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Function Follows Form: A conference centerís soaring roof multitasks to green effect

Marmol Radziner
June 2009

By David Sokol

The relationship between Santa Monica, California’s Marmol Radziner and Associates and TreePeople, an organization that plants trees and promotes water conservation and sustainability throughout Los Angeles, is almost as old as Marmol Radziner itself. The 20-year-old design firm has been working with the Beverly Hills–based nonprofit since the early 1990s.

Conference Center
Image © Benny Chan
In Los Angeles, Marmol Radziner designed a new facility for TreePeople, an organization that plants trees and promotes water conservation and sustainability throughout the city.

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Specifically, Marmol Radziner has master-planned the TreePeople Center for Community Forestry, then designed an outdoor amphitheater that sits within that 45-acre site located in Los Angeles’s Coldwater Canyon Park, and most recently completed a conference center there. The 2,860-square-foot multipurpose building earned LEED Platinum certification last year.

For clients both long- and short-term, Marmol Radziner carries a torch ignited a century ago: The studio has restored signature Modernist residences, and its new construction and interior projects deploy the meticulous and sparing vocabulary of that movement. What the TreePeople conference center also demonstrates is the easy synchronicity between high Modernism and the sustainability movement.

Consider the small building’s wedge-like roof. It appears to hover over the volume, which comprises large expanses of glass incised by a series of walls that reach, flange-like, out into the landscape. (Inside, those planes are reduced to beams with embedded channels that permit movable surfaces to partition the space.) Both roof and walls are concrete that includes 50 percent fly ash, and these thick forms absorb daytime heat for moderating the interior temperature and enhancing natural ventilation. Moreover, the angled roof, besides evoking a classic butterfly form, channels rainwater into 250,000-gallon underground that also captures parking-lot runoff. The water is used to irrigate adjacent parkland.

“I think there is a strong relationship between the ideals of Modernism and the goals of sustainability, and I don’t find it limiting as a designer,” says Leo Marmol, FAIA, managing principal of Marmol Radziner. Besides the conference-center roof, “The edict of using less to create more can easily translate into our sustainability goals,” he says, referring to exterior solar shades recycled from planks salvagd from Coldwater Canyon Park’s 1920s fire station. “I think the notion of interconnectedness between the interior and exterior translates well into a greater understanding and connection to our ecosystem, and simple things like natural ventilation and daylighting, too—those passive design concepts can be fundamentally modern.”

In fact, for Marmol Radziner, sustainability has proven the opposite of limiting. When the architects began working with TreePeople, most clients were resistant to ecologically responsible design. “We used to have to sneak it in,” Marmol says, “except for TreePeople, which really allowed us an opportunity to understand the concepts of sustainability, and to understand how the ecosystem of Los Angeles works. We really feel as though our approach and broad understanding of sustainability came from that partnership.”

Green principles have since culminated in the firm’s launching a separate business devoted to prefabricated houses. “Our interest in prefabrication came from a heightened concern about sustainability,” Marmol says. “Often there’s not enough attention paid to how buldings are actually produced, and the gross inefficiency of materials and labor delivery.”

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