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An Interview With: Michael Hickok and Yolanda Cole

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An Interview With: Michael Hickok and Yolanda Cole

An Interview With: Michael Hickok and Yolanda Cole

Hickok Cole, a Georgetown-based firm of 70 architects and interior designers, is busy making waves in D.C. architecture, and pushing it in a very modernist direction, most recently on the Watergate conversion, the design of the new Columbia Center next to the Washington Post, and in the area of so-called green buildings. The firm is the product of a merger in 2003 of Michael Hickok’s architecture and interior design firm and Yolanda Cole’s interior design firm (more colorful details on that toward the bottom of the interview below). Hickok came to DC in 1981 from Boston to open the branch office of a small Boston firm. In 1987, he opened his own office. Cole, from Columbus, Ohio, and originally a music education major, went to architecture school at Columbia, then worked at Kohn Pedersen Fox in New York for ten years designing skyscrapers in such cities as New York, Chicago and Sydney. She came to Washington to work at Keyes Condon Florence (now SmithGroup), then bought into a small interior design firm, which grew.

Bisnow on Business: You’ve been doing the renovation of the Watergate Hotel to an ultra-luxury co-op. What’s the scope of that?

MH: About 300 rooms being turned into 96 units.

And the average size of units?

YC: Average in that project doesn’t mean a whole lot because there are units that are only three per floor on a 16,000 square foot floor plate at the top, and yet there are some small one bedroom units that are maybe 800 square feet.

What’s the status?

MH: The design is more or less done, and we’re documenting it, we’re in construction documents, and I think construction’s meant to start in the fall. It’s been in our office for almost three years, and we’ve been through lots and lots of iterations.

How many people have been working on it?

MH: In the early stages it’s a relatively small team. I don’t think it ever exceeds three or four people.

Why have there been so many iterations of the design?

MH: I think the developer [Monument] began to see the opportunity to do higher and higher end units. So every time we went back through, we made it nicer. We made the units more detailed.

YC: And bigger. They wanted originally to try to keep the bath locations from the original hotel.

MH: More of a “fit the units to the existing plan,” but in the end, I think they could see they had a much better opportunity to go higher end.

YC: Right.

And so what would be an example of the high-end elements?

MH: I think across the project there are five or six different marbles in five or six different shapes that are being used, and many built-in components, extremely high end.

YC: Very modern design.

MH: Not a traditional D.C. design at all.

I don’t know what that means: “traditional D.C. design” vs. “very modern design.”

MH: That’s an issue of practicing architecture in this region. Traditionally D.C. has been a very, very conservative architectural market. We not only don’t have tall buildings, but we very rarely have buildings which venture very far from sort of federalist or a modern version of federalist. So I think until very recently you saw very few interesting buildings being done here in the city. That’s changing.

Actually, I would have thought Watergate itself was a very iconoclastic kind of design.

YC: It is.

MH: You’re right, but can you name one more from the ‘60’s? All you got in the ‘60’s were very bland boxes on K Street.

YC: Right. So the design of the project is in the vein of the original building to a certain degree, brought forward, I guess you could say, to this decade.

MH: I think I’m also reacting to the fact that when you walk into the lobby of the Watergate now, you have crown molding, dark wood paneling, and you have black, green, and white marble interior, and it’s sort of cognitive dissonance when you walk in there, because it’s nothing like what you see from the outside.

You are going to return it to what it should have been?

YC: To its spirit, but not to its original design.

MH: That’s exactly right.

So give another example of what you’re going to see in the new lobby, if it’s not going to be crown molding.

MH: No, you’ll see curvilinear forms...

YC: Smooth surfaces.

MH: Yeah, smooth surfaces that have continuity, not a lot of inside and outside corners. You probably won’t see any molding at all. The floor will be a polished terrazzo probably.

Do you get involved in all the different kinds of marble?

MH: There is another firm called Forrest Perkins who did a lot of the material finish selections for the unit.

Okay, so you don’t have to get down in the trenches at that level.

YC: We can, and we do.

MH: On that one we’re not.

But you can’t go too wild, given that you are constricted by historic preservation, and to existing ceiling height and that sort of thing.

MH: Right. We’re working with all those existing conditions, but we can do some very interesting things. For example, there are exterior balconies, which have those concrete vertical posts that you see from the outside. Where right now the window glass stops at the sill, inside the balcony, we’re going to be able to take that glass down to the floor.

YC: Expanding the view.

MH: So everywhere you have a balcony now you’ll have floor to ceiling glass, and that expands the view vertically when you walk into the unit. The units are all laid out in a manner so when you walk in you see right through to the water.

YC: It’s specifically laid out to capture the view.

MH: There’s no sort of closed foyers and stuff like that.

So you’re saying this will be more like the architecture you see outside Washington. In what cities, for example, might this more naturally fit in than DC?

MH: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, maybe Chicago.

Do you think this is going to be a trend-setting, fundamental shift?

MH: That’s hard to say.

YC: Yeah, that’s hard to say because it’s such a unique project. As you mentioned, it’s iconic, but there is a trend which we are very pleased about in D.C. toward more modern design. There has been a shift, and some of our newer projects are a reflection of that shift. Through time the audience is now accepting. The tenants who are going to be in those buildings are accepting more modern design, and that’s great for the whole field of architecture.

Why is that great?

YC: Why is that great? Because it gives us many more opportunities to explore different kinds of design, and that’s what we like to do.

MH: If every generation said, “Oh, just do it like they did it last time,” you’d never make any progress. So every generation wants to do it a little differently and move forward, not just repeat what was done, never mind 100 years ago. We don’t want to repeat necessarily what was done 50 years ago. You want to learn from it, and you want to take from it. But the idea that Washington should be sort of frozen in the late 1800s is just not a good idea.

What are your other buildings that you referred to that are going in this modern direction?

MH: Monument came to us probably nine months ago with a site adjacent to the Washington Post, where there had just been parking. It’s called Columbia Center. They came to us and said, “We want you to do a signature building for Monument Realty.” And with that statement, they gave us a lot of latitude. They allowed us to explore things. When we were doing it, I told Michael Darby [Monument co-founder], “We are going to be showing you some things up front here that are going to make you very nervous. Just have some confidence we’re going to pull it back by the time we’re done.” And we went through a very interesting design process called a charrette.

What is a “charrette”?

YC: And there’s a debate whether there’s one ‘R’ or two.

MH: And what that means is that we pulled a group of people from the firm, a cross section. We took some older people who were well experienced. We took some young people, and we gave them the opportunity to sit down and work on the conceptual design of this building sort of unencumbered by a lot of supervision by the client. We sort of talked among ourselves. It was really a very intense period of time when all we did was explore a variety of options. We didn’t try to limit ourselves. We let them go as wide and as far as they wanted to go.

YC: And some of them were pretty wild and wacky. We had an iceberg scheme for a while. We had a butterfly scheme. These are just our names for them.

What on earth do those names mean?

YC: Folded glass plates or…

MH: Or sort of…

YC: Shards of glass.

Shards of glass? Hmm. Some of that fell by the wayside, but it has still ended up as cutting edge?

MH: It’s a very exciting building.

You’ve already finished everything.

YC: Yep.

MH: It’s under construction. It’s probably ten to 12 months away from delivery.

Why did Monument choose you. Were they looking explicitly for modernist architects?

MH: Our practice is based largely on relationships. And we have over the years done a number of buildings for Monument. We’re good at building trust among our clients, and as they trust us, then they also trust us to push them a little bit on the design side, because they know we’re not going to push them further than they will be comfortable, so that’s exactly what happened there. Michael [Darby] came to us, and because he trusted that we were going to have his interest at heart and not necessarily just our own, he came to us and said, “Do something special.”

Now, I know nothing, but my guess as to how all this works would have been the opposite: that developers would basically try to figure out and anticipate what consumer demand is going to be, rather than act independently of that. You know, convene a focus group!

MH: In all my years that I’ve worked for developers since I got out of graduate school in 1976, I have never run across one who tried to figure out the design by focus groups. I mean, they’re always worried about the market, and brokers will tell them what has rented in the past. But brokers - God love ‘em - are the most conservative people, because they want something exactly like what leased last time. But developers, by their nature, are risk takers. They’re entrepreneurial. Many of them have something of an ego and they want buildings that are on the edge a little bit, we hope. On the other hand, there are also many old line developers in D.C. But the younger breed, I think, is looking for something more sophisticated, more forward looking.

YC: I think in the place where market factors come in to a greater degree is in the housing market. Those type of developers are keener to what is the latest, what’s new, what does the market want, what is the demographic, and there are consultants out there they hire in order to tell them what size unit is selling in this particular neighborhood at what cost and what kind of amenities does it have to have. So that’s much more typical of the multi-family housing market than it is of the office building market.

Since you have the latest experience doing Columbia Center, what’s the latest expectations in a new high-end office building. Do you have to have 30 foot high lobby windows?

YC: Longer column spans for one. Fewer columns in the interior space, which means you have to span from column to column with your structure further.

MH: In the old days, in the good old days in D.C., every building was on a 20 foot by 20-foot column grid.

YC: Very efficient. Very affordable. Works with parking. Works with offices.

MH: D.C. uniquely in many ways is a concrete city, which is to say structural concrete is used as opposed to structural steel. The reason is that we labor - and this is another discussion - under the height limit of 130 feet at the very maximum and then down from there. So developers constantly are trying to get more square footage within that height. For that reason they want the thinnest layer of space and structure as they can get. So that was so called flat plate construction. Put your columns up, pour a flat plate of concrete, and you’re done. And in the old days you got an eight-foot ceiling, and that was called good. Well, nowadays…

YC: …they want higher ceilings.

MH: Everybody wants higher ceilings, partly driven because in the suburbs they’re not subject to the same height restriction, so as the suburbs began to flourish, and the standard changed from eight foot to eight-foot-six, downtown developers were beginning to feel the pressure to raise their own ceiling heights. Now every suburban building has nine foot ceilings for example, and downtown really struggles to get nine-foot ceilings within the height limit.

YC: And we’re seeing more buildings that have floor to ceiling glass, which goes along with the modern architecture, too.

MH: Curtain walls of glass, goes along with the wide open interiors.

I can’t let you go without talking about green buildings and other innovative design — you’re known for this.

YC: I want to mention two buildings that are not major in terms of scale, but are along this line of moving towards modern architecture and different things in D.C. One is called 1050 K Street. And the other is 1444 Irving Street. 1050 K Street is a Silver LEED building, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

MH: It’s a so-called green building.

YC: It’s a small building, 13,000 square foot floor plates. But it’s a little jewel box of a building by the Lenkin Company. They hold on to their buildings for a long time. They’ve owned this site for a long time. They do not develop lots and lots of buildings, so this is a very special building for them, and they want to do something very unique and beautiful, and so we’re very excited about that.

MH: And obviously energy efficient and sustainable.

What are the kinds of characteristics people associate with green buildings?

YC: The main characteristic would be to design them in a way to use less energy and be less harmful to the environment. The area where you find the most impact is in the mechanical systems, so you try, for example, to select energy-efficient lighting fixtures and heating and cooling systems. It might cost a little more at the beginning, but can save in long run. What’s popular now is green roofs, where you put plantings on top of your roof to reduce the amount of heat gain through the roof, and reflect less back into the overall environment.

What are you considering at your building?

YC: On that particular building, we investigated a double skin, that is, an inner one and outer skin separated by an airspace from 8 inches to three feet, kind of a European method, so you get less heat gain and natural ventilation between the two skins. We had an energy modeler look at it and discovered that in our climate the payback was not enough to warrant the additional cost. The second thing we’re looking into is photovoltaics, which don’t seem that efficient right now, but we’re hoping to at least get enough energy from that source to power the lighting in the art gallery in the lobby. That way we can pinpoint the source of energy and people will be able to make the connection between a source of energy and something they can see and feel.

And the other one?

YC: The other one is 1444 Irving Street, which is a combination. It’s a condominium building, but it also has a piece which is called a single room occupancy facility for the District, and they’re trading getting extra square footage on the site by providing this facility. The interesting thing from our design perspective is that the client has come to us saying they want a way-out, fun, interesting, youthful design. And to have a client come to you and say that…that is one of the most wonderful things an architect could ever hear. So we’ll see how far they’re willing to go. The developer is Donatelli and Klein.

And what’s the status?

YC: We’re in schematic design. So we’re trying to chose between two of our very interesting designs at the moment, and we just talked today. Just before we talked to you, a group of our highly technical people and designers got together in the office and we sat down to look at one of these designs to talk about how we were going to build it: What were the various ways we could build this unique curving, funnel-shaped curtain wall piece on the front of the building.

When you say ‘wacky,’ are we talking about some kind of Frank Gehry Disney Hall, or what do you mean?

MH: It’s more in that realm than a flat façade. Yes.

YC: And they may not like the word ‘wacky’ but, you know, how else would we say? Forward looking.

MH: Very adventurous.

YC: Adventurous.

And what ideas leapt to mind?

MH: There’s a couple of different themes that we’re now trying to chose between.

YC: One of them is called “Bauxite,” which is a type of rock formation, and the other one we call the Calla Lily.

MH: It’s a kind of flower.

YC: It’s the Easter flower, you know the white lily.

Wow. Like the “butterfly” and “shards of glass.” I guess we’ll just leave these terms to the readers’ imagination. Going back to the beginning, how did you two meet?

MH: We were actually working on a project with [Boston Properties’] Ray Ritchey.

YC: That’s right. Ritchey’s responsible.

MH: My firm was doing interior design for Accenture. And while we were doing those 11 floors of interiors, Yolanda was working on the base building for KCF. Our first meeting in fact I think was in Ray’s office.

Why did you merge your firms?

YC: Well, we had talked. It was ten years since we had met, but over the years we kept in contact with each other.

MH: I offered her a job, and she turned me down. I tried to hire her away from KCF and she said, “No, I think I have a better offer.”

YC: So I went and bought into the small firm instead at the time, but as I was buying the firm out over the years, it was kind of in the back of the mind that we might cook something up in the future.

MH: The time was right for both sides of the table, and we decided to go ahead and do it.

What was the logic behind doing it?

MH: Well, you know, putting together a partnership. But, you know, it’s always part logic and it’s part sort of gut feel. You’ve got to have a partner that you trust.

YC: With the same vision. Alignment of vision is very important.

MH: I agree. And we always sort of felt good about that, and then it was a matter of did her practice complement my practice in the business sense, and the answer was yes, it absolutely did. And she brought in 12 women. Hers was an all woman firm, and I can also say that was a good thing.

Was it on purpose an all woman firm?

YC: No. In fact we’d had up to four men at one time, here and there through the years, but it had always been owned by women exclusively, and it tended to attract women because of that. Because other women liked the idea of working for a woman-owned firm. So I was trying to recruit architects. And as I was buying out the last partner, the next move I wanted to make was to find a similar-sized architecture firm to merge with so that we could also move into the base building side, and I could return back to my roots and do both. But that was a difficult thing to do from the interior side. About the same time I was pondering this, I had an opportunity in my firm to do a 70,000 square foot office building for what was then Logicon. I didn’t have the depth of staff that I needed for that project, so I called up Mike to see if he would be willing to do it with me, and he said yes, and we started talking about it, started meeting, and even though the project did not end up going through, it got us talking again and that’s what stirred up the idea about merging companies.

Last thing: What’s quirky about either of you?

YC: Hmm, I’m interested in astronomy. It’s the first class I ever took in college. I have an 8” diameter Mead telescope that I keep on a balcony at my mother’s house on the Maryland shore, and I read book on cosmology and physics — strange, I know! And I have a quirky wardrobe, from severely conservative to exuberant. And they call me “Yo” in the office, which gets confusing when someone calls out “Yo.” :)