When architecturally answering the construction call of the high-gloss, brand new andfabulous-favoring gay community, it’s not easy being green. However one full servicearchitectural firm is successfully being just that—implementing simplicity, practicality and environmentally sound structures into Chicago’s gay haunt-neighborhood of Andersonville.
Joel Berman, the president of Joel Berman Architecture & Design, is straight and married. Yet, making use of old and new school conventions, his famed
development and execution has made him the vastly gay populous’ first choice in transforming old-world blueprints into nouveau urban planning. Born in Park Ridge and raised in Wilmette, Ill., of his life-long residency in The Land of Lincoln, Berman jokes, “I’ve never left.” After receiving a Bachelor of Science in Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Berman sought employment by good quality and [a few] small firms. His résumé touts professional roles at Altman-Saichek-Adams, Lester B. Knight and VOA Associates Inc. the firm well-known for its rehab of Chicago’s Navy Pier and Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
In April 2002, Berman opted to apply his skill and vision into his own enterprise. He opened Joel Berman Architecture & Design out of an 80-square foot room in his two-flat house in Wicker Park. After his wife of two years Suzanne and he moved to Logan Square, and after working three and a half, of what Berman calls, “too many years,” out of his home, he moved his firm to a professional office in Andersonville. Berman spent a year in the temporary space before relocating to his permanent studio at 5212 N. Clark St. Berman laughs, saying that his original design dictum was, “Get work,” but clarifies, saying his motto is really one of “practicality and simplicity.”
“I’m process oriented and systematic,” he says. “Rework the mundane, simplify it and focus on design.” It’s a mission and mentality that has yielded success for Berman’s boutique firm. Within the industry, Berman is known to get commercial work up and running really fast. He’s even self-certified with the city as such. As of press time, a suburban strip mall, some small shops, a healthcare facility and a couple of restaurant and bar renovations are on his agenda—three of which are walking distance from his office.
Though Berman has worked on residential rehabs in the past, and he’s not directly opposed to them, he admits that they’re not always his favorite kind of work. Homeowners can tend to have aspirations for the superfluously unsubstantial, wishing to build large homes with no practical purpose in mind. For someone who prefers the use of passively solar windowpanes, that mentality is one in which Berman can’t relate.
“It’s [a profane] use of resources,” Berman says … a waste of energy and environmentally irresponsible, of building big for building big’s sake, Berman
adds, “I’ve never figured that out.
“Green and green tech is very big right now,” says Berman’s architectural assistant, David Waligora—a statement that likely proves in part why Berman
thinks Waligora a “God-send” and why they probably work well together.
Berman’s undertaking and approach at “keeping it simple,” sensible and environmentally conscientious is even evident outside of his office. Centrally-located along Andersonville’s Clark Street strip, the street-side entry is just a flat brown door with the company name printed above the doorbell. Inside, Berman’s office is a converted two-bedroom apartment and a testament-exhibition of his care for community and environment. Accent walls painted in primary blue and yellow are homage to the Swedish settlers that comprise Andersonville’s history. In its last life, his conference table was a door. The cabinetry was saved and reused from former spaces. A library of finished, affordable and easily obtained tiles and materials hangs from the walls and stocks the shelves. All the furniture is recycled, and a casually-dressed Berman wears socks but no shoes. Waligora wears socks too while drafting a threedimensional floor plan onto his computer. The image on Waligora’s screen —a sketch of a new lighting gallery for Urbanest, an Andersonville furniture showroom—is reminiscent of those created by HGTV’s Barry Wood on an episode of the cable network’s “Hidden Potential” series.
“We’re actually better than [that show],” Berman jokes again.
Joel Berman Architecture & Design is probably better because the firmdoesn’t just make use of impressively flashy new technologies “Building information modeling, urban planning and the pedestrian experience has become very popular,” says Waligora. Berman’s firm also continues to use the conventions of the classic architect. Combining the old with the new, hand sketches hang from the drafting studio walls and are sprawled out across the desks around the large flat screens of two big, beeping computers.
“Making use of third-dimensional modeling with hand sketches improves the ability to communicate with clients,” says Berman. “I still utilize hand sketches because people relate well to them.”
And that’s another thing: Berman prides himself on being a full service, client-focused, firm, having “extreme collaboration with both the client
“I’ve rejected some projects because I didn’t think that [the client and I] were going to jive,” Berman admits.
Berman offers the kind of service that he suggests all clients should solicit.
“You should never just ask for quotes,” Berman advises, “but meet the person and see if your and his or her personality click… Some designers have a specific aesthetic and apply that to everything. This isn’t the kind of designer that new businesses and homeowners need. [Those clients] need someone who won’t just dictate, but listen and process…Definitely ask to see their work.
“The best thing an architect can do is maximize on the client’s strengths,”
Berman adds, offering-up Andersonville wine shop In Fine Spirits as a prime example. The family of the shop owners had millwork experience. Berman designed displays that would play on their carpentry skills. His plan yielded a construction model that would allow the owners to build the displays themselves and save money on building costs, all without wasting any wood.
Touring the Clark Street strip, Berman, 44, beams with a boyish grin as he points out some of his latest work. He loves what he does, and he’s modest. Though he says he hasn’t really taken a large part in the redefinition of “newer” Andersonville, he’s had a hand in seven storefronts located in a five-block expanse. The furniture showroom, Urbanest, In Fine Spirits, the runner’s supply shop Runner’s Edge and The Coffee Studio are all Berman’s—his seal is the seen in the consistent use of exposed brick and bamboo wood flooring. Berman transformed the former Swedish Deli into The Andersonville Galleria. A rentable retail space equipped to accommodate over 50 local artisans, the deli’s antique freezer is now the Galleria’s front counter. Keeping the ceiling statuary and tarnished wall finishes in tact, Berman transformed a vaudeville theater, circa 1912, into one of the Howard Brown LGBT Health Center’s signature resale shops. Then, Berman entered the now gutted Augie’s Restaurant.
Augie’s was an Andersonville staple, a Mom and Pop diner offering up Tuna Melts and soda pop from an old-fashioned fountain. The community was sad to see it go but glad for Augie. After running the restaurant for decades, he retired. The old space with its ‘60s-era tiles and red vinyl wrapped booths has since been assumed by business and life partners Chef Paul Fehribach and Mark Armantrout. Augie’s will become Big Jones, a restaurant and bar featuring Coastal Southern cuisine.
“Joel came very highly recommended by everyone…who used his firm,” says Ferhibach. “When I saw that he had several restaurants to his credit, and had also built some gay and lesbian businesses around the neighborhood, we knew he was not only a good architect, but also someone with whom we’d be comfortable working on such an enormous undertaking.”
The construction is being managed by Interia Inc., gay owned and operated by Larry Ciupak and Jason Pearson. Ciupak and Berman have worked together before. According to Ciupak, they are working together a lot because Ciupak is impressed by Berman’s “understanding of the construction process.”
Berman’s pointing out where the kitchen will be built, storage, and how the new bar will be laid out. The floors have been stripped, the ceiling opened and the walls have been torn down, exposing support beams and aged electrical conduits. But for scrap, sawdust and the sounds of drilling, the place is completely barren. And Berman’s still beaming.
Big Jones is set to open in April, but Berman’s still not sure what he’s going to do with Auggie’s old soda fountain.
08 Apr 08 By: Joel Berman