Freezer to Office
In 2012, architect Vahid Mojarrab, WAMO Studio, won two sustainability awards— from the U.S. Green Building Council-New Mexico and from ECOHOME— for an energy-efficient residence called VOLKsHouse, which he developed in partnership with Jonah Stanford. Mojarrab hopes to break ground this winter on VOLKsHouse 2.0, which he says “will push the technology up to the limit.
“We are doing a high-efficiency, panelized home incorporating a graywater system not being used in the U.S. and we’re going to put thewhole plan on thewebsite so everybody can just build it, so you don’t have the architect fees.”
In mid-December, the architect won an honor award from the American Institute of Architects-Santa Fe for his own office, an adaptive reuse project that involved conversion of a former Taos Cow Ice Cream freezer.
The 550-square-foot building has an excellent insulation factor: what used to keep ice cream inside fromwarming up in the summer now keepsMojarrab and his staff warm in the winter and cool in the summer. “It has a great thermal break: if you don’t have that conductivity, you can maintain temperature, and that’s our specialty. It was just a metal box inside,” Mojarrab said during a recent visit. “The metal sheeting is just a veneer. In the summertime it may be hot outside and you come inside and it’s nice.”
He painted the visible, structural I-beams yellow, added ribbons of white panels that run along the ceiling and walls to break up the expanses of metal, and used themto anchor lighting units faced with polycarbonate.
“The contractor had some doors and windows in his yard so we salvaged things. That’s why nothing matches here,” he laughed. Clean, affordable Ikea furniture completed the office, which has been in use nowfor a year and a half.
“Our office believes you don’t have to start new for every project,” Mojarrab said in an e-mail. “With the uncertainty of the real estate market, there aremany opportunities to re-adapt existing real estate inventory to successful and responsible projects.”
About five years ago, Mojarrab got involved with the Interfaith Community Shelter and converted (pro bono) the old Pete’s Pets space on Cerrillos Road to serve Santa Fe’s homeless population. His studio won a competition last year for workforce housing in Clovis. “We re-used and reconfigured five existing buildings to accommodate 15 rental units and the community building. These projects are in-line with our beliefs that there are many ways to accomplish high-performance ‘green’ building.’”
He talked about the sea change in thinking from the days of the beautiful, transparent Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe and the Philip Johnson Glass House. “We grew up with those as the icons, but that is when energy was not a big concern. Our priorities have changed. As an architect you feel a social responsibility. Back then it was all about design. And computers have changed the profession quite a bit. Now when we do the design [with BIM— building information modeling— software] we can simultaneously see the energy use. The computer enables you to go places you couldn’t even enter a few years ago. I can’t wait until the time when you just think about a structure and you can see it on your monitor. Instead of Google glasses, you have a Google helmet. After all, the brain is just a bunch of electric neurons.”
Mojarrab, educated at California Polytechnic State University, has been in Santa Fe for 20 years. His wife, Carol Ware, with bachelor’s degrees in fine art and architecture from Rhode Island School of Design, sometimes collaborates on her husband’s architectural work. (The firm name was formed from the first two letters of their last names.)
As Mojarrab continues with value engineering to try to increase the affordability of VOLKsHouse 2.0 for consumers, he’s also looking forward to a major project in Papua NewGuinea. WAMOwas hired by Shepley Bulfinch, Boston, to do the residential component of the Enga Provincial Hospital campus in that Oceanian nation. During the interview, he joked that he was leery about having meetings about the project in his humble freezer-office.
Alan Chimacoff, head juror for the recent AIA award, commented, “There’s a fine madness in this project and a delightfully screwy idea, an architect’s dream or an architect’s nightmare, putting an office in a freezer... It’s a great advertisement of civic and environmental responsibility: we’re willing to reuse the grungiest of grunge for ourselves in order to have the opportunity to make better places for others, as well as a demonstration of the creative potential of the people who work there.”
The interior and exterior of the former freezer