Context is everything when architect Dan Craine is designing buildings in Denver’s urban neighborhood, and even in suburban locales like Castle Rock and Arvada.
But context doesn’t mean that every new building is necessarily the size and height of what has gone before it, according to Craine, principal and founder of his namesake firm, Craine Architecture.
“We do a lot in the Five Points Historic District,” for example,” said Craine, who is a member of the Five Points Design Standards & Guidelines Committee.
“Five Points is a culturally rich, historic district with a handful of contributing buildings, and most of them are two or three stories,” he noted.
Yet, after the Denver City Council approved form-based zoning in 2010, some sites have been zoned for buildings as tall as eight stories, he said.
The Wheatley at Five Points, which he designed and where he offices, is bigger than most of the historic buildings. The apartment portion of the mixed-use development rises to five stories, and it takes up much of the block at Welton and 25th streets. “So we were looking at something a little larger than you would typically find in Five Points, but we wanted to maintain a sensitivity to the current fabric that had been established in the neighborhood,” Craine said.
Craine met with Landmark Preservation Commission and neighborhood groups to ensure that the context of Five Points was respected.
And while every site and neighborhood is different, there certain elements that keep a new building from “sticking out like a swollen thumb,” he said.
“Obviously, there is a lot of masonry in Denver buildings and a lot of transparency at the base,” he said. Also, older, historic Denver neighborhoods adhere to a pattern of 25-foot-wide lots, even when the lots are wider, or a building takes up the entire block, he explained. “That creates a rhythm that is sewn into the fabric of Denver,” Craine said
The worst architectural design offenders among the new breed of buildings constructed during the recent boom don’t respect the historic context and “look like they could be in any city,” whether it is Dallas, Phoenix or Atlanta.
“There are some missed opportunities in Denver” to not only respect the existing context but also enhance the neighborhood, he said.
One way to improve the quality of design is to require more design reviews, said Craine, who is a trustee for Historic Denver and a member of the Arapahoe Square Design Advisory Board.
“In general, I have found that you end up with a better outcome when there is a design review,” Craine said.
Craine didn’t start out as an architect.
“I didn’t have any architectural influences. I didn’t know any architects growing up, and my parents didn’t have any friends who were architects. But I was that kid who was always sketching and doodling on the side of a paper,” he recalled.
After receiving a degree in economics from Colgate University in Upstate New York, he took a job in finance in Manhattan and later went to work for a mutual fund in Boston. While in Boston, he took a summer course at Harvard University called Career Discovery in Architecture.
“I loved it,” he said. “It’s really funny. I’m reading a book called ‘Grit’ and they talk about finding your way. That is exactly how I felt when I took that course on architecture.”
At the time, his older brother was teaching skiing in Breckenridge, so he decided to enroll in architectural school at the University of Colorado in downtown Denver.
“The UCD campus was right on Lawrence (Street) by Writer Square and Larimer Square, which was this incredible, block-long urban run. But it was only a couple of blocks.”
Coors Field had not yet been built, and “downtown seemed to shut down on the weekends and evenings. I lived in City Park at the time and I remember riding my bike downtown on the weekends. Nothing was happening. It was not a 24-Hour city.”
After graduation, he joined Tryba Architecture, headed by David Tryba, one of Denver’s best known architects.
“I would consider David a mentor,” Craine said. “I don’t want to put words in David’s mouth, but I would say every building he has ever designed, he considers the context of what he is designing. Every urban project he does is contextually based.”