Q and A with Michael Winstanley
by Beth Herman
Creating his own office space for a burgeoning staff at 107 N. West Street in Old Town, Alexandria, along with a state-of-the-art photography studio for wife Jessica Marcotte under the same roof, Michael Winstanley of Michael Winstanley Architects and Planners slayed the giant. Pitting the $490,000 design against Goliath projects by other firms, including a $50 million Columbia University biology lab, the 4,350 s.f. Winstanley office won 2011's National Society of American Registered Architects (NSARA) Award for building design. In the same year it also garnered a National Association for Industrial and Office Parks (NAIOP) Award for building renovation. DCMud spoke with Winstanley about the little office that could.
DCMud: Your firm is renovating Union Station and has designed large-scale structures in faraway places like Macau and Kazakhstan. How did you choose a building to reflect the range of your work?
Winstanley: We were originally in another old building in Old Town which was sold and was to be torn down. Jessica and I had about 1,000 s.f. each, and I had four employees. My practice was growing, and my wife needs a 12-foot high space for her photo stand and light booms. In Alexandria there isn't a lot of warehouse or industrial space, so it took a long time to find but we finally located it - a former carpet warehouse. Financing was done through a combination of private funds along with SBA and bank loans.
Winstanley: Our building sits on the property line so that's as much land as we had: a zero lot line. We had a tight budget and no windows except for clerestories, and needed to have some vision windows, so we put windows along the alley which is really a fire lane - the only place we could have them. Because we work late, our office looks out onto the alley so it no longer feels unsafe for the neighborhood. We also used four operable skylights on the opposite side of the building to balance the light inside, which washed the walls in daylight.
DCMud: Sounds as though you had an eye to sustainability.
Winstanley: In fact during the day you don't even need the lights on. We also did operable windows to open for fresh air as often as possible. The entire concrete block envelope is now heavily insulated (there was none at acquisition): floor; roof; walls. The HVAC system is automated so it's off at night. For flooring we used reclaimed oak from Virginia, and it's raised up on sleepers to run our data cables underneath it to avoid data drops from the ceiling. Finally, though the building was marketed as a tear down and rebuild, we chose to use the existing building instead of razing and starting over. We are also five blocks from the King Street Metro.
DCMud: We understand the IKEA workstations have their own little backstory.
Winstanley: We currently have 20 workstations in 3,350 s.f. (the remaining 1,000 s.f. is allocated to the photography studio) but can comfortably seat 25 to 30 employees when necessary. I knew that IKEA was an economical solution but had always thought it looked too inexpensive given the kind of work we do. My concern was that IKEA furniture would indicate a modest practice, when we actually do a lot of large scale projects - like a $300 million, one million s.f. development in San Antonio. I looked everywhere for something else but never found anything with the right feel.
DCMud: So you acquiesced?
Winstanley: I wanted to do something that didn't scream IKEA, but using the same we designed a very simple four-piece furniture system. The colors and textures matched the office. The irony is when I went to add a few more desks later on, IKEA had stopped making some of the components. A carpenter agreed to replicate things for $400 - for just one of the tabletops - when it had cost $80 at IKEA. But we had to do it!
DCMud: The conference room seems to be open to the rest of the space. How does that work acoustically?
Winstanley: It's far enough away so that meetings don't interfere. We also have an in house model making shop in our space.
DCMud: Tell us about the photography studio.
Winstanley: It's all open with its own entrance. Jessie has (dedicated) office space with her desk and couch within the studio. There's also an IKEA kitchenette, just like we have in the architecture studio.
DCMud: Given the breadth and scope of your work, why are you based in Old Town and not D.C.?
Winstanley: We're planners as well as architects and I've lived in a lot of cities, including Boston. Old Town reminds me of Beacon Hill which I like. In D.C., however, you surely can't escape the power of the L'Enfant plan: the organization of the city; the symbolism of the capitol; the location of important public buildings in the Federal Triangle. It's a green and livable city that appeals to me because Charles L'Enfant was smart about the way it was planned and organized. D.C. is unlike any other place.
Photos courtesy of Jessica Marcotte