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Bill Helm, Principal, In Situ Architecture - El Paso Inc.: Q And A

Bill Helm, Principal, In Situ Architecture

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Posted: Sunday, October 27, 2013 6:00 pm

El Paso-based In Situ Architecture, founded just last year, has placed itself at the center of Downtown revitalization, and is behind the design of some of the most visible projects now under way there.

It is working on the historic rehabilitation of the Mulligan Building, transforming the century-old warehouse into city government offices, and is working on designs for the Artspace El Paso Lofts, a public project to provide affordable housing and workspace for artists in Downtown.

Then there are the Savoy Loft Apartments, a project to transform a 100-year-old building that was once the Hotel Savoy into loft-style apartments, and a project to restore the aging Ciudad Nueva church building designed by famed Southwest architect Henry Trost.

In Situ also designed Downtown’s first Starbucks, which opened in March in the Anson Mills Building.

And last week, the firm found out it will receive an American Institute of Architects design award for the historic preservation work it did on the front of the historic Centre Building in Downtown.

To In Situ’s founder Bill Helm, AIA, architecture and design are not just about making things look pretty; they have the potential to better the world, move economies and improve people’s day-to-day lives in very real ways.

Helm and partner Edgar Lopez, AIA, the firm’s principals, employ three full-time professional interns who are working toward licensure. Calling them interns is a bit of a misnomer, since an architectural internship can be compared to a medical residency.

The young firm moved out of temporary offices and into its new, larger Downtown office in the Anson Mills Building in September.

El Paso firm Carl Daniel Architects also moved Downtown this year, renovating a dilapidated building at 305 Leon in Union Plaza. At the same time, the budding Texas Tech College of Architecture in El Paso has moved Downtown to the historic Union Depot Passenger Station.

Helm, 41, grew up in Indiana on the farm that was his grandfather’s in a little town called Columbia City, surrounded by cornfields as far as the eye could see.

“I am attracted to grand vistas and horizons and sky and light,” Helm said. “That is what appealed to me when I came to El Paso for the first time, living in a place where you could see the horizon and a huge sky.”

Helm came to architecture late in life, earning his architecture degree from the University of Buffalo in 2007, becoming licensed in 2011 and launching In Situ (pronounced in-sit-chu) in El Paso in March 2012. He was joined by Lopez in November.

Before that, Helm worked as an architect for ASA Architects. He has a bachelor’s degree in photography from Ball State University in Indiana.

Helm sat down with El Paso Inc. at the firm’s new office and talked about a “square cow,” restoring Downtown’s historic buildings and the power of good architecture to change the world.

Q: Why move Downtown?

The clientele that I started working with were all really interested in Downtown revitalization, and I’m very interested in historic preservation. So it just made sense on two levels.

One, as an architect, you need to walk the talk. If you are going to preach historic preservation and Downtown revitalization, and urbanism, you can’t then put your office out in suburbia.

Two, I am specializing in historic preservation and adaptive reuse-type projects, which is why we are so busy in Downtown.

Q: In Situ is doing a lot of work in Downtown, but what are a couple of projects you might highlight?

I’m working in a design team with ASA Architects on the El Paso Community Foundation’s Artspace project and working on the Savoy Loft Apartments. Those are exciting projects on a number of levels, because Downtown really needs new housing stock and both projects are trying to bring that much-needed component to Downtown.

We have a long relationship with Brent Harris and Paul Foster’s group, so we also do a lot of tenant improvement work here in the Anson Mills Building for them. One of the most recent of those is the first Downtown Starbucks.

Q: I don’t know if you designed it specifically to lure people in or if Starbucks puts a little extra something special in their drinks, but I can’t pass it without craving espresso.

Part of it is the aroma that permeates the building, which draws you like a tractor beam.

Q: I sense that you have an optimism about the role architecture can play in revitalizing Downtown – that it’s more than designing pretty buildings.

I would go beyond that and say it’s not just Downtown but making everybody’s lives better. I think that’s the most important thing for us as architects to do – to improve the peoples’ lives who use these buildings.

That’s one of the reasons why I find daylighting so important, because there are so many studies out there that say good lighting can improve workplace health, make people more productive and improve the quality of life.

I would say the biggest motivator for us as architects is to improve our world, starting with our city and immediate community. Downtown is just one piece of that ideal. The city’s new master plan and Smart Code are valuable tools that enable us as architects and planners to make our city much more livable for the next generation.

I’ve got a very positive outlook on El Paso. That’s why I’ve chosen to make my place here – come back here to establish my practice and live my life.

Q: Where is the Artspace project now?

We are currently in redesign. We are redesigning the project to do as much cost savings as we can in the design to make it more competitive.

Q: Because it was not awarded the federal tax credits needed to fund much of the project and lost them to other local developers.

We are redesigning the project to implement cost savings where possible to make it more competitive for next year’s tax credit application. However, it is more than simply bringing the overall project cost down. The redesign effort is more focused on how to make the overall project more efficient.

The way it’s looking right now, the project will likely stay at 51 units, but with one less floor of overall building height. By doing a higher density development, it will bring the per square foot and average unit costs down.

Q: The renderings of the project I’ve seen look really cool. How aggressive are you having to value engineer the project?

Well, that’s the challenge for us – to not to take the “coolness” factor out of the project. But I am confident our design team will be successful in that effort. We are excited to move the project to the next level so the development team can begin construction in 2014.

Q: As Downtown goes through this growth spurt, are you afraid El Paso’s architectural heritage could be lost in the process?

We need to tread very softly. We, unfortunately, lost the historic Trost-designed Muir Building this year, which really shouldn’t have gone away.

I’m a realist. There is a line, and it’s a fuzzy line that you have to walk as private developers redevelop Downtown, because it cannot all be done by government; there has to be private investment too.

We, as a community, need to consider carefully what to preserve and what is not worth preserving. It’s not a new question, and it just requires being careful as you progress.

Q: Your firm is doing some significant historic restoration projects in Downtown right now. Restoring old buildings like that can be expensive and risky, which makes developers wary especially in El Paso’s long-depressed Downtown. How do you design these projects to help make the economics work for your clients?

There are a lot of models in the architectural community for it in other cities that we need to look to. You’ve got to make the project economically viable, and that often means adding density in an affordable way.

Let’s just take the Muir Building, for instance. Its existing square footage wasn’t big enough to support a Downtown development of the density that was needed to make it financially viable for the investors. I totally get that. But there are ways to add on to existing buildings where you can preserve the historic fabric and add more space that is leasable.

As architects, one of the best contributions we can make to our community is to envision ways to repurpose and save our historic building fabric.

Q: You’ve said you’re a sucker for historic buildings. Why should we make preserving historic buildings a priority at all?

We as a city only have one shot to do it right. Whatever we chose to tear down, whatever we say is no longer a viable building to keep in our stock of historic structures, once it’s gone, it’s gone – you can’t recreate it.

The historic fabric of a city is important to its culture. It is an important record of how your city developed, and when we look at the cities in our country or around the world that we think are special, the ones we go visit, it is a lot of that historic fabric that contributes to that feel.

When I think of my favorite cities to visit, I think of places like the New Orleans French Quarter, I think of San Francisco, the older parts of New York City; and all of these places have some element of that historic structure and fabric that connects them to the past.

Q: What’s next for the firm?

We’re getting bigger. We’re up to five full-time people including me and my partner Edgar. We also have a part-time intern interior designer.

We just moved into this office and set it up for a full-time staff of eight. I foresee us growing here to eight to 10 people. We really don’t want to go beyond that right now. My partner and I like to be very hands on, working on every project we do.

Q: Tell me a bit about your background.

My background was not architecture. My first degree, so the degree I came to El Paso with originally in 1997, is a bachelor’s degree in photography. I’d always had a love for architecture and an interest in pursuing it, so I thought, when the time comes, if a go to graduate school, I’ll look into that.

Q: Where do you think your interest in architecture comes from?

I don’t know. When I was a kid, I was always drawing buildings, and as early as first grade, I thought it would be nice to be an architect and always had that dream. I got away from that in college. You know, when you’re young, you get led in different ways.

Q: If you always had a love for architecture, why did you pursue photography?

It has come full circle. In high school, I was taking all the drafting and architecture classes, but my other major in high school was fine arts and fine arts led to photography. So I had multiple pulls.

My dad was a press photographer, so I grew up with cameras. That is how that interest came in. I had an interesting experience when I was in high school.

I was digging around through my dad’s old camera stuff, and I found these two old rolls of film that he had never been developed. I had been learning to develop film and stuff at school so I was like: “Hey, Dad. Do you know what these are?” He said, “I have no idea.”

“Do you mind if I develop them?” “Sure, they’re so old that probably nothing will come out.”

So I went to school and souped them. They were baby pictures of me that my dad had shot when he was stationed in Alaska where I was born.

Photography is not unrelated to architecture. The marriage of photography and architecture is incredible.

Q: How does photography help you understand architecture?

If you look at the history of photography, photography and architecture have always been very closely related. The first photograph ever taken in the world was out the window of a building looking down the street at other buildings.

Q: And photography is all about light and composition and all the other things I imagine you’re thinking about as an architect.

A lot of my specialties and personal interests in architecture involve architectural daylighting: How do you light a building with natural light? Or if you are working with artificial light, how do you balance that with natural light and make the two work together?

Q: Eventually, you founded In Situ.

Coming to architecture late in life, I was really driven to get licensed and get up to speed, and I really wanted to have my own practice.

Q: How old were you when you graduated with your architecture degree?

I was 35 and it takes at least three years to get licensed, to do the professional internship and take the exams. I was licensed in 2011, and we formally launched In Situ in March 2012. The company was actually formed in 2011, because I was doing Square Cow for a friend of mine.

Q: You mean the restaurant that closed on North Mesa with the awesome fake-grass décor that made one feel like a cow in a pasture?

Yeah. I wish it would have lasted. Something I really like doing for El Paso design is blurring the boundary between interior and exterior spaces, and we were opening to two patios on two sides.

Q: What are your thoughts on El Paso’s small but growing architecture school?

There’s a certain amount of intellectual discourse and dialogue about architecture that happens where you have architectural schools, and it breeds a respect for design and architecture. El Paso, before we had an architecture school here, was an island that was separated from that discourse, so that was one big void that the school is helping fill.

The other thing that makes it hugely beneficial is the talent pool. Because we were an island, the talent had to go somewhere else to become trained and often didn’t come back.

Q: What does In Situ mean?

It’s a Latin phrase that is kind of common in the trade. It literally means “in place.”

We really wanted something that had a Latin root so it could appeal to both Spanish and English speakers, and I didn’t want to just put my name on the door.

It is a reminder to us that we need to always carefully consider the site we are designing for – the place we are designing for.

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Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.

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