Sustainable Design Competition: Workshop/apd Interview


For the 5th anniversary of our Sustainable Design Competition for New Orleans, we caught up with architect Andrew Kotchen of Workhshop/apd, the winning design firm from New York. Kotchen and design partner Matthew Berman were behind the winning design used to build the Holy Cross Project in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. Below, Kotchen shares his thoughts on the experience.

How did you hear about the competition?

Prior to this competition, there was another competition sponsored by Tulane called High Density on the High Ground. We had submitted to that and were one of five finalists.When we went down to New Orleans, we were taken by the devastation. Then the week after we came back, Reed Kroloff, the chair of architecture at Tulane, called and said you should be aware of this other competition. We loved that it was a competition to build -- that the winning design would be actually built -- which is rare. It was exciting.And it felt like the right thing to do. We were reasonably familiar with New Orleans and its culture and seeing the devastation from the hurricane was a life-changing experience -- seeing houses on tops of cars and all the destruction. It was crazy. As architects, we’re obsessed with the built environment and to see it destroyed and upside down was terrible. As a human, you want to see what you can do. You can always donate money, and then we thought, well, we could also donate services and labor for design.

Can you tell us about how you approached the design?

We knew we wanted to generate a varied design. We started with thinking about how to create a design matrix for residential living and on compartmentalizing components of a home.

What was the experience like?

The experience was a roller coaster. We gave up our office the entire summer of 2006. We literally lied to clients and said we had other things to do so we could work on the competition’s first phase.For the second phase, we had several weeks and we took two trips down to New Orleans to make a presentation to the community. Then we started to feel more confident. Our presentation went well and we developed a good rapport with the locals we met with. Knowing they would be part of the final process, we felt as though we were in a good place.

It was great, a total rush. And far greater when you win! But it was an amazing experience for our office. The growth and confidence it brought to the firm was tremendous. Winning this competition for us -- I don’t want to say it put us on the map because we thought we were doing great work already, but it put us to the front of the line. It was an opportunity for more people to recognize our work.

How did you find out you won?

We went down to New Orleans to present the final designs. We were waiting around our hotel and got a call to see the jury and answer a few more questions and we thought, well, that’s weird. And we walked in the room and the jury was sitting there. And Matt [Petersen, the CEO of Global Green] said, We don’t actually have questions -- we wanted to tell you you won. It was a whirlwind experience.

Before the competition, had you worked with sustainable design?

Before the competition, we had just started to dip our toes into green design. We felt it was something we needed to integrate into our practice, but this was our first real attempt to create a sustainable environment. Now, we’ve done tons of LEED certified projects. There's been a real cultural shift happening in our profession and it's been great. Thissped our whole process and we suddenly became green experts. So much has changed in the five years since the project.

Final thoughts about the competition and what kind of affect this had?

I think there were people who were interested in how this would affect their bottom line. And I also think what this did was help with the understanding that sustainable modern architecture could be done successfully in New Orleans. Our design was contextual and I think it responded well to the needs of people and was based on characteristics of the New Orleans vernacular. To do that with sustainability, that was new to people's eyes.