O’Herlihy Analyzes ROI on High-Design Façades

Lorcan O’Herlihy

VSAIA Design Forum presenter Lorcan O’Herlihy, FAIA, is the founder and principal of Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, Los Angeles, which, since its inception in 1990, has engaged the spatial, sensory, and experiential urban landscape. In 2004, the Architectural League of New York selected him as one of the eight “emerging voices” in the U.S. His firm’s commitment to design excellence in commercial, educational, and residential projects has garnered 42 national and international awards.

Over the past decade, O’Herlihy’s schedule has included lectures at the Architectural Association in London; Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc); Cranbrook Academy of Art, Michigan; Columbia University, New York; and the National Building Museum, Washington, D.C. He has worked at Kevin Roche/John Dinkeloo & Assoc. on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at I.M. Pei and Partners on the Grande Louvre Museum in Paris, and as an associate at Steven Holl Architects, where he was responsible for the nationally recognized Hybrid Building in Seaside, Fla.

Here, Inform explores with him the importance of the value of the architect to the client in developing a façade design that transcends the norm in terms of both appearance and performance.

Inform: How does the client accept a high-tech, high-design façade as a reasonable return on investment?

1140 Formosa Ave., Photo by Lawrence Anderson.

O’Herlihy: A good example of that would be the façade we designed for 1140 Formosa. This was a market-rate building and very much a matter of the client wanting a healthy ROI. So our proposing something that clearly was going to take more time and more complexity was something we wouldn’t think they would jump on immediately.

A mitigating factor, though, was that this was our third project with Richard Loring, executive director of the Habitat Group Los Angeles, our client. Since we’ve proven ourselves with the first two buildings—Gardener 1050 and Habitat 825—they were more accepting of our ideas. Still, it was an interesting challenge to convince them to do something as bold as this. And this is definitely a matter of degree. It would have been more challenging to have proposed the 1140 Formosa façade on the second project, since, at that point, we were still making sure that we were establishing a win-win situation for everybody.

Habitat 825. Photo by Lawrence Anderson.

As it was, the Habitat 825 project was such a resounding success that I was able to make the 1140 Formosa proposal, and the client was very interested in the idea of having a building envelope that would act as an architectural proposition. But it wasn’t just the appearance. The envelope also has a number of components that are exciting, such as using the second exterior envelope in a way that the panels project four feet beyond the actual building envelope. It became an opportunity to create a circulation spine between the building and the exterior envelope. So we were using that double envelope to frame spaces for entering the units, which, in turn, creates a choreographic effect.

We think buildings have that opportunity not just to be symmetrical or form a rigid pattern. You can look at a choreograph effect that is both revealing and concealing. Openings are revealed so that when you are on the inside of the unit you can look out. In effect, we had to pull panels off so that when you’re in interior areas where you want to see the views, you can. We also analyzed the sun path, because, especially in Los Angeles, it is also important to provide shading from the sun. So the building envelope became an elaborate element of the building, and the client understood that.

The secondary envelope also helps cool the building by shading the interior envelope surfaces. If you can bounce some of the heat away before it gets inside, that’s good. With careful analysis, we achieved a balance between views and shade, and we were able to be architecturally inventive. There is a lot of push and pull with this building envelope where we have balcony projections, circulation, and perforated panels.

Inform: How do you measure success in a design?

O’Herlihy: Success is in the client’s eyes. In this case, they hit their budget and schedule and have a distinctive work of architecture. This client recognizes that design does sell, which was key to their approving the design. And that can be unusual in L.A. In the 1970s, particularly, there was a market-rate mentality to building. The market was driven by developers who were focused on the bottom-line cost. They would scrimp to save and pull out everything that wasn’t necessary. Since then, when there was a secondary push for infill housing projects in Los Angeles, from 2003 and 2008, developers began to realize that design is important to their sales. Of course, after 2008, the housing market suddenly crumbled.

That’s not to say that we don’t still see a lot of buildings that are design-oriented. For my colleagues who have a reputation for high design, we played a significant role in getting clients who were interested in bringing in high-design architecture. In fact, some of my clients have degrees in architecture and truly appreciate creating the win-win situation of design excellence and how that allows the investors to get the maximum return on their development investments. These are the clients who take great pride in building significant pieces of architecture.

Inform: Does your firm have a particular focus in today’s economy?

O’Herlihy: I think we’ve created a niche in the university market. As a team, we’ve just landed a large project at U.C. Santa Barbara for student housing. That includes commons and dining areas, swimming pools, and more than 1,200 beds. It’s an enormous project. So, in a sense, we have established a niche in market-rate buildings, apartment buildings with rental components, and universities. We focus on other aspects as well, such as civic projects for Santa Monica, and we’re doing offices for Disney, among our other projects. Being able to do a variety of projects and continue to stay busy was particularly important when housing slowed so dramatically. Still, primarily, I take great pride in saying that we are primarily a big player in housing.

Inform: Could you address the topic of the upcoming conference: “Skins”?

O’Herlihy: I think the issue of the title “Skins” means a number of things, perhaps mostly related to aesthetics. In that regard, I do think that there is a need to look at buildings with regard to how they engage with the city; with their context. Our buildings are certainly addressing that, and not only through building envelopes. I would also like to think that there is an aspect that is very functional and not just as an aesthetic or ornamental. The building’s envelope is critical in that there is an opportunity to see it as a three-dimensional component—that is to say it is functional, aesthetic, and has a relationship with the city and its context.

If you look at 1140, the context is important. There is a restaurant nearby, called the Formosa Café, that is well-known in Los Angeles because it’s a place where actors and directors go. The café is red and orange. So my context was color, which is one way we were able to convince the client to go with a red and orange building as a salable project. It’s very provocative.

This is to say that there are many clients out there who appreciate design. And there is a special market niche here, in an economy where a lot of people can’t afford a custom-designed home of 3,000 to 4,000 square feet for $3 million, because Los Angeles is extremely expensive, yet there is still an active market for this kind of project for, say, creative-industry people, who are interested in high-design residences for, maybe, $600,000. This is surprisingly affordable in this market. It’s important for these people to get an urban dwelling and feel engaged with the building.

In LA, you can make the context. Which is why this project was interesting because the color was the context, not the form. The client accepted the idea, and it sold. It’s all about making the client successful.

Young architect sometime think they can do what they want for a successful client. But that’s not how it works. The client has the money and the agenda. They’re not there to glorify our ego. Clients see that our work is driven by design.

Inform: Do you think your success has something to do with firm size as well?

O’Herlihy: We’re smaller—16 to 20 people—so we go with the projects we’re good at doing. And if we have to staff up, we do. In my mind, if you get bigger, you can lose control of your accountability to do the work you’ve committed to the client to do. Bigger is not necessarily better.

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