July 22, 2017

Centerbrook Architects

Finally I had the oppotunity to see Centerbrook Architects.  I’ve lived in these parts for 20 years and been aware of its reputation. I have long been intrigued and would have loved a tour of the place but never had the chance.

Well, it came up on a recent Sunday at an open house it held—but only for the 50 first responders.

I had heard about it only the day before. No opportunity to call in. I arrived at the announced 12 noon on the dot. I was admitted because of a no-show. Thank you, Mr., Mrs., or Ms no-show.

Centerbrook Architects is plumb in the heart of tiny Centerbrook. The village, part of Essex, is little known outside our area. But what is interesting is that Centerbrook Architects is known all over the country as leaders in its business. That business is planning and designing buildings and getting them built.

Buildings of all kinds. University buildings. Business offices. Laboratories. Government buildings. Museums. Hotels and resorts. Research centers. Libraries. Prestigious buildings for prep schools. You name it. Often for the biggest names in their fields. Even houses. Usually for people not widely known but of considerable means.

Why was I so interested? Centerbrook Architects has been the winner of countless awards, honors, and testimonials. It is featured time and again in books and magazines for excellence, reliability, and all-around good value. Its fees are said to be steep, but the word is it delivers a lot for the bucks it commands.

It has been in business for more than 50 years. Started in New Haven by Charles Moore, who was in his late 30’s, the dean of the school of art and architecture at Yale. With three young men who were his employees, all Yalies. It moved to Centerbrook in 1969. It has grown and prospered more than they ever expected, I think. It changed names a couple of times and became Centerbrook Architecrts in 1983.

It employs some 60 people nowadays, which makes it mid-size in their industry. Looking at a list of its clients and the variety and grandeur of their projects is an eye-popping experience. There are thick volumes full of gorgeous pictures and fascinating descriptions of their jobs.

Perhaps you know: it is housed in an ancient and nondescript factory building at 67 Main Street. Famous locally in it day as “The Bit Shop.” You wouldn’t look at it twice in driving by. But surprise—besides its reputation in architecture, Centerbrook Architects has transformed the old factory into an exemplar of high-tech energy conservation and utilization.

It is as green as green can be. Imagine, it even has a rooftop garden designed primarily for energy efficiency–but a nice place for a picnic lunch or a drink after quitting time on Friday. Its efforts at conservation have also won it good press.

It can be argued that this quiet operation nestled between Main Street and the Falls River is due the major credit for whatever fame little Centerbrook may have today. Many people in other states know the village only as the headquarters of Centerbrook Architects, and travel here solely for that reason.

Once in, I made my way up the long, ancient, creaky stairs to a big room. It was crowded. Obvious why only 50. That’s how many chairs could be squeezed in. I found a seat at the very back. Not good. I wanted to hear every word.

William Grover

A man stood at the front facing us. Behind him was a wall-size projection screen. He was old enough to be a retiree, it seemed–like many of us in the audience. In fact, if there were young people present, I didn’t spot them. He was dressed like us, meaning casually. Slacks, open-necked shirt, sleeves rolled up.  A bit reserved, but friendly. Definitely in command.

He was William H. Grover. “Bill” Grover. And that’s the way he seemed to be addressed by everybody, just “Bill.” He is 73 now. He was one of the four partners who founded the firm in 1969. He was 31 then, the oldest of them save for Charles Moore, the dean , whose idea it was.

They were tired of the urban lifestyle,  the parking problems there, and the crime. Bill Grover landed a job to design a subdivision of nice houses in Deep River close to the Connecticut River. Like the others in the firm, he was on the look-out for a suitable and cheap property that could be fixed up and provide the better professional and personal setting they were hoping for. He spotted the Centerbrook Manufacturing Company shop on Main Street. Yes, the firm’s home today.

It had an old, old history. Located there on the falls of the Falls River because it could provide the waterpower for its machinery. Way back, there had been a gristmill there, at that spot to use the river for the power it needed.

Centerbrook Manufacturing was an iron works—the developer and manufacturer of fine auger bits. These were the clever, spiral-shaped knives a s carpenter would use with a hand brace to make circular holes in wood. These beautiful tools are collectors’ items mostly today. That explains why it was called The Bit Shop.

It was a noisy and crowded place. Big machine tools. Forges. Massive hammers.  Pulleys and shafts and flapping belts. It provided a livelihood for artisans and workers and their families for many decades. It had just closed down.

The four eager architects dickered for the building and got it. The machinery and left-over supplies and junk were still there. They were talented and inspired and knew they’d have to roll up their sleeves and work hard. They got it cleaned up. Their capital was short and they got their infant business up and  rolling and finally growing with classic sweat equity. That’s the way it was for years and years.  “But fun, too!’ Bill said.

For many years they rented out surplus space. They had people running antique shops in there, lawyers, writers, this and that. Finally the firm took all the space.  They knocked down sheds and out buildings, and in 1982 they had big help from Mother Nature—more about this in a minute. In fact, what Mother Nature served up could have been a deathblow.

The solar panels that now cover the front roof give a clue. But they give little indication of how the gritty old factory has been transformed into a comfortable and efficient and hugely interesting white-collar work place. More about that soon, too. But it’s obvious it is still a very old building though finely maintained. The brick walls. The high ceilings. The huge beams. I was thrilled by the many ultra-modern features Bill kept talking about. But the feeling that I was in a  factory building  erected in the 19th Century never left me.

I suspect none of the four had any idea of the success their beehive would achieve. That’s what it was, a beehive of creativity. And is.

Since its start, planning and designing have been its core efforts. But in time it introduced a whole package—everything needed to get a building built. Fund-raising know-how for their clients, for instance. Some of these projects cost millions.

Yes, Bill Grover is retired now, I found out. I heard a younger architect speak of him as “partner emeritus.” He was running this open house, which was being held at the request of the Essex Land Trust. I believe most in the audience were Land Trust people. Later I found out he’s been a board member a long time–in fact, he’s a past president.

There were half a dozen staff architects in the room. Not a single one in a business suit, by the way. One told me they had volunteered to help at this open house as hosts and guides.. It turns out there are 45 architects on the staff. The other 15 people are support staff.

The whole open house was slated for one hour. And Bill did cover the whole fascinating story from A to Z in one hour. He has a wry humor, and he kept sparking laughter with a deadpan funny remark at the end of an explanation about the place.

At the end we were broken into groups of 10 for a walk through the rambling place. Each led by an architect. I was in the fifth group, the last. The one led by him, which made me happy. Many questions were being asked and we’d pause here and there a minute as he explained and pointed out. He was generous about answering. All very interesting. So we stragglers left 15 minutes or so after the hour was up. I believe I was the last one out.

Here are some of the things we saw on the tour. Two large, sprawling rooms where the architects work–the “drafting rooms.” The size of a gym, say. Nobody has a private office, not even the partners. They are all out in the open. Each, from the most senior to the newest,  is in a work space 7 by 9 feet, with desk, work tables, bookcases and files, computer equipment, everything needed around him or her. Yes, nowadays women are architects, too. But the separating walls are only about chest high.

The architect has a sense of having an office. Yet there’s a feeling of equality. But as you enter, or stand in your place, you can see everybody in the room at a glance, and what they’re doing.

Bill said this makes for better use of the space. It also makes it easy to confer with one another. Saves walking. Promotes all-around efficiency. I understood immediately. Right away I thought of  the city room of the  big newspaper where I used to toil . I could see it would be hard here for anybody to loaf. Nearby we saw conference rooms for small meetings, and for meetings with clients.

Bill took us into a room where the plan of a building was projected onto a big screen. With clicks of a computer mouse, Bill could flip the building so that we could see it from the ground, or from the air. On any side. He could slice through the building at any point, lengthwise or sideways, and show us all the construction details. Amazing.

“Most of the work is done by computers nowadays. CAD, it’s called—computer-aided design. Saves times and money. But we still do a lot of sketching with a pencil. That’s how we develop ideas. With quick sketches.”

He took us into the library, which was filled with hundreds and hundreds of books and magazines. And with a professional librarian, mind you. “It’s not efficient for an architect to come into here and poke around looking for something. The librarian can do it faster and better for us.”

He took us into the computer room. Computers and monitors and components filled shelves all around. Three experts work here, one a planner, one a programmer,  and the third a Mister Fix-It. Understandable. The building is jammed full with computers. Knock off the electricity and in an hour the place would be paralyzed.

He took us into the Model Room. Every client wants to see the plans being created for his building transformed into a real, three-dimensional model. With walls, roof, windows, doors, everything. This shop is where these precise models get built by an expert model-maker on staff. Looking at plans is rarely enough. 

Bill picked up a tiny model of a chair and held it in the palm of his hand. “We’re designing an auditorium. Well, we even designed the chairs for it. This is one of them. We can make a hundred of them—as many as we need, and put them in place for the client to get a realistic view.” Again, all possible with the power of the computer.

He led us into the Sample Room. Here are samples of all kinds of things that go into a building … all kinds of lumber, bricks, glass, flooring, ceramics, plastics, on and on. An architect can enter and study the stuff and make informed decisions.

He led us into a beautiful room at the back end of the building. Large windows looked out on the Falls River and the great dam just a hundred yards away, the water splashing over it, the pretty pond behind it.

“There was a lot of discussion about whose office this should be. Everybody would love a place like this. Well, nobody’s, we decided. “We have meetings in here.”

He took us into the basement. He wanted to show us the hydropower plant, installed by the firm. Did so proudly. Remember that the old grist mill used the Falls River for power? Well, so does Centerbrook Architects. Just a percentage, however, the extent possible. Just outside is the big dam that makes possible the pond behind it. It’s the water drop here that makes all this possible.

He went on to show us the state-of-the-art geothermal pump. The water in the pond has different temperatures near the surface and near the bottom. In the summer the water is cooler at the bottom. In the winter, warmer at the bottom. The pump takes advantage of this differential. It sucks in water to help heat the building in the winter, and cool it in the summer.  Bill’s delight in the system was obvious to all of us.

He kept coming back to that subject time and again. Energy conservation! The effort started slowly nearly 40 years ago. It intensified as the firm experimented and got smarter about it. Today Centerbrook Enterprise is a practical laboratory of how much can be achieved in husbanding energy. More important than ever as prices skyrocket and there is increasing talk of scarcity.

He took us up to the roof—the flat part, that is. This is where the garden is. On one side is patio furniture. But the primary purpose was to save energy and make the building more comfortable. This was achieved with plantings that provide insulation. He talked about “sedum.” Not a word known to me. Sedum is a plant perfect for this. Requires very little care.  It grows in 4-inch-deep polyethylene trays.

Got to mention the solar panels. They made big news when installed in 2006. They cover every inch of the various roofs where they could be practical. Again we saw how much they meant to him.

Centerbrook Architects has used every trick in the book that has proven its value. It recycles everything that it can. It makes all the compost it can. It has put sun-control film on its windows. It has installed lights everywhere in the building that can maximize its energy gain. One thing I noticed is that one side effect is that they give the place a more industrial look than some people might like.

He said that in total these efforts provide about 25 percent of the firm’s needs. All this started back in 1973—the historic gasoline crunch! “Save Energy” became the national cry!

Fortuitously, the firm got a job to design the biggest solar-heating building in the state. Also a house commissioned by NASA that would employ every bit of energy-saving technology known at that time. it picked up know-how bit by bit. I got the feeling if some proven new technology comes up, Centerbrook Architects will put it to use for itself here in a jiffy.

Now about Mother Nature’s big wallop. June 6, 1982—The Big Flood!  Huge rains. The Falls River ran over…. a catastrophe all the way down from Bushy Hill Lake at Incarnation Center (its dam fractured), down through Ivoryton into Centerbrook. Houses were swept away. The landscape upturned. Huge damages. The flood hit Centerbrook Architects and swept away a big building and six smaller ones. 

“A calamity! But we rebuilt. We rebuilt the big building. It’s one of our drafting rooms now. We raised it  by four feet.to protect it in the future.

“What is incredible is that we never thought of re-locating.  We stayed right here. It turned out to be an opportunity to make many things better.”

There were other crises over the years. Years of lean business. Our present recession has taken a big toll. Centerbrook Architects had to take the painful step of laying off 30 people, most of them architects. We all  do what we have to do.  Things are easing.

Bill is the only left of the original four. He is – now partner emeritus.. The other current partners are Jefferson B. Riley of East Haddam, Chad Floyd of Essex,  James C. Childress of Essex,  and Mark Simon of Stony Creek, all of long tenure.

The firm takes pleasure in many things. One of them is its long relationship with many clients. One is Quinipiac University, a newcomer in this corner of the world famous for institutions of higher learning of excellence. Quinipiac, located in Hamde, has been a client for 25 years. One project after another. It’s remarkable how the university is gaining in scope, stature, and reputation. It now has a law school. It will open a medical school in two years. Centerbrook Architects has had an important role in these efforts.

As you can tell, I delighted in the tour. Centerbrook Architects brings honor to us. But know what? To me Centerbrook Architects is a paradox.

The buildings it creates for sites all over the country are breathtakingly fresh and modern. The firm is known as high tech and even avant-garde.  You know just by looking at them that they are the last word in sound construction, handsome design, and real value. Yet its quarters that support all this work still look like … well, the old Bit Shop.

I asked one architect how clients react when they visit here. “They like it,”  he said with a smile. “They’ve heard about this. They’re interested in coming and seeing for themselves.”

It’s basic to Centerbrook Architects’ quirky charm, you might say.

If you’ve reached this far down in my report, obviously you are interested. A suggestion for you: go to www.centerbrook.com. You’ll be able to take a virtual tour of just about everything I saw. Maybe more. You’ll be fascinated.

The big thing you’ll miss is Bill Grover.

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