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April 6, 2006

9 Questions for Sim Van der Ryn


Photo of Sim Van der RynArchitect Sim Van der Ryn is a busy guy these days. His most recent book, Design for Life -- a retrospective of his career -- was recently published, and it's been increasing demands for his time on the lecture and talk-show circuit.

Still, the Marin County resident, who was the California State Architect during the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown, took the time to come to Humboldt County last weekend to visit the future home of the Humboldt Environmental Technology Center, a hotel/hostel and demonstration facility that will be built on the Eureka waterfront and is intended to be a showcase of appropriate technology and sustainable design. Van der Ryn will lead a team of architects and designers, most of them local, in designing the center.

The Journal spoke with Van der Ryn Monday morning, just before he returned home, to see how his meetings went and what sorts of ideas he and his local collaborators are kicking around.

1. Architecture is one of the things that Eureka really prides itself on. What do you think of it?

Oh, I think what's happening downtown is fabulous. We went there the other night for -- what was it called? Arts Alive? -- that was really neat, just to see the level of activity. It was very bustling.

2. For some reason, Eureka was able to preserve a good number of its old houses. As someone pointed out the other day, the site you'll be building on is just down the hill from the Carson Mansion. Does it give you a sort of template to work off?

Well, I think it's a community to relate to. If it was what is was 30 years ago, they'd probably be less interested in building it down there. I just think the whole revitalization of Eureka makes it that much more interesting. We just become part of that, in creating a new generation of buildings that are designed to do something different than what the old buildings did.

But no, it doesn't give me a template, architecturally, because what we'll be doing is quite different.

3. You mean, as far as the façade?

No, it wouldn't give us a lot of clues. For one thing, for visitors coming there, beside the aspect of trying to teach people what they can do to live better with less, I think we also want to communicate a story about the larger spirit, of why Eureka is there in the first place. There's the ocean, there's the bay and the estuaries and there's all those nutrients flowing up there, and then there's the salmon, and the salmon go upstream and die and the bears pick up the salmon and the bears return the nutrients to the trees. It's a whole story of nutrient flow. To me, that ocean-to-forest, with the salmon as intermediaries -- to me, that's kind of the whole spirit of this coast.

4. How is it going to be reflected in the building?

I don't know yet. It won't be that the building will look like a salmon or an estuary.

Then there's being a Dutchman, and also having lived on an old houseboat on the Sausalito waterfront, I'm also intrigued about how we work in that waterfront and shipfaring and nautical themes. Then again, I don't think we want to do it in a corny way. But there were things we were talking about yesterday -- for example, we were talking about having a green roof.

The roof we're talking about there's sod roofs that people know about, from back in the old days in Nebraska. But in recent years, the Germans, they've said, "Oh, if you cover zis roof not wis 18 inches of dirt" They've invented something that basically looks like an egg crate, and they cover it with just a few inches of substrate soil. And then they plant these waxy, small-leafed alpine plants.

Anyway, that's one idea we want to pursue. So on the waterfront, instead of seeing composition roof or shingle or something, you'd see this green roof. Then we were saying that we should also have a place where people can go and actually see it. So we were talking about a third-level deck. And then we were thinking that if we have that, we should have a crow's nest, with a spotting scope so you can see the birds, and so on.

5. So what's the process like? Right now, you're working with local people, you're probably working with people you usually work with down in the city

No. Right now, there's a design working group -- Joyce Plath, Matthew Marshall, Sean Armstrong. They're all wonderful. We're just trying to develop a program. And now that we're talking about the Eureka site, it's shifting more from a hostel out on a remote site to, really, a green hotel that also has a hostel component. Because most of the market will be a tourist market, who will hear about this really unusual hotel where we can also learn how to live more green.

There's this vast middle class that sees these issues. Whether we like it or not, oil is going to be an expensive and scarce commodity. Anybody, unless they're in total denial, can see these other issues we have. Climate change is here. And I think there's a tremendous hunger. It's not like the back-to-the-land thing, but the boomer generation, and I think younger people too, are asking: How do we live better with less? And there's very few places where you can learn this.

So you can experience that, and you can also experience this whole region, which has been a leader in these ideas.

6. What's the timeline like?

Well, it's a whole process. There's the whole permitting process that needs to take place. There's the program development process. There's putting together a business plan and fundraising plan. All those things, one can't get too far ahead of the other. I don't have license to say, OK, you, go ahead and do detailed drawings, because it's not the time and there's not the money to do that.

So the first stage is to put out the vision, which will probably consist of the footprint of the building and a sketch that indicates the overall mass, and then some of these features I'm talking about.

7. What other sorts of features did you kick around this weekend?

I always start with the sun and the shape of the building. Then, here, the views get to be really important. And then the wind. All of those things have consequences in terms of how you design.

One of the decisions we made this weekend is to recommend we use local, sustainably harvested wood. Let's make it a wood building. When they tore down that Mill A in Scotia -- which I call the Auschwitz of the redwoods -- I bought a lot of that wood. So we were kicking it around: Why not use reclaimed redwood for the exteriors?

We haven't made decisions about any of these things. It's more like getting at principles. And this little group -- it's been exciting, because we're pretty much on the same page.

8. I think people that have been hearing about the hostel would have thought that you'd be using straw bales, or cob or something. It's interesting to hear you say, "No, wood."

Because I work with commercial builders and so on, I'm more interested in greening the construction industry. There's a vanguard of people doing all these other things, which I totally support, but they don't fit too well into the cost model of commercial building. We need to keep that in mind. This is going to be a 15,000 square-foot building, in that range, and it's not going to be built by people on weekends in their spare time. The major systems need to be ones that the construction industry can work with.

9. You've worked all around the state, all around the world. Every place has its own sort of culture, its own physical characteristics. What does this place say to you -- what does it mean to you, I guess?

It's like the spirit of the '70s is alive and well here, particularly at Humboldt State. It always has been. And they really continue to be a leader in a lot of these areas, whereas other schools have gone on to other things. It seems like Humboldt State has really maintained that spirit of pioneering.

I think it's that kind of energy that a much bigger segment of society had in the '70s -- a vision for relating to nature in a different way. And then, there's a sense of community.


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