Wilkinson Blender Architecture - Design Bureau

Wilkinson Blender Architecture

Monday, July 26th, 2010

How does architectural firm Wilkinson Blender design outdoor escapes for city dwellers?

By using the project space in any and every way they can—even if it means the alley. In an urban jungle like Chicago where folks are constantly on the go, having a relaxing urban oasis to escape the madness has become somewhat of a rarity. So in response, design duo Michael Wilkinson and Richard Blender of Wilkinson Blender Architecture have mastered the art of designing green city getaways, and do it by capturing every square inch of usable space in a project. Incorporating the outdoors into their designs is a natural step for Wilkinson, a self-professed “hobbyist gardener” who, when surveying a piece of property, loves thinking about possible plant materials, as well as the architectural space.

“On city lots, we don’t just think about the parameters of the building,” says Wilkinson. “We think about it from street to alley.” They tend to find that their approach to landscapes is heavily defined by their urban location. To wit: In one Chicago backyard project, the team rebuilt a two-car garage to hold just one vehicle, and then turned the other side of the space into a covered area that stretched out to the alley, instantly extending the backyard—and the childrens’ play space—for this family’s city home. “Michael designs spaces [that are] really open,” says Luca Lanzetta of Ernestomeda Kitchens. “It’s all about the convivial lifestyle.”

We do design work, but we’re also out in the community. We’re interested in the public realm and the urban spaces of the city.

Another green getaway Wilkinson Blender recently completed is Chicago’s Felger Park. Keeping the wide age range of the park-goers in mind, Wilkinson attacked the pro bono project architecturally via stratified layers of activity: isolating paths, play areas and tree buffers, which were then layered on top of each other to create a park with integrated, yet separate activities. “We do design work, but we’re also out in the community. We’re interested in the public realm and the urban spaces of the city,” says Wilkinson.

Outside of outdoor spaces, this duo is also known for the bold use of eco-friendly elements in their craft. They received the first residential LEED certification in Illinois; only the eighth in the country to date. “The building industry is responsible for the problems we’re facing now,” says Wilkinson. “So we feel a need to be responsible with our buildings, our energy, our resources.” In response to the booming green initiative in building, Wilkinson Blender has created rooftop gardens, installed vertical axis wind turbines, used soy-based insulation and put down a terrazzo floor made from recycled beer bottles in a variety of green residential projects. And in one Bucktown building, they took the old wood from the roof and reused it as the landing for the stairs, essentially turning the steps into carbon storage.

And whether the team is designing an urban retreat in the form of an alleyway backyard or a lush community park space, Wilkinson and Blender make sure they never lose sight of one thing: collaboration. “They’re really open to talking about your ideas,” says Mark Kane of Softer Lite window company, who has worked with Wilkinson Blender on three separate projects. Wilkinson says it’s a constant process of collaboration with both their clients and their sub-contractors, with whom he approaches using a team mentality. “When we do residences, we get close to the clients, and the more we get to know about their life, we use it as clues to influence the design.” A tactic that seems to be working in the creation of their lush, functional city landscapes.

By Molly Each

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