Histories Meet in SMRT’s New Portland Office

Finding our diamond, er, bakery in the rough.

After 18 months of searching for a new office space, we began to fear we’d have to leave the Portland Peninsula, our home for the last 136 years. When 20,000 s.f. of high bay, raw space opened up on the Washington Avenue corridor (or, “WAVE”), we immediately saw design potential. The historic, 100-year-old Nissen Bakery building presented the opportunity to celebrate collaboration, contribute to a sustainable Portland, and shape a space that is completely our own.

The space had strong bones, great height and immense windows. Abundant natural light was the top priority for our studio space – we got that and then some. Spectacular views stretch from the historic Eastern Cemetery, across Back Cove and out to Mount Washington on a clear day. We knew, with hard work and design finesse, that this was a bright future for SMRT.

“With history on the Portland peninsula spanning well over a century, SMRT was committed to finding unique space in the city for our next stage of growth. The historic former Nissen Bakery, with its high ceilings, abundance of natural light, and great views gives us the opportunity to create a highly collaborative, sustainable workspace encompassing WELL principles.”

—Ellen Belknap, AIA, president

Show how the bread is made.

During the transformation of “75 WAVE”, the history of making and baking informed our design. We wanted to “show how the bread is made.” To create a space to nurture our open culture of exploration, inquiry and design. Movable panels line the main corridor, much like the conveyor tracks in the old bakery. The panels create movable pin-up and sketching space. They carry our projects along their design journey, inviting feedback, opportunities for learning and collaborative problem solving, while doubling as privacy for the work areas set behind.

Inherently cool and industrial, our design preserves and enhances the history of the bakery. The former grain silo, now home to our new materials library, is a laboratory for inspiration. As architectural designer Lodrys Gomez put it, “It’s so bright, so tall, and so open – you want to immediately dig in and get your hands dirty creating.”

The workspaces are designed for flexibility, accommodating different tasks on different days. The adjacencies between our departments, huddle rooms, and focus areas offer multi-functional collaboration and privacy on-demand. Our colleagues have significant flexibility within their personal space, with unfixed furniture elements and sit-stand desks that can be fine-tuned to individual preferences.

Decisions with impact.

As we drive to achieve significant sustainability goals within the firm and in our project work, moving into a more efficient and sustainable space is a priority. Our footprint is smaller, our systems more efficient, and we’ve reduced the embodied carbon by choosing to renovate an existing building. We thoughtfully reused and restored existing materials to celebrate the building’s industrial past.

Our new space is centered on community, collaboration and creativity. At the same time, we committed to pursuing WELL certification. WELL is a building rating system focused on the health of the occupants. Once approved, our space will be the second in the state to achieve this certification. We have taken care to make sure that employees have the healthiest of workplaces – plenty of natural light, desks and work stations they can configure to their own needs, natural materials and plants, plenty of bike storage with lockers and access to showers, art, and a wellness room for new moms, aspiring yogis or those needing rest breaks to recharge.

What’s old is new again.

As a 136-year-old firm with more than a century of history on the Portland peninsula, it feels fitting to start our next chapter by breathing new life into a 100-year-old space. SMRT has hit a lot of milestones in the last few years. We’ve grown dramatically thanks to our innovative, cutting-edge clients. We’ve launched a new brand and brought on stellar new talent. With our move, our space will support our culture of transparency and teamwork.

We love this city by the sea and are excited to engage with our neighbors in this culturally rich neighborhood. The Washington Avenue corridor is bursting with restaurants and eateries celebrating farm-to-table and diverse cuisines, coffee spots, breweries, and art. We can’t wait to invite you in to share a beverage or a bite.

Flyleaf—A Modular Ode to the Paper Book

In our daily design practice, we balance a multitude of parameters on behalf of our clients. Stringent timelines intersect with tight budgets and even more challenging sites. But what if you were able to design a space free from parameters? How would this affect the creativity and inventiveness of your design?

Architecture competitions allow design to begin from a position of indeterminacy—nothing— not budget, not time, not gravity—is rigidly prescribed. Yes, there are generally competition parameters, qualifying requirements, deadlines and the like; and it’s a good idea to consider these if winning is of interest. But in a broader sense, architecture competitions are an opportunity to think, design and communicate experimentally. And this freedom provides the rejuvenating value of the pursuit.

Back in November, SMRT entered Archhive Books’ Portable Reading Room competition—an international design challenge tasking participants with creating a modular book-sharing structure that could be easily assembled and disassembled in cities around the world. The goal was to encourage reading in community spaces and ensure accessibility for all. We are proud to share Flyleaf here, which was one of only two U.S. based entries to receive an honorable mention.

Think: balancing focus with a wide-cast net

SMRT used this competition as a chance to be experimental not only with the nature of our final design but with our process. We assembled a five-person design team to carry out the design and submission for the competition. The team met regularly to brainstorm, share sketches, resolve details and coordinate progress. Having a core design team kept the project focused and allowed for quick and responsive progress.

The core team’s work was supplemented by a sequence of office-wide design charrettes which created a continuous cycle of ideas, feedback and iteration. The result was an office-wide familiarity with the project that inspired an informal and open sharing of ideas even outside of the scheduled charrettes. Through desk visits, lunchtime conversations and hand-delivered sketches, the final design submission became the rich result of a balanced yet expansive design process.

Design: reflecting on the act of reading and the entity of a book

Today’s proliferation of digital and auditory reading materials expands the lens through which we define the act of reading and the entity of a book. Our final design, titled Flyleaf, is a space for readers of all types to pause and celebrate not only the intangible enrichment of reading but the tactile experience of physical, paper books.

The form abstracts a paper book placed on its spine and falling open. A series of webbed and nested frames open to form an airy, shaded canopy. Users travel beneath the canopy to a central spine which houses the book exchange bookshelf on one side and bench seating on the other. Bike racks are integrated into the structure along an exterior face of the central spine.

Like the act of reading a paper book itself, Flyleaf physically engages its occupants. An operable pulley system allows users to open and close the nested frames with a hand crank. In its closed position, Flyleaf provides sheltered and accessible book storage and seating through winter and inclement weather.

Flyleaf’s prefabricated logic allows for a simple material palette composed almost entirely of cross-laminated timber. ETFE film as well as stainless steel hardware support versatility, portability and easy assembly. Photovoltaic panels integrated onto the exterior seams of the webbing power LED lights that allow reading sessions to extend into the evening.

Communicate: varying the language of design

In any circumstance, architecture is largely an act of representation. Especially, however, when the express purpose of design is not construction, there is a unique opportunity to consider the defining role that choices in representation play in communicating the intention of a design. The honest vitality of a hand sketch, the resolved satisfaction of an axonometric detail, the hopeful enthusiasm of a photo-realistic rendering, each communicate something different about intention. In addition to standard architectural drawing, e.g., plans, sections and elevations, our final submission included diagrams, axonometric details, photo-realistic renderings, hand sketches and even a logo. By presenting the design from multiple vantage points we sought to bring greater depth to the reader’s understanding.

Design competitions are a change of pace and they are fun. But above all, they create a fresh and unique platform on which to learn and find inspiration through experimentation and risk-taking. What is gained on this platform has meaningful translations in the reality of the industry and the built world.

Check out the winners and our honorable mention submission here: