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Architects Who Build Around People

By Erin Chambers When the architects at Zagrodnik + Thomas sat down with the residents and staff of the Stepping Stone Drug & Alcohol Recovery Facility, a residential rehab center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people with dependency issues, they quickly saw that despite the group's serious mission, it also had a lighter side -- and a lot of character. One of the year's biggest fundraising events, for example, is a fashion show performed in drag.

So when the firm agreed to design the center's new building, Zagrodnik + Thomas used a teal silk pump from a local shoe shop as a prototype for the main structure in the courtyard. Residents can now enter the facility through the arch of the giant shoe, or promenade down the staircase above. "It fit their personality, and we really believe in what these organizations are doing for the community," co-founder Jean Zagodnik says. "As a company we have a strong synergy with those that serve the public."

A UNIQUE APPROACH. Jean Zagrodnik and partner Scott Thomas met in architecture school in Wisconsin in 1984 and then went on to work for two big architecture firms in Chicago, considered one of the nation's architectural hotbeds. Thomas landed at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the firm responsible for the Sears Tower, and Zagrodnik at Nagle Hartray, which designed Oprah Winfrey's Harpo studios.

Zagrodnik admits that architecture was "healthy" at their respective firms, but after four years in the corporate world -- and icy winds blowing in off Lake Michigan -- the pair packed it up and moved to southern California. "It was a change of pace in every sense of the word, and that's what we were looking for," Zagrodnik says. The Stepping Stone facility was one of their first projects in San Diego, she adds, and it solidified their desire to work only with social-service clients.

The concept of social architecture -- designing and building structures that reflect and serve the communities they house, such as schools and libraries -- is far from pervasive. Many top architectures schools like the University of Wisconsin and University of California-Berkeley have programs or courses that address the issue, but the concept is time-consuming and often more expensive for firms to actually employ. It begs personal attention and a unique approach to each project -- two things that bigger firms typically lack and small firms like Zagrodnik + Thomas, with just three principal designers, champion.

EVERYONE AT THE TABLE. Unlike their large competitors, boutique firms can focus primarily on their clients and don't have to worry about pursuing trophy projects in hopes of building their own reputations. And with just a handful of designers, as opposed to the 50 or 60 bigger firms commonly have, these smaller shops only work on a few projects at a time -- invariably resulting in more face time.

Zagrodnik says the guiding principle is simple: Listen to your clients. "Bring everyone to the table," she says. For the remodeling of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center -- the nation's second-oldest and third-largest LGBT community center, with a $3.4 million budget -- the Zagrodnik + Thomas team had several meetings with the 50-person staff and involved over 300 community volunteers in the planning process. Zagrodnik realized that the LGBT community needed an open, safe space to provide activities, programs, and services designed to empower community members and support cultural diversity.

The front desk, or "community greeting center," is one example of how Zagrodnik + Thomas fit the new space into the community rather than the community into the new space. It boasts an open structure featuring warm yellow colors and materials like terra cotta to create a focal point that draws community members to it, rather than resembling typical office structures that can seem sterile and confusing. The firm "captured the warm and welcoming look we hoped for, as well as a space that works and flows in exactly the way the community needed," says Delores Jacobs, the center's director.

"BETTER ARCHITECTS." Once the word was out about Zagrodnik + Thomas's unique focus, other nonprofits and community-based organizations came calling. The firm has used the "workshop approach" of holding preliminary meetings and discussions to design several local high school libraries, churches, a structure for the American Lung Assn., even a Whole Foods market in San Diego. In every case, the necessary parties -- including school districts, community members, business owners, and students -- all have a chance to express their ideas for the new spaces.

Ray Lifchez, a veteran architect and designer for more than 40 years and a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Architecture, says social architecture centers around the concept of buildings adapting to the people within them by their very design, rather than the other way around. He founded the Berkeley Prize in 1996, an essay competition promoting undergrads to think about the purpose and social worth of making buildings. "It may just make them better architects," Lifchez says.

He acknowledges that the concept of social architecture is not entirely new, but it remains difficult for larger outfits to devote the time and consideration necessary to commit to such socially apt projects on a regular basis. With the Stepping Stone project, Lifchez says, the sensitivity that Zagrodnik + Thomas employed "helped to create a building that's a centerpiece of the neighborhood." And for the residents of the center, a centerpiece of their home. Chambers is a writer based in San Diego

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