Design time

Good graphics shape public perception

First, great news from City Hall: the same City team that has been rolling out the visually impressive Civil Rights Heritage Trail markers above (designer: Ford Wiles of Big Communications) is working on a complete wayfinding project for the City. As we’ve stressed in numerous posts, it’s long past time for a city our size to have a comprehensive plan for visual navigation through the urban environment. If the Civil Rights markers are any indication, we can expect high quality, thoughtful graphics and other environmental cues that will make our City more user-friendly for resident and tourist alike. We’re excited about this news, and look forward to a roll-out in 2012. We’ll report more when we have more details.

Second, not so great news from the  Design Review Committee: the Webb Building, whose initial renovation proposal we praised here, before the owner switched course and did something completely different which we lamented here. Before the holidays, the owner engaged a new architect, Herrington Architects, to present a “compromise” solution, which the DRC approved (below).

Disappointingly off-base

The above rendering shows the unevenly scored stucco (which had angered the Committee previously, and which was such a departure from the originally approved sleek metal banding) now being presented with contrasting paint colors, creating a “panel” effect. It is surprising that this blank/solid feel of this stucco portion, which continues to make the building top-heavy, was approved. There is an unfortunate parallel with these new panels and the ubiquitous applied panel schemes of the 1960’s, which were used to cover up historic facades across this downtown and others. Most likely, the new architect was given very little leeway to be creative, perhaps even constrained by the owner. The Committee itself does not have the power to force someone to return to the previously approved design; in this case, I sure wish they did.


Finally, a new business is planned for downtown as part of a renovation of an historic building. Look for details in the next few days in the Birmingham News. The pic above is a small teaser, hopefully whetting your appetite for more info.

[thanks to vizual2 for the Civil Rights Trail pic,  Herrington Architects for the Webb Building rendering, and wendy_tsang for the yogurt pic]

12 responses to “Design time

  1. Thanks for the updates Jeremy! I am very excited about the new signage around downtown.

    It is very unfortunate that the DRC has no real power to enforce what they had previously approved. It makes me question why they even exist. By allowing George Ladd to get his way, it will only allow other property owners to do what ever they want. Was there any discussion about Mr. Ladd’s building next door? I am speaking of the brick building that he started painting.

    I am sure all of us will be waiting with anticipation for your update on the new yogurt shop (?). And your renderings of the building. I know it will be beautiful!

    • Yes–this was indeed mainly George Ladd “getting his way”, unfortunately. They did make a ruling on the adjacent building–that all the paint must be stripped off except the cornice. To me, this was also unfortunate, given that the cornice is terra-cotta, original, and is not meant to be painted! An example of the Committee not having enough information for every project all the time (no way to tell that cornice is terra cotta unless you ask), plus very limited time to quickly analyze each project before them.

      Thanks for anticipating the other project!

  2. Love this post, Jeremy. Those trail markers are gorgeous.

  3. Looks like more good news than bad news.

    One question about the DRC’s powers. You say, “The Committee does not have the power to force someone to return to previously approved design.” What power does the committee have other than disapproving a design? Any? I think we may have discussed this before, but what is the governing document for the DRC? Are there publicly accessible bylaws that someone could read in order to understand the committee’s procedures, powers, etc.?

  4. The guidelines enforced are developed individually for each historic district. Those can be obtained through the Office of Public Information (I’m told). The powers of the committee are defined in Section 7-1-185 of the City Code, which is not online and is kept in a rather scruffy binder at the Government Documents room in the downtown library.

    In general, their power is to review plans for work in city-recognized historic districts to determine whether it meets the guidelines established for that district. There can be all manner of vagaries and unenforceable intentions in those documents, but the committee can make a ruling based on its own interpretations (with some risk of exposing the city to lawsuits). They then advise the Dept. of Planning, Engineering and Permits when they should withhold a permit for work or occupancy. In practice, the Permit Department seems to sometimes be willing to overlook this requirement.

    So far as I know the only mechanism for correcting work that has been performed without approval is for the Permit Dept. to issue a “stop work” order until a proposal is approved. If a certificate of occupancy has already been issued, there is no way to require additional work to be done (unless the work endangers or presents a nuisance to the public under the general code).

    I say all this without benefit of insider knowledge or any legal education. So feel free to correct me where I’ve goofed.

  5. I guess I neglected to address the real issue here, which is, “what if an owner gets a proposal approved, but does not carry out the work in accordance with that proposal?”. It would seem that the inspections department would be the only means to discover such a discrepancy, unless it is brought to the committee’s attention by Jeremy or someone else who closely watches the process. I guess the committee would be able to intervene by recommending a “stop work” order, but this all gets pretty shaky. I know of no formal inspections conducted by the committee itself to verify that proposals have been carried out as approved.

  6. Get your portfolio photographs now!

    First, kudos to the powers that be to get the Civil Rights walking trail signage up and in place. I saw the one at Linn Park this past week. Very slick design – makes me want to take a stroll through Birmingham.

    The graphics appear to be prints with a heavy matte laminate applied to the metal substrate with an adhesive backing. The panels that are pierce cut will allow edges of those prints to be picked at, and eventually torn. If the fabrication budget allows, future signage should be printed on solid core phenolic panels. Essentially super thick sheets of laminate impervious to rain, sleet, snow, etc.

  7. I agree with Kelton. I can’t help but be concerned about the longevity of the graphics. They look super-nice though and I like the silhouette created on the sidewalk.

    I was a bit surprised to see BIG Communications is developing the downtown wayfinding program. I saw some schematics a couple of years ago that were developed by Corbin Design of Traverse City, Michigan. Corbin has developed dozens of urban wayfinding programs. I wonder what happened with that? I look forward to seeing what BIG dreams up!

    Disappointing “compromise” for the Webb Building. I work for Fravert and they asked us to quote the stainless steel accent. Needless to say… It came in waaay over-budget. We offered a VE but never heard a word to my knowledge. I wonder if they plan to add it at a later date? I hope they intalled proper backing if so!

    Congratulations on Paramount! I saw it in the paper today. I can’t wait to see it happen. It’s refreshing to hear an architect concerned with the signage and graphics applications. Signage is so often over-looked yet can play such an integral role in the design of the facade.

    • I am not 100% sure that BIG is doing the final wayfinding or not; I don’t think that’s a done deal. It does sound like Corbin did some very preliminary work; regardless I hope that the final product will have the stylishness and legibility of the Civil Rights signs. I’m worried about the graphics longevity now that I hear you and other experts are worried…

      I’m a huge proponent of well-designed, creative signage in an urban environment; when I come into a new city, I can tell a lot about the health of the community by its signage! Thanks for reading.

      Jeremy C. Erdreich, AIA, LEED AP Erdreich Architecture, PC 2332 Second Avenue North Birmingham, AL 35203 tel 205.322.1914 fax 205.322.1925

  8. Pingback: Full-line yogurt northside. Finally | Bhamarchitect's Blog

  9. Pingback: Better signage, and a house | Bhamarchitect's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s