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Architectural achievement

Award winners in AIA Utah’s design competition

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A house on the Navajo reservation with no doors and a butterfly roof. A Catholic church on a school campus. A new home for dinosaur bones. A school, a library, an art gallery, a fine arts center. Even a master plan for a national park.

The winners in this year's American Institute of Architecture Utah design competition cover a lot of territory, both geographically — stretching from Salt Lake City to Cedar City, St. George, Vernal and across the border into Colorado — and also in form and function.

They say a lot about new directions that buildings are taking, about responses to cultural and community mores, about the aesthetics of the built environment in the state.

"While the style of the work is similar to work we see elsewhere," noted the jury, "many of these projects were particularly contextual, in other words, were well-suited to their environment." Jury members were Herman Orcutt, Phoenix; Margaret L. Duncker, Jackson, Wyo.; and Ken Small, Las Vegas.

These designs, the jury said, "pushed the envelope to investigate design solutions beyond satisfying the program and site requirements. They went a step further to make a building more fully expressive of its purpose, to include delightful spaces and attend to the details that make a place unique."

The competition's goal is to identify and celebrate the best design by Utah's architects. Projects may be built anywhere in the world but must have been completed in the past five years.

The jury awarded three Honor Awards: St. John the Baptist Church in Draper, Dolores Dore Eccles Fine Arts Center in St. George and the Rosie Joe House on the Navajo Reservation.

Five additional projects received Merit Awards: Utah Fieldhouse of Natural History in Vernal, Murray High School, Cedar City Public Library, A-Gallery in Salt Lake City and Mesa Verde Cultural Center Master Plan.

Amid all that diversity, however, were some connecting themes, not only as the jury noted in response to the site but also in the fact that three of the designs were by the same architect: Jill A. Jones.

"It's a great honor," says Jones of the rare feat, "but it says as much about the quality of the clients we have. They let us respond with quality designs."

For example, she says, the Fieldhouse of Natural History in Vernal was funded by the state, "but it was very much a community effort." The community has been involved in a very long process, first trying to get the old museum remodeled, and then finally going to a brand new building.

In approaching the project, the architect's goal was to respond to the exhibits. "It was the opposite of build a box and fill it. We looked at the inside first and built around it." They listened to the experience museum personnel hoped visitors would have, and they tried to create that experience.

Jones' favorite part of the building is the stairs with the imagery of skeleton bones. "It's a small detail," she says. "But it was on the chopping block so many times because of cost. I really credit the contractor, who found a way to put it in."

Small details also add a lot to the A-Gallery, which involved renovating and adding to an existing building. "There were textures old and new, materials old and new, colors old and new that all came together in a fun and exciting way."

The gallery has both interior and exterior exhibit space. "Pulling the interior out and the exterior in" makes it all work, says Jones.

The third project was a master plan for Mesa Verde National Park. "It's a planning document that is not built yet. When you talk about a master plan, so often the focus is just on a solution. But this one involved so much more. We had to come up with a graphical vision. We had to establish a design language for buildings, and we had to have a site plan that was also sustainable."

The success of the plan is shown by the fact that the first building has now been funded, she says.

Another factor is that "when you work with a federal agency, your client is a complex group of people. In this case, we also had representatives of 24 tribes and pueblos that had ancestors who lived at Mesa Verde."

The diversity of these and other projects appeals to Jones, who started her firm in 1991. "We now have 18 people and two dogs." (The dogs started coming to the office when Jones was involved with a dog rescue group, and they've become a tradition, she says.) Elizabeth Blackburn is also a shareholder/partner with ajc architects, as the company is known.

If it seems like the designs done by ajc pay particular attention to their environment, there's a reason for that. "My original training was in outdoor recreation and resource management," says Jones. "Then I realized I could have a better impact on the environment if I took it one step farther. I went back to school and got my master's degree in architecture."

She enjoys the challenges of working with space, both the space created and the space around it.

"Architecture is so taste-driven," she says. "But there are important things we strive for. For one, we want a space that is respectful of the environment, so it becomes part of the site, rather than forced onto the site."

Inside, she says, "we want a place where people feel comfortable." Those feelings may come from a combination of texture, light and colors, and may be so subtle that you don't even stop to analyze them.

And that is true, she says, whether it is a commercial project or a residential one.

What any architecture is really about, she says, is relationships — long-term relationships. And that's something to keep in mind if you are ever looking for an architect.

You should look at other projects so you feel confident with the skill level. But even more important is finding someone who will listen, that you feel comfortable working with, that sees what you see. "The planning is a long process; the construction is a long process, but even more important is that the building will be there for a long time. The relationship is paramount."

E-mail: carma@desnews.com