Some of the answers to Colorado Springs' seemingly everlasting identity crisis — who we are, what we care about — can be found at architect Ryan Lloyd's house on Echo Lane in Pleasant Valley.
It was originally a moderately decrepit two-story foreclosure wrapped in brick and beige paneling. Ryan and his wife Valerie purchased it in 2009 when they moved here from Oregon with their two young children, Salome and Ephraim.
It's now a love song to light and comfort, with tall ceilings, wooden beams crossing the deck and external staircase, and a garage door opening from the living room onto the patio. Exposed concrete walls live cleanly next to reclaimed wood and homemade poured concrete counter-tops. A rooftop solar system warms the water and the baseboard heaters.
In a two-part audio slideshow done by KRCC's The Big Something in May 2012, a rectangular coffee table stands out as the neatest feature. It's about 2½ feet high, composed of pieces of scrap wood, with glass running across the top until it reaches a glass box rising from one end. When turned on, a large blue flame burning ethanol springs upward, heating the area around it.
Lloyd has since moved this to his office because you can't exactly rearrange the living room when a heavy box filled with sand scratches the floor every time it rolls. But the coffee table is a microcosm of what makes Lloyd, 39, tick. Reused material? Check. Clean energy? Check. Beautiful, functional and unique? Clearly. If it's possible to call a coffee table honest, this is Abraham Lincoln.
Lloyd's a guy who thinks people should be open, buildings should be designed in a way that entreats patrons to enter them, and mediocrity should be rooted out and destroyed. He hates veneers. He doesn't swear, yet uses the word "beige" to personify the evil he fights against.
Lloyd appreciates uncomplicated function. He rides a fixed-gear bicycle almost everywhere. He home-brews and raises chickens. When we talked one afternoon in October, his favorite chicken, an Americana named Peckahontas, had just died; she was egg-bound and perished despite a lingering Epsom salt bath he'd administered the night before.
But he's not one to talk broadly of personal "philosophies," especially at first. Ask him why he designs the way he does, and you might get a short laugh and an answer like, "I don't want to go to a place that sucks," before he asks for additional time to answer because he wants to think about the question more. It's part of a charming nature that's reserved at first but ultimately invites you to know him. And you get the sense that he wants to find the energy between figuring out how to run a growing small business, hanging with his family and getting out into the mountains to know you, too.
His presence is larger than his medium height might suggest. See him talking with a former client, and he's facing forward, standing straight, with, as often as possible, a beer in hand. You can often find him clad in flannel and a trilby. It's quintessential Northwestern hipster but offset by a winking gravitas. Anybody he's talking about is referenced by their first name, lending an intimacy to every story. And he laughs a lot, radiating a quiet optimism despite describing himself as a cynic.
"I want to be what I'm for," he often says, "and not what I'm against."
Ultimately, Lloyd seems like a person who doesn't understand why bad things are bad when they could be good. And there's a lot of good being done by the man and his firm, Echo Architecture.
Echo has gifted its stamp to a home called The Phoenix, rebuilt after burning in the Waldo Canyon Fire, and a 300-square-foot private observatory in Divide. The open room, concrete floor and wall of shelves at Wild Goose Meeting House are all parts of Echo's design. So are the "living wall" of plants and western wall of windows at the northern Over Easy restaurant; the reclaimed chicken-coop-wood-and-exposed-brick walls at Iron Bird Brewing Co.; and the bold, neon-orange accents at a clean and simple Red Rock Church. Modern designs are on their drawing board for a northern shooting range, another brewery, a west-side apartment building called The Gabion and a list of other projects that seems to grow by the day.
The expansion and visibility led me to wonder to the architect, one Thursday afternoon in October, while sitting on the Goose's patio, if he ever felt in over his head — if he was worried that his designs might not be the right designs.
"I'm trying to figure out how to say that without sounding like I have a huge ego, but no, I'm not," Lloyd said with a laugh, drinking an imperial IPA from Pikes Peak Brewing Co., and explaining, "Architects, traditionally, have huge egos. Absolutely. And I fall under that category. I try to keep it on the down-low, but you have to. You gotta do it with confidence. And if you're gonna be all wishy-washy and let the developer or the city or the plans examiner or the critics affect that, then you're gonna start designing by consensus and your stuff's gonna be mediocre. And why would you go to all the trouble to do something that's mediocre?"
Lloyd wants you to care, even if you criticize what he loves. Just care.
It's a mindset reinforced by Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, the Colorado Springs architect and granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright. She once criticized the patchwork way Colorado Springs was constructed due to outsiders who "bring their own styles," saying in 1999: "We have to encourage people to learn about Colorado instead of dragging their baggage and parking it down somewhere."
She died in San Antonio at age 91 last September, but well before then, before he even moved to Colorado Springs, Lloyd sat down with her in a downtown hallway next to Josh & John's Homemade Ice Cream.
"She proceeded to talk for over 2 hours," Lloyd writes in an email. "I probably got 10 words in. ... She spent a lot of the time trying to discourage me from moving here. When we finished she wanted to write her email address down for me and I had forgotten my sketchbook, but I did have my portfolio in my bag so I pulled that out for her to write on. When she got a hold of it she looked at it for a couple of minutes then said, 'Oh, you're good!'
"She'd been talking to me from the perspective that I wasn't and C Springs didn't have any need for me. She then spent about 20 minutes telling me why I HAD to move here and that the City needed people like me. She warned me it would be tough, about the lack of design culture, about it beating you down, so it wasn't necessarily a pep talk, but it did truly weigh heavily on my decision to move here."
Ryan Lloyd was born in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, in February 1975. With his dad's job at the Bureau of Land Management necessitating frequent moves, he saw five states and eight houses by the time he was 9. His parents separated when he was 11, and he moved with his mother to Fort Collins, where he lived in a house with five levels connected by five staircases.
"Interestingly, the house is nearing 50 years of age, and it's a very — well, the whole neighborhood is like that: Every house is different," says Lynda Lloyd, who still lives there after teaching elementary school for 40 years, and began our phone conversation by thanking me for interrupting her vacuuming.
Lloyd started his first year of higher education at Colorado School of Mines, which didn't take long to wear out its welcome.
"He came home at Thanksgiving and said, 'Mom, I need to transfer,'" Lynda says. "I said, 'But you've only been there just these few months.' And he said, 'Engineers are a little bit odd.' He said, 'I can study with them, I can work with them, but I'm just not sure that that sort of workplace is where I belong.' And so that's when he transferred to [the University of Colorado] and changed his major to architecture."
A few post-Boulder stops followed, including one back in Fort Collins to marry his high-school sweetheart, Valerie. Lloyd ultimately chose the University of Oregon's architecture graduate school in Portland over several in California. "[It] was perfect for me," he writes in an email, saying he studied "urban architecture and infill with a focus on sustainability and flexibility."
Ultimately, Lloyd would become a proponent of a somewhat opaque style called critical regionalism. One of the firms originally credited with designing in that way is the Miller Hull Partnership in Seattle. Explained principal David Miller in 2010: "We hate extravagance."
Renowned Canadian architect Brian MacKay-Lyons said on archdaily.com that critical regionalism is an awful phrase, "but we need a word" for the "resistance to the numbing effects of globalization, cultural globalization, which includes architecture and everything else. ... I think it is a radical position, this position of 'resistance,' so maybe there is a school there."
Architectural style is a controversial thing, so I ask Lloyd if I'm being too slavish in defining his work with certain terms. "If you hadn't brought it out of me, I don't normally describe myself that way or anything," he says. "But I think it describes me very well. People [usually] ask me what kind of buildings I do, you know. So what I usually say is, 'Modern and sustainable is my niche, but no certain building type.' I just do weird in-fill stuff that I can't explain."
That flexibility has made Lloyd acceptable to people who might otherwise be critical of such things, like William Fisher, a local architect who tells me that "style is a cop-out." Elaborating, he says: "What we should be doing is not worrying about style, and I think that's what I see in Ryan's work. It frees you up if all you have to deal with" is figuring out how to make the building do what the owner wants it to do.
Fisher is a former president of the Colorado South chapter of the American Institute of Architects, a 157-year-old organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., that boasts some 83,000 members. Getting a bunch of creative egotists on the same page can be like sweeping feathers. This may somewhat explain another complaint Lloyd has about the local scene.
When I first met him at Nosh to discuss the idea of a story, restaurant owner Joseph Coleman approached me with a question about the Gazette, to which I responded that I don't often talk to employees of the daily newspaper. Though we'd just met, Lloyd immediately cracked a joke about how nobody talks to each other in this city. I could tell he was serious, though, and that it was something of a sore spot.
"I guess that's what I want to see: architects who like each other, [and] hang out," he said when we met at Wild Goose. "And then beyond that, I was on the AIA [in Portland], and I was on the housing committee and we did monthly tours and the architect was there and he could tell us all his secrets; because they're not secrets. Here it seems like they are. They're not. I can figure out what you did. Your drawings are public record. I can go get them, so I don't know why everybody's so secretive. And I don't think it's just the architecture community."
I bounced this idea of informational silos off Marta Lacombe, the president-elect of the local AIA chapter and adjunct professor at Pikes Peak Community College. She was mortified, and immediately said she would call Lloyd. The chapter recently restructured so that it could better host seminars, happy hours and networking events.
"People are too busy, and it's a small chapter," she says over morning coffee at Urban Steam, noting that 54 percent of Colorado architects are members of the AIA, and 6 percent of those represent the southern chapter. This means there are 2,352 members statewide, 1,557 of them licensed architects. There are 138 members in Colorado South, and 98 licensed architects. "And the economy's picking up, so then people don't have time. When we had no projects we had time, but we didn't want to [socialize] because you're not happy, right?"
As far as the work of Echo Architecture: "It's great stuff: I like the simplicity of it," she says. "I really like the way the materials are materials. ... He's a forward thinker."
The translation here is that Lloyd doesn't cover up the simple, fundamental stuff like a steel column or a concrete wall with fluff or extraneous ornamentation. His places are comfortable without seeming artificially plush; industrial but livable; open but focused.
Echo Architecture is housed in a low-slung, dark gray building on Wahsatch Avenue called The Machine Shop. As one would expect, it's peppered with Apple products (though Lloyd works on a PC). A stylized, bright orange "M" sits above the main garage-door entrance fronted with bright green artificial turf. It hosts other like-minded designers: Studio C3, Fixer Creative Co., CoPilot Creative and the Design Rangers (who are some of the folks behind Wild Fire Tees and Rebrand the Springs). On the website for the workspace, jointhemachine.com, the group describes its approach this way: "In the immortal words of Vanilla Ice, we like to 'stop, collaborate and listen.'" Valerie Lloyd, an artist in her own right who teaches at the ModboCo School of Art at Ivywild, curates an in-house artist program and manages the office's business side. (See "Another kind of creativity".)
While everybody chipped in to modify the existing building, Ryan designed the office, adding touches like a ceiling in the conference room done shou sugi ban, a Japanese process that involves torching woods like pine or cypress to make them resistant to fire, insects and rot. Frosted glass walls slide on tracks to allow for floorplan flexibility while spaces like the one off to the left from the front door, hold black leather couches and cow-skin rugs.
If there's one belief that ties the companies together, it's that design matters.
"It's great to see GOOD design in Colorado Springs," writes Austin Buck with CoPilot Creative in an email. "Whether you realize it or not, good design promotes economic growth. ... Good design can shape communities."
Rangers vice president Christopher Schell echoes the sentiment in a phone conversation. "I think Ryan has a big sense of wanting to make this a better place," Schell says. "When we talked about doing the Machine Shop, one of the big pushes behind it was to make where you are better, instead of just bitching about it."
Lloyd drafted a column for the Westside Pioneer in 2011 explaining his stance against a sprawling, car-centric environment, something Colorado Springs, with its 7,500 miles of road lanes, defines to a T.
"We need to face the facts in Colorado Springs," he wrote. "Our city cannot sustain itself and its current mode of vehicular-oriented growth. We cannot afford to maintain our streets. We can't afford to light our streets, plow our streets or hire the police to protect our streets. We have TOO MUCH asphalt and it is unsustainable, socially, economically, and environmentally...
"Global warming can be debated, but the ills of air pollution, noise pollution, dependence on foreign oil and the tens of thousands of vehicle-related deaths per year cannot. It is a simple fact that we can reduce these problems by driving less."
You feel his frustration with having to state the obvious to the oblivious. There's a directness to the piece that's a hallmark of Lloyd's thinking.
As a result, in 2013 he did a thought experiment called Lunch on the Hump, where people, including members of the group Colorado Springs Urban Intervention, ate lunch on the new median on South Nevada Avenue near the City Administration Building. A photo on the Facebook event page shows Lloyd and another guy reclining in folding chairs on a dirt patch prior to when grass was planted. The most recent Lunch on the Hump was in June.
"Could it have been more than it is?" ask the organizers. "Is there a place for 'people' in our public spaces ... or was this simply to add aesthetic for the automobile?"
After building out Wild Goose, Echo Architecture worked with a group of volunteers on revitalizing the interior of Red Rock Church, a nondenominational site in a former Tiffany Square movie theater. The project's completion was overseen by 25-year-old Echo designer Courtney Wilson, who was recognized for the work in September when Echo received a Best on a Budget award from the International Interior Design Association.
A 3 o'clock tour on a recent Wednesday with Wilson and church elder Clay Enoch, who helped build much of the project, revealed two things: The award is deserved, and orange truly is the new black. Both become most obvious when you walk through the former shopping center's public hallways — themselves relics of a time when fake plants and tiled floors were stylish — and end up turning left into the church lobby. It's there that smooth concrete floors and cool lighting contrast with a large, angular greeting desk colored carrot orange. It's almost shocking, yet it fits cleanly into the rest of the redesign.
The motif is repeated throughout, from beetle-kill pine on the walls to a whimsical children's room to a youth space complete with skateboard ramp, revealing that church can exude modernity beyond a monster cross and a stage with effects (though those are here as well). The whole project dovetailed nicely with Lloyd's own Christian faith. And though he doesn't regularly attend worship services, he says, "If I can make a church hip and cool and look good, might as well, right?"
Lloyd says his favorite part of the construction process is when all you see is framing. The guy loves to show off a building's guts. At Manitou Brewing Company, you'll find simple aesthetics and raised ceilings lined with wooden beams. You see it at Over Easy, too, a gorgeous space that features a living wall full of plants to the left when you enter, and poured-concrete sinks in the bathroom. A wall of western-facing windows offers killer views (except for some construction equipment) and harkens back to other Echo projects that also highlight the pure might of the mountains.
It's stylish, which the architect sees as both good and bad.
"I think I'm definitely kind of on-trend, which concerns me because trends fade," he says.
But in general, "How can you go wrong with wood and steel and concrete?" he asks. "They're the building blocks of construction — and I choose to expose them, which 100 years ago, people chose to hide those things. But they're the building blocks of construction. They're timeless materials. Every building around here is built out of those things, so how can that fade and become passé?"
After Manitou and Iron Bird brewing companies came The Gabion, a 20-unit apartment building going up on a west-side hill. It's one of Lloyd's biggest projects at the moment.
At the construction site, besides the sign saying that this is a hard-hat area, the first thing I notice is that I'm not wearing one and neither is anybody else. This only seems relevant because guys are yelling "Clear!" and dropping brain-smashing material from the second floor, but Lloyd doesn't seem worried. "So, this job site is not ... typical," he says with a hint of glee, comfortable in the setting due to previous construction experience. "[The builder] is pretty laid-back ... It's pretty loose out here."
We're surrounded by grassy hills and neighborhood homes, which the architect says he used to inform his design. This doesn't mean the LEED-certified building will boringly blend in: The Gabion is set to subtly rise in stature as balconies and windows, already sizable, get incrementally larger as they ascend. The east and west balconies extend outward, giving the whole building a flared look. When finished, it will make for a striking addition to a well-worn neighborhood, and also be fairly expensive to live in, with rents ranging from $900 to $1,600 per month.
Home loans are still tough to get for many people, helping drive a local apartment boom that has investors all over the country snapping up Springs properties. In that climate, Echo is already designing another apartment building near Bear Creek Regional Park.
The considerations that go into a project like this are fascinating.
"Thinking about the site, you have prevailing winds; you have the high southern summer sun; you have the low southern winter sun; and you have views everywhere, both from inside the building looking out, but also from how you approach the site and see the building," says Lloyd. "You need to think about all that stuff. So you do solar modeling and figure out, 'How do I let 100 percent of the winter sun in and zero percent of the summer sun in?' And ideally you have operable windows so that you can get a cross breeze through the building. Colorado's hard, because our winds are like pfff, just everywhere."
We climb a few ladders with Lloyd holding every one — "On a normal job site, you would not climb up a ladder that's not tied on" — and then reach the top level, where he walks me through unfinished apartments with a few unfinished floors — "This is really spooky, so try to step on a joist" — before pointing to a square opening in the western wall where a bathroom window will go.
"Those are the kind of things you hope are going to happen," he says as I peer out. "You're cognizant when you're doing it, but there's no way to get 35 feet high on the site before the building's here."
Through it sits a perfectly framed view of Pikes Peak.
One weeknight after work, we meet at Iron Bird Brewing Co., the new brewery on the southeast side of downtown. It's a classic Echo design: exposed ceilings showing off wooden planks, lots of concrete, lots of reused materials and, of course, a large opening tying the outside world to the inside. External wooden paneling warms the building, leaving one with a greater sense of comfort than the individual parts might suggest. Along with a bookstore and hair salon, not to mention several unrelated apartment buildings like Blue Dot Place, it's transforming a drab area plagued by a busy road.
The whole city seemed that way to Lloyd when he arrived in 2008.
"It just looked like this car-dominated, sprawling wasteland," he says of the time he visited from Portland. "I remember it just looked dusty and brown and beige and sad. If I could put it in four words, those would be it."
But the schools were better, and the mountains called, so the Lloyd family started packing. There was an itch to do big work.
"I could come here and be the agent of change instead of a cog in a wheel," he says. "Because in Portland, everybody's like me, and here they needed help. And it's a city, geographically, that has everything going for it — so why not pick the place you want to be geographically and make the built environment fit?"
Since we first met, I've been asking Lloyd why he felt the need to modify the city, or do anything besides make a living. By now he's been thinking about it for a month, and starts answering by reading me a few definitions of the word "culture" written in an orange Moleskine notebook.
Then he says, "I think the cultural shift in this town is underway, and it's everything from better art, better music, better transit, better pedestrian environments, more density, more energy. I think ultimately it comes down to that energy, which is what The Machine Shop is all about ... this group energy. On the broader scale, it's everything and it takes a huge body of people to do that.
"When you boil it down to me, it's by creating buildings and spaces that promote that. Wild Goose is a great example, because that's somewhere you go and feel that culture ... Anyone can disagree, but that interior space helped that. It's a microcosm, but it's there.
"And then something like this," he says, gesturing to Iron Bird's interior, "I was able to affect an entire corner here. ... As my buildings get bigger and more prominent, it's gonna affect that more and more. And I'll be able to affect a whole block, and then maybe I'll be able to affect downtown, with the amount of projects I have going on.
"All of a sudden Colorado Springs is cool, you know, and I had a part in that."