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ORW Architecture: A half century of progress

When David Wilkerson relocated to the Rogue Valley in 2003, he left behind a world of high rises and short-term gratification.

“When I was practicing in New York City, I did corporate interiors, and every project you did lasted five or 10 years and then it got ripped out for the next tenant in that office space,” recalled the ORW Architecture principal.

He traded the center of the financial world for a less-traveled corner of America, joining what was then known as Ogden, Kistler and Associates and Planners in a relatively remote stretch of East Barnett Road. The largest architecture firm in Southern Oregon, with a 17-person firm, ORW celebrates half a century of operation this year.

“It’s great to be part of a firm leaving a lasting legacy and to be part of a smaller community where you know the people who are going to be using your projects,” Wilkerson said. “Designing the schools that my kids to go school in, designing the churches where we worship, and designing the community centers where we recreate.”

During his tenure, the scope and methodology have changed dramatically.

“The complexity is overwhelming,” Wilkerson said. “We’ve been fortunate to create projects that really make a difference in the lives of people and enhance the quality of life in the valley.”

Jim Roemer is co-principal, joined by Andy Owen, principal architect and project manager; Jeff Bender, principal and director of design; and Dana Ing Crawford, principal architect and project manager.

“Construction technology and how buildings are put together has totally changed,” Wilkerson said. “It’s not just about heating buildings, but how moisture enters buildings and how pervasive that is. The building codes and energy codes have changed — Oregon is setting the standard for other states.”

The influence of the LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, rating system devised by the U.S. Green Building Council is seen everywhere in Oregon.

“A lot of things architects do across the country to achieve LEED certification is just a code requirement in Oregon,” he said.

ORW’s staff produces renderings, 3-D fly-throughs, animated models, site planning, interior design and agency approvals, far more than architecture firms did in the 20th century.

“There is the expectation that the architect is going to do more than the architecture of the building,” Wilkerson said. “The firm has always had a reputation for doing some of the larger and more interesting projects in the valley.”

Among ORW’s credits are the Britt Pavilion, Craterian Theatre, Lithia Motors headquarters and Medford police station.

“We have shown the valley that we’re capable of doing the same caliber of work that previously was done by large out-of-town firms,” he said. “It used to be harder for local architects to have a seat at that table for some of these very large projects, like the Medford police station.”

There’s further accountability, Wilkerson said, because outside organizations aren’t around after the fact.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” he said. “We’re not just doing one project and then fly out of town. We have to live with the results, because we see our clients at the grocery store, on the soccer field, and around the community.”

Many of the firm’s projects are recognizable to local residents, but some are less obvious.

ORW master-planned the 72-acre, million-square-foot Stewart Meadows Village, including the restoration of Hansen Creek, in south Medford.

Between 25 and 30 percent of ORW’s projects are design-build, collaborating with a builder under a single contract with the owner. It hasn’t always been that way, Wilkerson said. For many years, the traditional design-bid-build approach was in place.

“Historically, on hard-bid projects, architects were in charge, and sometimes there was an adversarial relationship between the architect and the contractor,” he said. However, a new generation of leadership brought about change in the 1990s, opening the door to the area’s top contractors.

“We recognized the industry was changing, there wasn’t just one way to build a building, there wasn’t one way to contract for a building,” Wilkerson said. “We’re still leading the design direction, but we’re getting contractors’ input early on. In the olden days it would be in the field when you would find out the contractor had a better way to do something, or learned something on a different project.”

ORW managed to avoid layoffs during the Great Recession, but like many building- and development-related companies, it persevered by putting more emphasis on public projects.

“The recession was so hard-hitting, and the rebound was slower here,” Crawford said. “The public projects actually kept the valley going strong. We had some significant jobs with Jackson County and the city of Medford, and that helped keep us stable.”

Compasses, slide rules and drafting tables have given way to three-dimensional computer programs.

“The way we train interns to become architects is going to change,” Wilkerson said. “Now, we have architects coming out of school and doing nothing but 3-D-modeling. They don’t have the history of putting drawings together by hand, so the way we folks who learned that way train them will have to change as well.”

Although most architects can still sketch by hand, the industry standard has shifted to 3-D modeling.

“Some engineers have resisted, but we’ve embraced it,” he said.

Building information modeling, or BIM, allows architects to coordinate with engineers on such things as sprinkler lines and overhead ducts, and roofing and flashing.

Although drawings are still printed in a two-dimensional format, ORW is using 3-D views in its drawings.

“The next big change will probably be handing the contractor that model of the building, rather than handing him a set of drawings,” Wilkerson said. “Just letting him spin around a little holographic toy that he can play with, dissect and pull apart.”

Mock-ups could be processed by a 3-D printer, allowing contractors to see how different assemblies fit.

“If we were able to take apart what it printed out, so a contractor could see the different parts, that would be very powerful,” Wilkerson said.

That’s not something presently done in the region, he said, but some Portland firms have used BIM to create virtual-reality tours of projects for clients.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

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