A visit to the offices of Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects in downtown Savannah reveals something important about their approach to design: they practice what they preach. Almost every room is lit with sun that streams in through abundant windows. Located at street level, their offices and studio look out at city life. Although computers and technology are abundant, so are the tools of architects and designers from other eras—drawing tables, mountains of colored pencils and samples of exotic materials. In the landscaped courtyard just beyond this artist’s studio there are solar panels quietly making electricity, which helps power some of the computers. The walls are covered with photographs of past projects, many of them Savannah’s most famous landmarks, but there are also plenty of original drawings and even a mosaic made in the traditional Venetian methods Patrick Shay learned while studying at the Orsoni studios there. Across the street, in a rented parking lot, the team of designers and technicians have erected a sturdy wooden planter made of recycled wood taken from pilings removed from the Savannah River. It bursts with flowers, herbs, vegetables and other green surprises planted in a rigidly-gridded fretwork to maximize the area and crowd out the weeds.
“Our offices are a laboratory for the way we like to design,” says Shay, “and as a result, our electric bills are about half of what they were a few years ago.” Energy and resource conservation is a fundamental part of their way of creating wonderful places for their clients, while saving them money on maintenance and operations. Most of their techniques have been learned in a way that most people wouldn’t guess though. They study historic buildings, designed by earlier architects who didn’t have the ability to waste energy the way we do today, or design buildings that were never meant to last. “Past experience in the renovation of significant landmark buildings and places taught us to learn from those original architects and builders first” explains Shay. “Historic buildings used daylight and natural ventilation to make them airy and light, and their genius can be discovered in the ways that they used materials that would last without the intense maintenance of modern buildings. Waste not want not was a way of life.”
Saving energy and precious resources has always been fundamental to Savannah’s success. James Edward Oglethorpe and Tomochichi both knew it—and practiced it in their daily lives. In fact, the ways of the Yamacraw natives that Oglethorpe found here were so natural that it takes an archaeologist to find evidence of their existence today. The colony of Georgia was designed to be almost completely self sustaining and incorporated many of the practices we are returning to today. “As we now witness the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, we are relearning the importance of conservation over consumption,” Shay observes. “We have to find ways to make our living places and lifestyle much less taxing on our environment.”
Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects has over 50 years experience in the design of high-performance buildings and landmark places—that people love to use. Originally founded by Bob Gunn and Eric Meyerhoff, this tradition of quality continues today with Patrick Shay and his associates. Using their creativity and the latest technologies, to save clients energy and resources, has been a lifetime passion for the firm’s senior principal. “Simple things, like daylight in every room, and windows on two sides, saves energy, and helps people to understand the beauty of their environment” says Shay. “That way they become actively engaged in conservation. Getting people to appreciate that they are a part of their environment, and that they have a responsibility of stewardship, becomes fundamental to a successful project.”
Gunn Meyerhoff Shay has had the opportunity to renovate, restore or re-purpose many of our city’s most famous landmark buildings. If recycling our daily domestic waste is important, think how it must be to recycle whole buildings! “When we help our clients convert old buildings into high-performance contemporary places, we help give them new life. Gunn Meyerhoff Shay helped restore Hill Hall at Savannah State University after a tragic fire nearly destroyed that iconic building,” Shay explains. “With its new purpose, and the highly energy efficient and low maintenance design, it should be able to last another hundred years.” In the case of Hill Hall, the original building had already withstood the test of time. Restoring it involved redrawing all the details and relearning all of the old ways of building long before air conditioning and abundant electricity made designing much easier.
Recently, the design team at Gunn Meyerhoff Shay had another excellent opportunity to marry historic preservation and conservation. Georgia Power Company made the commitment to keep its customer services and corporate headquarters in the historic downtown area, after deciding to sell their large-scale corporate offices on River Street. But that wasn’t all they wanted to accomplish. They purchased an historic building (one of Savannah’s original automobile dealerships) at 28 Abercorn Street, and they decided to build an example of leadership in energy conservation and environmental responsibility. After commissioning Gunn Meyerhoff Shay to design the building, the decision was made to make it a LEED project at the highest possible level. Using everything from high-efficiency variable refrigerant flow air conditioning systems to rooftop solar water heating, and even solar photovoltaic electricity generation, this project, when completed later this year, will be a beacon for Savannah’s future.
“Conservation plus preservation means saving Savannah,” Shay says, “and it also means Gunn Meyerhoff Shay. By using the same principles that the Yamacraw natives espoused, and the husbandry that General Oglethorpe practiced to make Georgia sustainable, we can now add the technology of the 21st Century. Our hope is that people see that the result is not some kind of sacrifice, but that it is a beautiful new way of living. ”