahickon Schist, revealing a hidden vibrancy within the split-faced rubble stone that defines the college’s all-stone campus. The exposed grain of this metamorphic stone was both age-old and vividly contemporary, with lively waves and swirls, a graphic interplay of white on gray celebrating the natural variations and color range hidden within. Frankly, we loved it. Curious whether this new expression of campus stone could allow our contemporary design to engage with more historic structures, we asked Durham a burning question: Can we find a nonrubble metamorphic stone that captures this grain in taut, square-cut courses? It seemed like an impossible question, one that local quarries could not answer.
Durham embraced our query as an ongoing conversation, listening and probing, sampling known sources and seeking out new quarries, eventually finding an intriguing Swiss quartzite that looks remarkably like the saw-cut schist. Bringing into the conversation Truffer AG (a family-owned quarry in the remote town of Vals, Switzerland), Durham orchestrated a period of due diligence, including quarry visits with full-scale stone mock-ups that we used to test the mix of stone, its range, and its randomness. “I love these moments,” he said with a laugh, “working with people who are ridiculously demanding, with people who have ‘not good enough’ in their vocabularies.” Conversations about randomness would erupt: How much variation is necessary to capture the naturalness of stone? How much randomness is too much? How do you achieve randomness without creating pattern, while managing a color mix from boulder to slab to cut pieces on pallets? Nerdy stuff for sure.
Without a strong sense of teamwork, these strategic conversations would have worn out our stakeholders. This is where the mountain comes in. There is nothing like a nine-hour climb, with ropes and everything, to bring representatives from the college, the contractor, Quarra Stone, the quarry, and the architects toward a common purpose. Even the town joined in by loaning our group climbing helmets, jackets, and hiking boots. “It is all about building trust,” Durham says.
Looking back, he considers the project a watershed, defining a new “architect-centered” focus for him, repositioning his business model around change and innovation—whether chasing randomness at quarries worldwide, deploying computer robotic shaping tools to achieve complex curvatures, exploring translucency in stone, or applying the lessons of biomimicry. On the peak of Zervreilahorn, I told Durham that considering all his technical expertise and access to resources, what I appreciated most was his ability to really listen. “There is,” he replied, “no better compliment.”