Fine Wine and Cultural Institutions

When you embark upon a construction project today, the process is one of tight controls, vigilant attention to detail, and a careful balance of cost, schedule, safety, and quality.  Industry professionals are highly skilled and often highly specialized.  It takes an integrated team effort including the owner, design professionals, construction professionals, and many other stakeholders to balance the budget with the ultimate needs of the users.  In such a rigid and unforgiving profession the strict quality controls, attention to detail, check and balance systems and well defined process controls help us achieve success by supporting our ability to direct the project.  In this regimented environment, it is all too easy to see the construction process as a linear path from concept through schematic to the ultimate coordinated design and directly on to construction, commissioning and turning the building over.  Indeed, even the tools we use – estimates in the form of projections, schedules in the form of Gantt charts, phasing layouts and process flowcharts all give credence to the notion that everything about what we do is predictable enough to make it seem like an assembly line if we just control it enough, do it right.  And in a big box, cookie cutter world that is true for a lot of projects.  These projects aren’t necessarily bad – there are a lot of talented, dedicated professionals that do find themselves working on strip malls or big box construction and can find innovative ways to make these great projects.

However, for me – the excitement of construction comes from a different kind of project.  The kind of project that excites me, that keeps me in this business has something else.  Oh, sure, it has schedules and budgets and processes and safety and quality control. The kind of project I live for though, has something else.

That something is terroir.

Terroir is a French term referring to the special characteristics that a particular geography bestows upon a wine. Although there is great debate on the exact definition of terroir, focus is placed on the natural elements of a region, including climate, soil type and surrounding landscape. Some believe that this definition can be expanded to include elements that are controlled by human intervention such as which variety of grape to plant, pruning, irrigation and time of harvest, as well as length of maceration, temperature during fermentation and a whole bunch of other processes that are so far beyond my own unripened knowledge of wine producing that I think it is in my best interest not to even pretend I understand them. Suffice it to say that much like design and construction professionals, wine growers have developed some complex processes over the thousands of years they have been at it, and all I need to know is that I like what they do.

Which brings me back to the terroir of construction.  In the projects that I most love to be involved in – cultural institutions – there are unique aspects to them that make them compelling to me.  I think that much like the many aspects that affect the eventual outcome of any particular wine, every person involved, every decision made, every dollar raised, everything uncovered in demolition effect the final building we deliver.  When the stakeholders are many and often have different ideas about what will best serve the organization, my job becomes most intriguing. To help shape the eventual outcome, I become like the wine grower. I cannot choose the personalities, beliefs, passions, fund raising capacity or organizational vision that I get on any given project any more than the vigneron can choose how close the river is or how much iron is in the soil.  If, though, the role of the winemaker is to bring out the expression of terroir in a good wine, my job as owners representative is to nurture the qualities of all the influences and even limitations of a project that will ultimately give the organization the opportunity to flourish and grow beyond what they were able to in whatever previous space they occupied.

Additionally, much like a fine wine, we often do not know our successes and failures for a very long time after all the decisions have been made. In redeveloping Chicago’s historic Biograph Theater (the site of gangster, John Dillinger’s last moments), we had a talented design team, a passionate and involved owner retinue and a dedicated, excellent construction team – all working toward delivering the final outcome that would allow the organization to move to the next level. In the end, the team fought hard, worked hard and ultimately delivered a building that – even if each person didn’t get exactly what they wanted – met the current and future needs of the organization for some time to come. Based on what the organization communicated as their needs, they had decent dressing rooms, an intimate performance space, great acoustics, good sightlines, decent lighting – and a trap.

Fast forward one year. I was at the theater on a walk through to be sure that everything was functioning as we had intended and see what the current concerns were. I was chatting with the staff and asked them what was working and what wasn’t. What they told me their issue was came so far out of left field that I was shocked. The biggest unanticipated issue? Events. In our value engineering efforts to get the project under budget we had gone with very minimal finishes on the event space, as they really didn’t have much use for it other than pre- or post-show receptions and rehearsals. Well, as it turns out, the neighborhood was rather short of decent event space – especially in beautifully restored, historically significant buildings. Apparently, lots of organizations in the area needed a place close by to host presentations, receptions even meetings – and that space was booked in a way that no one had anticipated. So, it appears that had we known how the macroclimate of the surrounding neighborhood would affect the use of the space, we might have turned our VE attention elsewhere and put a higher quality of finishes in an area that could have used it. Of course, unlike wine, we can always go back in for an upgrade, but that kind of ruins my simile, so I will leave it at that.

Delivering unique buildings influenced and shaped by the unique geography of an organization. That is what keeps me excited and engaged in building design and construction. Terroir.