The Contextualist
Photograph: Jose Mandojana

Allyn Stellmacher, AIA, is the project architect for ZGF Architects’ Federal Center South Building 1202 in Seattle, a building that received the 2015 AIA COTE Top Ten Plus Award. Widely considered an expert in employing sustainable materials, building systems, and technologies in complex projects, Stellmacher says that it comes down to one basic principle: “There are so many opportunities that a physical site presents—outside of sustainability checklists,” he says, “and if you want to make a positive impact, you have to listen to the site.”

The Federal Center South Building in Seattle was a complex problem—and we approached it as a large design/build team with highly skilled architects, engineers, planners, landscape architects, and consultants who created an environment where we could holistically evaluate the design problem and find solutions.

“High performance” can be a shorthand term—and it’s often used that way—but the design team had an opportunity to work across the spectrum of research and practice, and we started thinking about high-performance as an energy question. Pretty quickly, the term also became about accommodating the needs of different users. In other words, a space has to be optimized to work for people—so that’s another aspect of performance that I think is lost when we use it as a shorthand term. Even though the form of Federal Center South is a lyrical oxbow shape, how we could accommodate program, unifying the experience, and how we could speak to individual needs were all essential qualities of that high-performing building.

And I think there are some precedents for this idea of high-performance building. If you look at Palladian villas, for instance, it’s always interesting to me how they still have a useful footprint, still have an efficient plan, and still take advantage of daylight. These are all simple but important things that remain when you strip away terms and definitions.

I’ve been at ZGF since 1989, and there’s always been an interesting mix of diverse approaches within the firm. The larger team was always been set up around a collective vision about how a building will resonate with its context. We avoid a cookie-cutter design culture within the office, and it comes back to the notion that if buildings should contribute to their environments, then those environments should shape our thinking.

When I was at the University of Oregon, I had an instructor—a really quixotic guy—who was fond of posing a premise to us in conversation. I remember him saying that people become architects because they are interested in everything, not just buildings. And that’s the one thing I’ve carried with me throughout all these years. —As told to William Richards