Big things, bigger than in the past, are in store for Monica Ponce de Leon and Nader Tehrani—the Boston duo who both teach and manage a fervidly critical practice under the anomalous name of Office dA. But their growing portfolio of major commissions—and the recent completion of three projects that are either large in size or important in scope—has come about mainly because they carefully laid the groundwork by doing the small things first.

Thrown together by chance in 1989, when they landed in the same design studio at Harvard, the two developed a professional affinity based on a shared interest in the overlap of architecture and urban design. They teamed up on their thesis project and, after graduation, continued to develop it in greater detail. That exercise established “the foundations of the geometric, material, and tectonic transformations that you see in our work today,” Tehrani says.

In the intervening years since launching Office dA in 1991, Ponce de Leon and Tehrani have addressed emerging issues of technology and construction by focusing their efforts at the scale of the detail. “Our process is cumulative,” says Ponce de Leon, now a professor of architecture at Harvard. “Teaching plays a huge role in the evolution of our thinking, and the kind of research that we have done in conjunction with our teaching plays a huge role in our practice. We are always challenging ourselves to do something new every time—new in the context of our office, and new in terms of the field.”

Conducting research in the guise of design, Office dA often has sought inspiration for its installations and small interiors by borrowing the methods of specialties outside of architecture. For its installation at the 1998 “Fabrications” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, for example, the firm designed a folded, steel-plate wall based on the traditions of origami. At Upper Crust, a Boston pizza emporium built in 2001, an undulating ceiling of laser-cut aluminum panels was fitted together using tailor-like techniques.

Over the past decade, a newfound fascination with digital production has yielded an office where a rich pool of ideas keeps the diverse, young staff on a perpetual learning curve. “Without a doubt, Monica and I are figures from the previous generation,” says Tehrani, an adjunct professor at Harvard. “Yet in our own little way, we are trying to keep updating ourselves in terms of dealing with problems of manufacture, remembering that the building industry is actually much more stubborn than we are.”

Now that the projects have grown more complex—placing a heavy load on firm vice president Daniel Gallagher, who functions as project architect for all buildings—the lessons of the past decade are informing Office dA's work in new ways. The firm's recent Fleet Library intervention at the Rhode Island School of Design, for example, reveals their ease with digital production processes. A prototype gas station for BP illustrates their tendency to invent a new formal logic with each project. And the new Macallen condominium building demonstrates their ability to listen to a client's needs and then reframe the discussion in terms that create innovative architecture while minding the bottom line. As Tehrani says, “Ours is always a practice about translation and mediation.”

The 15-person office, which until mid-2005 was still working out of Tehrani's house, continues to turn heads with contemporary forms that engage the senses. Early this year they received a P/A Award (their ninth) for the Villa Moda, a massive multiuse complex on the outskirts of Kuwait City. Now the practice, which has moved into a bright, skylit building in South Boston, is expanding its capabilities with a basement-level digital workshop. With CNC routing and 3-D printing capabilities under its roof, the firm has begun a new series of self-motivated research projects that have to do with silverware, doorknobs, plateware, exit signs, and other objects. “So somewhere between product design, industrial design, and furniture lays a whole realm that we can directly control,” says Tehrani.

Ultimately, another goal of the firm is to re-establish the architect's role in the construction industry. Increasingly, what is happening is that the architect is becoming distanced from the very means and methods that she or he needs to know,” Tehrani asserts. One way to reclaim influence, he says, is through the digital realm.

Such statements might be too easily dismissed as self-serving, but at Office dA the desire to go a step beyond conventional practice is more an ethic than a profit motive. A fitting example is the RISD library, where the architects labored hard in focus groups and lengthy client meetings to fully understand how the library functions, and then set out to transcend the brief. “That you can say about almost everything we do,” Tehrani adds. “The projects are not a mere reflection of the program. They need to be larger than the sum of the criteria.”

Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R.I.

For more than 10 years, the Rhode Island School of Design had scoured Providence looking for a place to expand its overcrowded library. So when the corporate gift of a Beaux Arts banking hall was offered, the college jumped at the opportunity. RISD already had converted the upper eight floors of the same 11-story office building into housing for 500 students. But the banking hall offer came with challenges—most notably, the library's ambitious requirements for increased book and seating capacity. “Immediately we faced the question of how to increase the square footage,” says Ponce de Leon. “Where do we build a second level?”

Working within the 114-foot-by-180-foot main hall, Office dA created two new pavilions resembling gigantic pieces of furniture. The first, a study pavilion, provides an elevated reading platform on top and study rooms tucked underneath. Small study carrels punctuate the sides. The tiered front wall of the boxlike assembly doubles as bleacher-style seating and an informal stage. The second pavilion is a circulation island: command central for checking out books and retrieving reserve items. This single-level structure, topped with an open weave of fiberboard planks, also houses staff offices. Between the two pavilions, a casual arrangement of seating serves as a collective living room where students who live above the library can read and talk. (The $11.2 million budget also included second-floor archives, special collections, and slide collections areas.)

A breakneck schedule and $200-per-square- foot budget put enormous pressure on the process for producing and assembling the components. Prefabrication quickly entered the conversation. “That allowed us to fast-track the project,” says Ponce de Leon. “So while the floors were being done, the pavilions were being built.”

The integration of digital technology not only allowed the CNC milling of the medium-density fiberboard panels to be accomplished off-site, it also facilitated lively variations at no additional cost. This opened the door to universal design solutions, notes Ponce de Leon. “So instead of designing for the average seated woman or the average standing man, through digital fabrication you can actually customize,” she explains. The computer stations that flank the circulation island demonstrate this most literally, with desktops built at varying heights to accommodate people of different sizes.

Digital tools also were vital in the design and fabrication of vaults installed on the mezzanine ceiling to work around bulky new fire stairs that encroached on the space. The new vaults appear to have been compressed, as though they were made of rubber, to fit into the narrowed aisle. In fact, they were prefabricated off -site in glass fiber–reinforced gypsum using a dome-shaped mold shaped by a digitally controlled router.

Helios House, Los Angeles

Helios House is an exercise in reinventing a classic American building type: the gas station. Its design conjures a vision that blends contemporary aesthetics, inventive fabrication, and sustainable building practices with a multifaceted communications strategy. Commissioned by energy giant BP and developed by a wide-ranging collaborative team that included a branding consultant, the glistening prototype anchors the busy intersection of Robertson and Olympic boulevards in Los Angeles.

Two pre-existing billboards were leveraged to full advantage by Office dA to engage car-oriented Angelenos, but the station's canopy is its most striking feature. With the structural bay as a starting point, a triangulated, stainless steel cladding system unifies the column base, shaft, capital, and canopy as a monolithic whole. The faceted, softly reflective surface also incorporates other functional aspects of the station, including the cashier kiosk and fin panels that function as signs.

Fabrication and design were optimized to conserve labor costs and reduce waste. Developed with a design/ build fabricator, the canopy incorporates 1,653 panels in a prefabricated assembly system. Fifty-two transportable components were trucked to the site and erected in four weeks. The back building and screen wall are of modular construction too, consistent with a process that anticipates replication on other sites.

The design addresses the environmental challenge of stormwater runoff by collecting and filtering rainwater on the property. Through careful grading and ground treatment, all site water flows to a 2,000-gallon underground cistern. The canopy roof deck also feeds water to the cistern. After filtering, site water is used to irrigate the indigenous plants on the site.

Ninety solar panels on the canopy roof deck provide approximately 15,000 kWh of energy to the station— enough electricity to serve two to three typical American homes for a year. The projected net effect is a reduction in the station's carbon footprint of 5,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. In combination with energy efficient lighting, the geometry of the canopy acts as a light reflector, allowing the station to draw 16 percent less electricity than conventional stations. “We realized how many gas stations are being built each year,” Tehrani says. “So if you can conserve energy on each one, if you can produce green roofs, and if you can control stormwater runoff , then how much impact can you make?”

Even the concrete pavement nods to the green agenda, incorporating particles of recycled glass aggregate that lend it a sparkling quality. The bathrooms are also unusually stylish, with nature-inspired mosaics made from 100 percent recycled glass and walls and ceilings made from bamboo.

Macallen Building, Boston

Rising above its gritty South Boston environs, the 194,000- square-foot, $70 million Macallen Building is a significant jump in scale for Office dA. But because the project demanded a solution grounded in good urban design, it was right up their alley. The wedge-shaped condominium building deftly mediates a difficult set of site conditions, including severe changes in scale and character presented by highway off -ramps, an old residential neighborhood, an array of railroad tracks, and an industrial zone.

The design addresses the surrounding edge conditions through varied spatial moves, gestures to the public realm, changes in materials, and articulations of the façade. On the western end, the building nods to the highway with a towering curtain wall yielding panoramic city views from inside. On the eastern end, where the building is shortest, brickwork mirrors the texture of the adjacent residential blocks, extending the logic of the storefront elements and pedestrian scale along Dorchester Avenue. On the north and south façades, bronzed aluminum panels reflect the character of the industrial landscape and express the pattern of the building's structural system.

With plans to compete for buyers in various price ranges, the developer-client wanted an iconic building that had spacious interiors. To realize maximized ceiling heights, large windows, and open floor plans without going over budget, Office dA conferred early in the design process with contractors and consultants. In particular, they examined the economic impact of different structural options, engineering strategies, and neighborhood zoning ordinances. This front-end evaluation, Tehrani says, was vital in arriving at an inventive structural and mechanical solution that would satisfy the mandates for flexible units and efficiency of construction.

The linchpin of the design is a staggered-truss steel structure that eliminated the requirement for shear walls or diagonal cross-member bracing. The system also proved to be lighter and less expensive than a concrete superstructure, Tehrani says. From a qualitative point of view, the trusses allowed for higher ceilings and expansive open-plan areas—up to 60 feet long—without the interruption of columns. While the plumbing stacks are aligned vertically to achieve economies of scale, the simplicity of the infrastructure requires the 150 apartment units to dovetail with one another, creating a kind of running bond pattern. Studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments are arranged vertically and horizontally in different combinations within the structural and mechanical module.

“Staggering the units [seems] ridiculous, because the logic of development is one of mass production,” Tehrani explains. “But actually that is a fallacy, because in reality what you care about, in terms of stacking, is the plumbing and the electrical and the mechanical chases. So we figured out a way to skewer all of the mechanical systems in a vertical line to make it super-efficient.”

Vernon Mays, editor at large of ARCHITECT, is curator of architecture and design at the Virginia Center for Architecture

Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design

ARCHITECTS: Office dA, Boston (Monica Ponce de Leon, Nader Tehrani, principals in charge; Daniel Gallagher, project architect; Arthur Chang, project manager; Lisa Huang, Sean Baccei, Kurt Evans, Anna Goodman, Ahmad Reza Schricker, Ghazal Abassy, project team)
GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Shawmut Design and Construction
STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS: Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc.
CONSULTANTS: Hogan Macaully Architects (lighting); Meyer, Scherer, & Rockcastle Ltd. (signage); M.P. O'Beirne (illustrator)

Helios House, Los Angeles

CLIENT: BP Corporation of North America
CREATIVE AND DESIGN FIRM: Brand Integration Group (BIG) at Ogilvy & Mather, New York (Brian Collins, chairman and CEO; Chuck Rudy, creative director; David Harlan, associate creative director; Shannon Mullen, strategy director; Mark Aver, Christian Cervantes, Jung Ha, Noah Venezia, Allbriton Robbins, Sarah Nacht, Paige Nobles, project team)
ARCHITECTS: Office dA, Boston (Nader Tehrani, Monica Ponce de Leon, principals; Dan Gallagher, project architect; Arthur Chang, project manager; Christian Ervin, Lisa Huang, Ji-Young Park, Brandon Clifford, Cathlyn Newell, Harry Lowd, project team), and Johnston Marklee, Los Angeles (Sharon Johnston, Mark Lee, principals; Anne Rosenberg, project manager; Robert Garlipp, Lorena Yamamoto, project team)
CONTRACTOR: B&M Construction, with Slunaker Construction
CONSULTANTS: Buro Happold (structural, sustainability, electrical engineering); Fiedler Group (civil); Secor (geotechnical); Methane Specialists (methane); Landworks (landscape architecture); Collaborative Lighting (lighting); Acentech (audio/visual and IT); Carlson & Co. (canopy cladding design/builder); Ishler Design & Engineering Associates (cladding engineer); Global Alliance (project management); GOM Co. (permitting); Judith Nitsch Engineering Inc. (civil sustainability); Madison Industries (building fabricator); M3 Design Inc. (fuel dispenser lighting design); John Picard (sustainable building adviser)

Macallen Building Condominiums

DESIGN ARCHITECTS: Office dA, Boston (Monica Ponce de Leon, Nader Tehrani, principals in charge; Dan Gallagher, project architect; Lisa Huang, project manager; Ghazal Abassy, Remon Alberts, Hansy Luz Better, Scott Ewart, Katja Gischas, Anna Goodman, David Jeffries, Krists Karklins, Ethan Kushner, Christine Mueller, Julian Palacio, Penn Ruderman, Ahmad Reza Schricker, Harry Lowd, project team)
ARCHITECT OF RECORD: Burt Hill, Boston (Steven Brittan, principal in charge; Ed Bourget, project manager; Thomas Urtz, Millicent Lizares, Zander Shaw, Ginelle Lang, project team)
LEED: Diane Ozelius
STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS: D.M. Berg Consultants and Matt Johnson of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger
DESIGN MEP ENGINEER: Commercial Construction Consulting
CONSULTANTS: Acentech Inc. (acoustical); Ripman Lighting Consultants (lighting); Landworks Studio (landscape architect); Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (exterior envelope); Falk Associates (specifications); William Elliot (hardware); Schirmer Engineering Corp. (codes); Walker Parking Consultants (parking); Lerch Bates Associates (elevator); North East Aquatic Design (pool); Audio Visual Designs (audio/visual); Rider Hunt Levett & Bailey (cost estimating); GEI Consultants (geotechnical); bhch (illustrator)