Awarding architecture that makes people happy

When you attend as many residential design and construction awards as I do, you inevitably start to develop favorites. One of mine is always the awards presented by the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

I appreciate the judging criteria AIA Baltimore sets aside for the competition as much as I love the winning designs, which are typically innovative and fresh. Because

much of architecture is public, most of the awards recognize schools, churches, hospitals, restaurants, office buildings and the like. There is also a category for homes, but because residential design touches almost everyone's life, AIA Baltimore partners with ChesapeakeHome magazine on a separate competition.

The 2010 Residential Design Award winners represent not only exceptional architecture, but are also a sign of our times. Over the past decade, I've watched architectural trends come and go. As the residential building boom reached its height a few years ago, architecture competitions often recognized opulent, luxurious homes.

Before the awards presentation began, I was able to check out all the entries and was blown away by some of the beautiful, grand, traditionally styled houses. These were not among the 2010 winners.

The jury for this year's contest followed the judging criteria precisely and praised restraint, focusing on designs that propose new approaches to the development of the architectural form and are sensitive to their environment. As such, the winners were more modest, scaled down and appropriate to their sites.

From the 20 entries submitted, three winning projects were selected — two designed by the Ellicott City-based Alexander Design Studio and one by the Annapolis firm, Hammond Wilson Architects.

Fish camp

A whimsical "fish camp" designed for a retired writer near Chestertown by Hammond Wilson Architects is made up of a series of buildings that borrow stylistically from the watermen's shacks and wharf communities of the old Eastern Shore.

According to jury member Laura Thomas of Melville Thomas Architects in Baltimore, "the architecture and the concept are beautiful." The jury also applauded the design's modest scale, site positioning, use of found objects and understated detailing.

Working in concert with his client, architect Robert Hammond developed a plan to connect a cluster of buildings that feel natural to the surrounding environment. The simple Eastern Shore fishing shacks and hunting cabins that inspire Hammond's design were, paradoxically, not originally the product of design themselves. "They were vernacular buildings that were just built," Hammond says.

To design something that would seem "not designed," the plan developed organically. Hammond's client provided such reclaimed materials as old barn siding, beams from a former tavern, plumbing from Second Chance in Baltimore and wood siding from milled trees felled at the site. The design solidified around these elements.

Rowhouse revisited

Alexander Design Studio grabbed one of its two awards for an eco-friendly Charles Village townhouse renovation designed for a retired couple who relocated from Washington to live in a lively and walkable city neighborhood.

Key to the renovation design was opening up the house's small, dark rooms to create a more contemporary environment infused with natural light. A light atrium cut through the center of the house becomes a central element of the design.

"Everything is organized around that," says architect Charles Alexander.

And while the light-well washes much of the interior in natural light, interior skylights bring daylight into non-adjacent spaces like the kitchen and powder room.

Contemporary cottage

A house renovation and addition developed for two professors by Alexander Design Studio was also recognized for excellence in design. An expansion of an old cottage not only respects the existing architecture by building on its slim profile and gabled proportions, it also evolves with a tower feature set askew to the original structure.

Jury member Thomas says of the extension: "It's a nice, small-scale composition connecting the old and the new." At the core of the design is a central floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that the judges describe as both playful and appropriate.

"They're two professors, and books are the center of their professional lives," says architect Alexander. "So to unify all aspects of the tower, we have the bookshelf as an anchor at the center of the project."

I've suggested that the creativity and innovation these winning architects bring to the spaces they create is impressive. I'm also impressed by their adherence to the core principles of architecture — that buildings are for people, and they are intended to make life more comfortable, enjoyable, functional and beautiful.

A misconception I think the general public has is that architecture should be evaluated as an object, a thing divorced from its basic purpose of serving human need. The AIA Baltimore award recipients are a good reminder that well-designed spaces are about happy people, and that architects, first and foremost, are public servants.

Dennis Hockman is editor of ChesapeakeHome magazine. He can be reached at


AIA Baltimore: or 410-625-2585

Alexander Design Studio: or 410-465-8207

Hammond Wilson Architects: or 410-267-6041

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