Colorado School of Mines, a small engineering university in the old-west town of Golden, has never been known for its architectural legacy. Most of the school’s buildings, even the historic ones, are unremarkable. But one stands out: Marquez Hall, home of the petroleum engineering department. Designed by the Seattle office of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) with Denver-based partner Anderson Mason Dale Architects, the building dazzles with a gravity-defying cantilevered roof that extends 60 feet over a glass-enclosed entrance lobby.
It’s exactly the bold statement BCJ principal Robert Miller, FAIA, had in mind when he helped design the 87,000-square-foot facility, completed in 2012. Still, even Miller was prepared for the inevitable compromises that occur when projects go from concept to reality. “We wanted to push the limits a bit,” he says. “But we also thought, ‘We’ll probably need to put some columns in there somewhere.’ ”
Given potential snow loads and wind forces, not to mention budget constraints, Miller concedes that using columns “would have been a much simpler solution.” But columns—whether along the outside perimeter of the overhang or as part of the curtainwall—would have diminished the effect of the roof’s cantilever.
Miller and his colleagues found themselves working with Christopher O’Hara, a young structural engineer from nearby Boulder. He and his partner, Julian Lineham, launched Studio NYL (now 13 employees) in 2004. “We’re always pushing,” O’Hara says. “We like to hear the initial vision, before the compromises, and figure out how to make it happen.”
In discussions about Marquez Hall, Miller recalls, “Chris kept saying, ‘We can do a big cantilever. We just need enough backspan.’ We said, ‘We have the entire building as a backspan. Can we use that?’ The conversation just kept steamrolling forward. Before we knew it, the roof was entirely cantilevered.”
One of O’Hara’s solutions was to support the roof plane with a pair of tapered box girders that project from the back end of the lobby to the outer edge of the roof. From ground level, the taper is imperceptible, so the roof appears impossibly thin and flat. “An illusion,” O’Hara says. Two angled, fin-like steel columns inside the lobby help support the box girders, but otherwise the space is open and drenched in sunlight during the day. “We’re not the ones who came up with the idea of a cantilever,” O’Hara says. “We just gave the architects the ammunition to say, ‘Yes, we should be doing this.’ ”
“There’s Nobody Out There We Shouldn’t Be Working With”
Design-focused engineering firms have a storied tradition, particularly in Britain, where companies like Arup have long taken a holistic approach to engineering and architecture. But Studio NYL, as a boutique firm, can offer the kind of personalized services that large firms simply cannot provide. “When you hire us,” O’Hara says, “you get us. The work doesn’t get handed off to some B team, because there is no B team.” Which helps explain why Studio NYL has landed high-profile clients like Gensler, Sasaki Associates, Payette, and Rojkind Arquitectos. O’Hara admits there’s another factor behind the firm’s rising profile: “They compare us to Arup, and say, ‘These guys are much more affordable’ because we’re in Colorado.”
Sitting at a glass conference table in their office, O’Hara, 41, and Lineham, 49, are a study in contrasts, despite their oddly similar physical appearance. “I’m the obnoxious New Yorker,” O’Hara says, “and Julian’s the reserved Londoner.”
Lineham began his career at London-based YRM Architects before joining the engineering firms Campbell Reith Hill (now CampbellReith) and Oscar Faber (now part of AECOM). In 1997, however, he and his wife moved to Boulder, eager to “live more of an outdoors life,” he says. He took a job at Loris and Associates, a small civil engineering firm.
Meanwhile, O’Hara got his start at New York–based M.G. McLaren Engineering Group and at London-based structural engineering firm Dewhurst Macfarlane and Partners, where he worked on projects with Rafael Viñoly Architects and what was then Studio Gang/O’Donnell. By 2001, however, he was burned out. During a Colorado ski vacation, he spent a day visiting local engineering firms, including Loris. There, he met Lineham, and the two hit it off immediately. “Julian kept badgering me until I moved,” says O’Hara.
After launching Studio NYL out of O’Hara’s home, they went knocking on doors of Colorado architecture firms. They pitched themselves as designers who just happened to be structural engineers; creative thinkers, not number crunchers. “We started to get into a little trouble,” Lineham says, laughing. “We had this idea that we wanted to elevate the level of design in Colorado. Certain people appreciated that, but others thought we were a bit arrogant.”
Still, they landed some small-scale institutional commissions around Denver, and some high-end residential projects in Boulder and Aspen. Eventually, O’Hara says, “We got to the point where we said, ‘There’s nobody out there we shouldn’t be working with.’”
In 2010, Michel Rojkind asked Gerardo Salinas, AIA, to join his Mexico City architecture firm as a partner. Salinas had spent seven years in Denver working for Anderson Mason Dale. “I knew the projects [Studio NYL] had worked on were complex and challenging,” Salinas says. “They were not afraid to do anything.” Even before he left for Mexico, Salinas asked them to collaborate with Rojkind.
For a new three-story Liverpool department store in the Mexico City suburb of Interlomas, O’Hara and Lineham devised the engineering for a curved, double-layered stainless-steel façade that glows at night. Presented with Rojkind’s design, based on the idea of interlocked fingers of two hands, they began to ask questions: How do we make this as simple as possible to build, given the project’s aggressive construction schedule? How do we make it light but strong? And how do we involve as many local tradespeople as possible? O’Hara came up with a system using aluminum fins attached to the building’s concrete structure, which support the façade’s stainless-steel panels.
Studio NYL has now become an integral part of Rojkind’s creative team. Other projects in Mexico City include a second Liverpool department store with a honeycomb façade made of aluminum, steel, and fiberglass; a perforated steel-and-glass canopy for La Cineteca Nacional, Mexico’s national film archive; and a Chedraui supermarket with a glass-fiber reinforced concrete façade. Salinas calls it a “true collaboration.” “With Chris and Julian,” he says, “we’re constantly exploring different methods and systems. It’s not just about figuring out how a building is going to stand up. Is there a better way to do it? Is there a way that enhances the architecture?”
Sasaki’s Leap of Faith
In 2013, Salinas and O’Hara gave presentations on their projects at a conference in Chicago. Brad Prestbo, senior associate with Sasaki Associates, was in the audience. “Chris’s talk was a really fresh take on structural engineering and the integration of façade design into building systems,” Prestbo says.
Studio NYL ended up signing its largest-ever contract, to do engineering and façade work with Sasaki for four new buildings at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey, part of a massive campus redevelopment project. Prestbo admits it was something of a leap of faith for Sasaki, which tends to work with Arup, Burrow, and LeMessurier. But given Studio NYL’s work with Rojkind, he says, it made perfect sense: “These guys are not just beam-and-column engineers. They’re designers. I swear, they’re like architects, but they just happen to practice engineering.”
In 2012, O’Hara and Lineham created a dedicated façade division called The Skins Group. But despite their growth, the partners remain committed to elevating the quality of design in Colorado. They point to the new science-education center at Denver Botanic Gardens. Studio NYL worked with Denver-based Burkett Design to devise a roof and façade system using hexagonal-shaped panels of Swisspearl, a fiber-cement material generally used for vertical walls. “I’d like to see our best work done in Colorado,” O’Hara says. “It’s important for us to be able to see things being built, to be part of the process. It’s not just about designing something and walking away.”