How One Architecture Firm Builds The Art Of Sustainability

Photo courtesy of Matthew Munson

LOCUS Architecture has been in the business of designing affordable, sustainable and modern spaces for 21 years. Located in South Minneapolis at 4453 Nicollet Avenue, the innovative architecture firm has completed beautiful yet functional residential, public and religious projects nationwide.

LOCUS has always been ahead of the curve. The firm built their practice on sustainability 10 years before it became a standard in the architectural sphere, and they design with the intention to accommodate their clients’ needs + lifestyles – all while educating on the “greenest” practices.

Learn more about LOCUS Architecture from partners Paul Neseth and Wynne Yelland in our exclusive Modern Midwest Q&A.

Modern Midwest: Can you start from the beginning and tell me a bit about the genesis of LOCUS?
Paul Neseth: We were housemates in grad school. I’m from here and a class ahead of Wynne. He’s from California and I convinced him to move out here for a couple of years while we do some projects together. 21 years later, it’s been good enough to keep him around. There was a bit of a recession going on at the time – the early 90s – and we thought we’d take off on our own. We did that together, operating as one unit. A lot of it was that we enjoyed critiquing each other in school, so working together was a natural progression.

Wynne Yelland: When we first started, we had a design + build company, so we would design a project, then build it. We thought that it would help us figure out how we wanted things to be made, and Paul had the skills to do that – lead a team of people. It offered us a bit more latitude in the things that we could do. We don’t have construction ability anymore as part of the office, because we moved into design only, but I think we learned a lot about what is practical and realistic in the market.

MM: When did you move into the design-only work?
PN: As a young firm, the design + build model allowed us to be adaptable and flexible, but we transitioned design-only work 10 years ago.

MM: You two must be the dream team since you’ve stuck together through the years.
WY: Oh, the two of us?!

PN: It’s like any other marriage. You know each other extremely well – our strengths and weaknesses and soft spots. To be working together for 21 years, I think says more than the work that we’ve done. A lot of people who started their businesses after we did have split up.

MM: Can you tell me a bit more about LOCUS’ design philosophy?
PN: Sustainability is one of the first things that we ever did. With our first project, we actually had open houses. People could walk through and see the construction practices. That was 21 years ago, and not many people were doing that at the time. That’s always been a really big part of what we do, but aesthetics are also important for us. We like modern spaces and more natural materials. There’s always a need for people to understand the space and natural materials are one way of doing that. We also put a lot of emphasis on our clients and their environment, not just the design.We like to think that each project is going to be unique, so we need to consider the time [period] that it’s being done, the client that we’re working for, the site that we’re working on. That is more exciting to us than coming into a space with premeditated ideas.

WY: I think that’s kind of how we were trained, too. When people ask us what style we work in, I usually use the words “sustainable” and “modern” in the description. But it’s not the kind of strict, sterile modernism that you might see in high fashion magazines or even in Dwell. We look at the assets of the couple, the family, or the client and their site and orchestrate a composition and a lifestyle that matches those things. We respond very directly and individually to our clients.

MM: How has sustainability manifested as a centerpiece for LOCUS? You’ve mentioned that it plays an integral role in your work – how is this so?
PN: A very simple thing that we’ve talked about over the years is linking the benefits to a project to the burdens of that project. In other words, linking the fact that you’re going to get a house or this new space to where those materials come from. There’s degradation that comes with each construction project, so one of our goals is to give the person the benefits and the burden. At that point, people will make decisions that are better for the process itself. So if we’re logging materials that are nearby and those are going into your house, you might get to the point where you’re choosing which trees are being logged. That suggests that we get local materials. That suggests that we know where our materials are coming from. It becomes a very clear decision. And it’s very unusual for us to get materials that are coming from Italy or China or elsewhere. That’s been one of the benchmark pieces for us. A lot of people come to us telling us they want to be sustainable by adding solar panels or geothermal heating, but they don’t realize that these are the last things you would do if you’re building a house. The most important things are the things you don’t see, like the insulation or windows. When on site, we take into account wind and solar gain. We’ve been designing and living here so long that these things are kind of ingrained in us.

WY: Paul sometimes says the most sustainable thing that you can do is not do anything at all. We try to get our clients to think about what they really need. For us, there’s less of a reliance on gizmos and whistles and more emphasis on building less, more efficiently. Every firm in town says they’re sustainable. But for us, it’s more important thinking about what we do make. It’s about process, not products, or a more holistic way of looking at a building with the goal to build better.

MM: How have you seen the idea of sustainability change in architecture?
WY: I don’t remember it being talked about in school, but we built our first project entirely with used materials. It initially came from this “hippie-ish” mindset of saving mother earth and not clear cutting. It felt more grassroots. Now, it seems much more standard.

MM: What’s one thing that differentiates LOCUS in the architecture space?
WY: A lot of projects look like they’re designed like a painting. There’s not that much depth to them; they’re flat. Our projects are layered and have that depth to them. Look at the flat metal facade of the White Bear Unitarian Church. [We designed] a recess and one window on one side, so there’s a number of different ways that the façade changes over the course of the day. Also, we’re really good at assessing how the designed space interacts with the world.

PN: Yeah. The longer I work, it seems as though architecture is less about the building, and more about the experience the building creates. And it’s experience both leading up to the building – like the design process we go through– is a part of what the client takes into living there. In doing that, I hope we can give them a way to look at their environment and their world in a different way.

MM: Do you see – and if so, how – architecture and culture intertwine?
WY: We are responding to what our client asks us to do, and benefitting people of our own relationships. So if we’re working with a client – whether it’s a couple, congregation or restaurant – we want to make sure that it has some sort of benefit to everyone. Think about the Guthrie. It’s a public space. You don’t have to have a theatre ticket to explore the grounds. One can overlook the river, for instance, and that influences how they see the river. The way that the public engages and uses the space is our most important job. When architecture facilitates some sort of public, shared experience, that’s valuable.

PN: Think about the Metrodome and the Twins Stadium. The Metrodome was very segregated, but the Twins Stadium has a sort of equality. Breaking down those barriers between public and private and how we use space is important.

WY: As a profession, it’s important for us to consider how we can get people into physical, not virtual contact with one another. Virtual reality was all the rage in school, but we’re all becoming more innumerate and virtual in terms of how we interact with one another. It makes me want to make more spaces where people congregate and interact with one another.