[Photo by John Wallis]

BUILD’s recent Tree House Pavilion for the Microsoft Open House in Manhattan was a huge success as well as an invigorating four week design and construction process.  Today’s post picks it apart, dives into some of the key ingredients and calls out some of the epiphanies along the way.  Critical info in bold for you skimmers out there.

Exceptional teamwork was invaluable on the project. The concept was generated by power-house ad agency Wexley School for Girls who brought aboard Greg Scott from Workbench Creative to direct the project.  BUILD LLC worked closely with Workbench and started designing within minutes of hearing about the concept.  All the digital technology in the world is no match for the swiftness and raw communication of sketching while you’re sitting at the table with a client. Just because we’re in the age of digital rendering doesn’t mean that the craft of sketching should be bypassed – the two go hand in hand.  Even our rudimentary sketches quickly convey ideas and enroll clients in a vision.

A day later BUILD had locked down four tree house design schemes – each exploring very different ideas.
1: Slat Box scheme uses alternating boards to create slots for views and light.
2: Tube Lounge uses repetitive ribs and a circular wrap to create a lounge in the trees.
3: Ramp as Experience turns the journey into the main event.
4: Tree House of Cards uses notched plywood to create volume and elevation.
Within days the Tube Lounge scheme was chosen and BUILD LLC was off to the races on detailing while Workbench Creative took to the phones for material sourcing and labor resources.  Choosing a path and not looking back was critical to keep the pace required of the tight deadline.

Within a week the design development was well underway and different iterations of the tube lounge had been explored.  The challenge at this point was finishing a set of documents that would accurately describe obtainable materials and realistic construction methods (still not entirely knowing what and who was available in the Manhattan area).  The construction documents required knowledge of means and methods; it required thinking through the sequence of construction.  This included everything from the delivery and positioning of the logs, to accurate fabrication of the ribs, to sourcing the final wrap.  Design-Build requires the architect to think like a builder and design accordingly. It’s not good enough to hand a builder a set of drawings and leave them to figure it out.

BUILD LLC Treehouse_04

Lead architect Andrew van Leeuwen rapidly carved out the drawings and worked in close conjunction with structural engineer Paul Faget of Swenson Say Faget.  Good engineering is about much more than just assigning sizes to your framing and providing calculations to your design.  Great engineering develops ideas that save materials, time and money. There is a quality of attenuation required of serious engineering and great engineers are more than consultants, they’re design partners.

workplayland_A0-4 Model (1)

Two weeks after the initial meeting, construction documents were complete, materials were being gathered and the ribs were being fabricated.  BUILD LLC’s digital shop drawings of the ribs were sent straight to the CBS shop in Manhattan for CNC cutting of the twelve different profiles.  CBS knocked it out of the park with their accuracy and speed, thanks to David Tasso.  It is critical to create ‘working drawings’ that actually work.

workplayland_A7 A7.1 (1)

Three weeks after the initial meeting we had our kit of parts and we were ready to build. The primary on-site constraint related to our install being delayed (2) days while the rest of the goods were brought through the tree house location and staged.  The tree house site in the Armory Building happened to be positioned directly in front of the loading doors to the whole joint (if it weren’t for bad luck, we’d have no luck at all as the old saying goes).  Originally conceived as being fabricated on-site from Thursday morning through Monday afternoon, our on-site install lost two days at the outset and began on Saturday at noon. The entire tree house and surrounding environment needed to be completed and ready to go by Tuesday morning, giving us a whopping 3 days for construction and staging.

Tree House Pavilion 05 photo by John Wallis
[Photo by John Wallis]

Once we were given clearance to occupy the space, Kevin Eckert from BUILD LLC landed in NYC to join up with Wes Weaver who had starting receiving materials and staging in preparation for Saturday’s fabrication start.  The two gunslingers led the charge on construction with additional horsepower from the New York City Teamsters.  To pull off a successful design-build project everybody needs to be on the same team. That means architects in the field problem solving and in this case getting their hands dirty.  An architect that can’t roll up their sleeves and problem solve in the field is useless in the design-build system.  BUILD LLC was on-site throughout the construction process putting in sweat equity –an advantage of design-build over a traditional architecture firm who’s limited liability prevents hands-on work.

BUILD LLC Tree House ribs

The system of design-build that we admire most, and try to replicate, is actually an age old practice when architects were master-builders.  It’s a mindset where the architect is involved from the very beginning to the point at which the project is complete; where construction administration expands far beyond the boundaries of drawing clarification. At the root of it all is simply being of use on the site.  It involves working through the translation of drawing to built-form, it is often unglamorous, and in a case like the tree house, it was the only way to successfully complete the project.

Tree House Pavilion 02 photo by John Wallis
[Photo by John Wallis]

The Tree House was to be located smack in front of the main loading bay door to the Armory Building – blocking the passage of materials moving in and out.  The solution was to build the frame, attach it to the structural trusses above via cable and elevate the structure at the end of the day for passage of materials below.  The next morning the structure was lowered and work resumed with the ribs.  During construction, the architects role is just as much about problem solving as it is protecting the design .

Tree House Pavilion 04 photo by John Wallis

Tree House Pavilion 03 photo by John Wallis
[Photos by John Wallis]

The fabric wrap needed to be cut to size and delivered to the site prior to the tube completion. Without as-built measurements, the architectural drawings and shop drawings were required to be extremely accurate for the pre-cut fabric patterns.

BUILD LLC Tree House fabric

Tree House Pavilion 06 photo by John Wallis
[Photo by John Wallis]

Assembly proceeded rapidly and challenges were overcome.  In design-build there is no such thing as a 9-to-5 day. BUILD LLC and the team worked around the clock and by 8am Tuesday morning the Tree House was completed and ready for the launch at 9am.

Tree House Pavilion 07 photo by John Wallis
[Photo by John Wallis]

Being comprehensive and fully involved on projects is something we find very satisfying.  Operating with speed and experience to make key incremental jujitsu modifications, moment by moment, is thrilling and mandatory on a project like this. In design-build we often find ourselves in the trenches, taking on a much broader spectrum than just the design. Being integrated with the process and the team is crucial for the high tempo and the spontaneous innovation required. Design-Build is messy, painstaking, and often unglamorous.  It involves work and communication at all levels. It’s also the only way to complete a project like the Tree House.  And yes, group martini’s were toasted and tilted back following the project completion

Congratulations to everyone involved on the Manhattan Tree House Pavilion – it was an honor to work with each and every one of you. Cheers from your friends at BUILD