Denver architect Jeffrey Sheppard is passionate about architecture. His eye for thoughtful design is matched only by his enduring drive to understand and maximize the human response to the built environment, while elevating the quality of design in the world around us. His work is complex, layered and deeply considered, both in form and function. He designs not only with his clients in mind, but the larger community as well.
In December, Sheppard received the 2015 Medal of Achievement, the highest honor given by the Denver chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The award recognizes design excellence, as well as significant contributions to AIA, the profession and the citizens of Denver.
The recognition tops a list of more than 100 design achievement awards – bestowed on Sheppard and Roth Sheppard Architects, the firm he leads with partner Herbert Roth, FAIA – for the firm’s restaurants, high-end retail stores, high-profile law enforcement facilities across the country and diverse projects like the Denver Art Museum’s sublimely realized museum store and administration building.
Sheppard is also noted for his high level of professional engagement, through teaching, speaking, mentoring, chairing award juries and sponsoring design competitions. He never tires of leading public conversations on the societal impact of design – as he demonstrated last spring in a Denver Post opinion piece: “Denver is a Great City, So Why the Bad Buildings?” His particular beef: block after block of monotonous five-story apartment boxes sprouting up downtown. In his op-ed, Sheppard urged everyone who cares about the city’s long-term architectural legacy to “pause and consider” a new urban vision and email him with their thoughts.
Building Dialogue recently sat down with Sheppard to talk about that opinion piece and his passion for the art and science of architecture.
Q: You’ve had 3,000-plus responses to your opinion piece. What did you learn from that feedback?
JS: Most responses have come from Denver citizens concerned with our city’s rapid growth in buildings and density. A number of them hinted at a lot of behind-the-scenes discussions between the city and developers and their feeling that outcomes were not making neighborhoods better. Whether or not that’s true, Denver should recognize that it’s a perception out there.
That’s why I’m advocating broader discussions and a larger design vision for Denver. If a single op-ed can catalyze 3,000 emails, there’s surely a better way for the city to engage residents and the building community about values and vision than what’s currently being done.
Q: Are you planning further actions to unite design professionals who want greater change?
JS: Well, talking is easy. Action is more difficult. I initiated the conversation, now others are expanding on it. For example, the University of Colorado School of Architecture and Planning has already held seminars on the topic and the Urban Land Institute held a forum last fall. At the city level, new discussions have begun on ways to make the zoning code more pliable, and how to expand development guidelines to accommodate deeper thought and innovation. Overall, there’s more awareness now that density isn’t necessarily the problem – in fact, a busy community can add to the vibrancy and walkability of an area, if done well. In short, I think the opinion piece raised the issues, which has in turn elevated the conversation.
Q: Do you believe, from a design and development perspective, that Denver has missed opportunities over the years?
JS: Every city wants to showcase its viability. I’m not sure we’ve achieved it here. We’re often more reactive than proactive; it seems we’re always trying to catch up. Here are just two examples. Years ago, voters turned down a visionary bond issue to build a high-speed train to the mountains. Think of what our economy would be like today if that had been realized – what a destination we’d be considered, if we had built it!
The second example is the issue of water and growth, which is growing more critical here and throughout the West. I don’t see new developments taking water into account. Like our lack of easy mountain access, the water issue is going to be a tremendously expensive problem for us soon.
Q: So, in your opinion, what constitutes great design and how do you envision Denver executing on that?
JS: Design has been my lifelong passion. I’m always willing to think about it, sketch it, research it. My hope is that we will always expect more and not be satisfied with average. Passion is what drives us to discover unexpected solutions that honor culture and human behavior. Besides serving our clients well, raising the bar on design expectation in Denver has always been my goal and Roth Sheppard’s goal.
Quality design is artistic, but it’s also a blend of science, research and an open mind, balanced with a strong understanding of history, place and function. Successful design is actually “anti-style.” It’s about how people live in and relate to a space.
Thoughtful designers immerse themselves in the culture of each client and the services or products they need. At Roth Sheppard, we do extensive research, dig deeper and seek out connections and layers that can be brought into our designs to make them more purposeful, powerful and relevant.
That said, I believe we would be making progress if more of Denver’s new buildings and spaces were designed in a way that they would portray a distinctive identity. Spaces unique to our state would draw on the dynamic features of our environment, like our incredible light and unique climate. For example, if you visit Charleston or Santa Fe, their viability, energy and history strike you immediately. Being there elicits a memorable response to and interest in the buildings and the community around you.
Denver International Airport is a very good building in that respect. It’s richly layered with many metaphors that inspire images of history, travel, the prairie, freedom. It’s membrane tent could only be located here, or at least works best here. It’s memorable because it fits within our environment and would never work in San Francisco, for example. That’s powerful design.
Q: What are some actions you would advocate for raising the bar on Denver’s design environment?
JS: I’m very much an advocate of “heart and soul planning,” which requires getting to know a community and its people. We recently completed a project in a small town. Before the design was conceived, we visited the church, held a barbeque and learned the community’s stories to capture a sense of neighborhood and the area’s history.
The design that emerged from that process doesn’t duplicate existing buildings, it recalls them, so people feel a sense of comfort and familiarity even if they don’t know exactly why. Today, the building we designed fits the site and complements the setting, yet is fresh and new. As a result, it enhances the immediate context and even improves the buildings around it. Our solution looked beyond the design of a single building. We focused instead on the aggregation of buildings, which creates a sense of place achieved when surroundings are embraced rather than ignored.
I would also like to see special districts established that allow developers and architects far more design leeway within their boundaries. Existing zoning or other requirements could be softened to allow greater creativity in terms of building height and footprint, parking and site orientation, for example. That would give architects and developers a way to artfully manage density, create public spaces, maximize beneficial existing land features and create buildings that people want to experience.
Our zoning should be pliable enough to support and incentivize density and parking requirements that offer alternatives to five-story wood-framed apartment buildings with attached parking. Based on the notion of primary, secondary and tertiary street development – similar to density patterns proposed by advocates of the “Missing Middle” approach to urban planning – “stepped density” would replace the “blanket density” guidelines used in our present zoning.
In this approach, primary streets (busier and more urban in character) would have higher density, more retail and very limited parking facing the street. Secondary streets would be allowed some street-facing parking. And tertiary streets – where support/infrastructure buildings are located – would contain most of the parking. This way neighborhoods and urban areas would have a diversity of streets and land values, which would ultimately strengthen the character and availability of lower cost housing and allow for the residential development without attached parking. This, in turn, would lead to more pedestrian-friendly, creative multifamily housing solutions.
We should also look at what other cities are doing to both activate our streets and ensure that they are lined with local, viable entities relevant to the community. In Seattle, for example, developers are teaming with the city to move beyond the simplistic notion of just adding code required retail space at the base of their multifamily housing buildings. Instead the city and developers are providing incentives to local entities with ties to the neighborhood. Research has clearly indicated that smaller local entities have a much greater impact on maintaining the character and vibrancy of a neighborhood than leasing to national brands with no community connection.
City-sponsored design competitions would also encourage new thinking, expanded perspectives and greater innovation. Our firm has hosted a number of competitions like these. Our most recent event was a micro-housing design competition. It drew more than 100 national and global entries, and dramatically elevated the conversation about the viability of compact residential spaces, incorporating new materials, and how they help foster the psychological and sociological behaviors that create community. \\