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Rana Creek: The Design Firm Bringing Architecture to Life

In a nursery off the coast of Monterey, California, Rana Creek raises millions of plants each year. From there, many will be raised again, off their grids of soil and up onto roofs and walls, providing the living skins for architectural projects dotting the West, and now New York, Canada, and China. The team’s commitment to intelligent ecological design and restoration has produced a lineup of big projects by big names, from William McDonough to Renzo Piano to César Pelli. Look for the people who engineered and vegetated the Mediterranean roof atop the Gap headquarters, or the undulating shoulders caught mid-shrug above the California Academy of Sciences, or the 5.4-acre park planned for San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center. You’ll find Rana Creek.
Modern Abalone House by David Bryan with living roof

The Abalone House by David Bryan.

The firm practices a sense of design challenging the conception of architecture as ecologically unrestorative, stamping out the ground it sits on. Rana Creek surveys sites extensively so that systems put in place are both efficient and intimately connected to the terrain. Grasses, wildflowers, and succulents are chosen to be adaptive in a site’s microclimate and to provide safe havens for endangered species. Most stormwater falling on the lot is caught and can be routed down into living walls. Greywater can be filtered and reused on the ground or elsewhere. The green membrane also muffles sound and cools the building to push down energy costs.

The green roof atop the California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences by David Bryan.

Rana Creek’s larger projects certainly help increase visibility of green architecture, but the company remains devoted to smaller and more personal ones, as well. The firm has supplied living roofs for sequestered residences, low income housing in San Jose, and infrasructure projects all while maintaining focus on habitat restoration in California. Rana Creek recently finished a roof for Mickey Muennig, an architect based in Big Sur. Muennig’s work inspired Rana Creek founder Paul Kephart, who lived nearby as a painter on the coast, to build his first living roof. Rana Creek came full circle. Paul took a moment to speak with me about design, visionaries, and the upshot of it all. Our conversation follows.

Clementina Cares living wall by Rana Creek

"Clementina Cares" living wall by Jessica Neafsey.

Can you speak a little about the origins of Rana Creek and what it meant to you in its infancy?

I got started working for Dave and Lucile Packard at their Elkhorn Slough property and at the time there were 650,000 metric tons of DDT-laden soil entering the slough. I’d worked for Dave and Lucile personally for about fifteen years and it was a project that Dave started to restore that portion of the slough. That’s what got me started in this design-build-grow ecological restoration pursuit and we were primarily focused on nursery production and agronomic production of native grass seeds for revegetation and restoration of wildlands and agricultural lands. Concurrent with that, there was a growing interest and need to apply those types of plants and methods and techniques and ecology to urban landscapes. Over the last fifteen years that’s evolved to living architecture in which case we apply ecological principles to the built environment and actually take part in the structure as part of the mechanical heating and plumbing and energy and water systems of structures.

Croton Water Treatment Plant by Grimshaw Architects

Croton Water Treatment Plant by Grimshaw Architects.

How has your nursery grown since then?

The nursery has evolved. It started out with Packard and we helped others get started in the nursery business here locally and then I moved and worked for Mike Markkula, one of the founders of Apple, out on his ranch and helped him get this business started. About five years ago I bought the business from him and now we’ve moved the nursery to Earthbound Farm. Clint Eastwood owns that property and we grow all our native plants there. I have an interest in those things that are tangible even though I’m involved in large-scale design and living architecture throughout North America and beyond. I still have an affinity to grow things and an affliction to see them built.

Croton Water Treatment Plant by Grimshaw Architects

Croton Water Treatment Plant by Grimshaw Architects.

Your work often finds a place in rather daring modern architecture. Why do you think that’s the case?

It’s those iconic structures and large-scale applications that allow people to dream and to reach beyond what convention implies and what convention means in terms of design. From an evolution of an industry I think we’re seeing that’s changed and these applications of living architecture and sustainable measures are kind of mainstream now in regard to water and energy and carbon footprint and what have you. I think it started with Bill McDonough and the Gap. That’s twenty years old now. And that was the first large-scale living roof in a Mediterranean climate in North America. So I think there was just a desire by those that we worked with to think a little differently and apply ecology to their architecture and to their place. I started a trend, that’s for sure. I started a new vernacular. Now we speak speak differently about site and structure. I rarely have a discussion about architecture without speaking about ecological context or applications.

Pacific Grove Dune Restoration by John Wandke

Pacific Grove Dune Restoration by John Wandke.

Would these architects seek you out specifically? I’m wondering how you enter the mix on these projects.

I have an art and horticultural background and a technical background so a lot of the things they’ve asked me to do haven’t been done before. They need somebody to think how to make these things work from a design standpoint. I think that’s how I entered the conversation. The people associated with Rana Creek have the capacity to do this kind of work and a desire and a passion for it. That’s added up to meeting a demand over the last five years. A rise in interest in trends and requirements—the Water Quality Act and LEED and these other policy and regulatory shifts—created more awareness and more opportunity.

Palomar West Hospital by Marie Goulet

Palomar West Hospital by Marie Goulet.

Can you talk about some interesting projects you have in the hopper right now?

One in particular that’s been very gratifying is working with William McDonough + Partners and the Annenberg Foundation in Southern California in which a navy base in San Pedro was closed in 1990 and they left military housing behind unoccupied. Through the Volunteers of America, who have a focus on homelessness and returning veterans, we’re turning this into a refuge and restoration site for one of the most endangered butterflies in North America, the Palos Verdes blue. And at the same time, we’re integrating ecological design principles for water reuse and sustainable landscapes and vocational opportunity for the returning veterans that are at risk. So that’s a great opportunity to combine our ecological design principles, landscape architecture, and some social opportunity for those that are in need.

Rana Creek Nursery by David Bryan

Rana Creek Nursery by David Bryan.

Much of your work occurs as part of variegated projects with a lot of moving parts. What kind of collaboration and tolerance is needed to complete a project in a way such that it pleases the higher-ups while remaining ecologically responsible?

There’s a team of people, a coordinated delivery process, and the key is to keep us all in vision and that takes strong leadership either through a team or a visionary architect to maintain the vision all the way through the project. You have to be consistent in your messaging and consistent in your approach and you have to have the complete analysis of the benefits, including financial, not just ecological. You have to have a well-organized presentation and delivery process in order to maintain that vision or it can slip. We also have the opportunity—and we do this—to work with some people that are practiced in such coordinated, integrated design: engineers, landscape architects, and clients and their stakeholders. When all that works it’s a beautiful thing and you get Vancouver Convention Centers, California Academy of Sciences, and Croton projects. Certainly it’s gratifying that ecology has such a strong presence and level of importance in terms of how the sites perform and how the buildings function. I think that’s been the differentiation in the last three years.

San Diego Convention Center Expansion by Fentress Civitas

San Diego Convention Center Expansion by Fentress Civitas.

I would imagine Malcolm Wells is a large inspiration on your mission and your design philosophy. This is a guy who was writing about earth-sheltered structures in the 60s and 70s and yet his ideas still seem a bit left-field. But now it seems we’re at a phase shift where projects such as yours—ones that bring the land to the forefront—are gaining footing.

There are a lot of people who have practiced one form or another of organic, sustainable architecture or ecological design but those disciplines have matriculated and they’re far from what their origins were and they were somewhat idealistic and somewhat naive. I say that conservatively. They were altruistic in many ways but I think in terms of the matriculation, or how things have evolved, these are highly specialized disciplines and there are site structure analyses and engineering and a different suite of materials, a greater body of knowledge and information and case histories to draw on. A lot more knowledgeable people in terms of clients and of course we have much greater interests from our peers in the population of people around us. We rely on the vision of those visionaries and pioneers and their spirit but the practice and the industry has changed quite a bit.

San Diego Convention Center Expansion by Fentress Civitas

San Diego Convention Center Expansion by Fentress Civitas.

Have these visionaries shaped where you see the design of living spaces headed in the future?

Well they certainly informed the process. I don’t think it’s an end game and I think we’re still providing that hope and promise for a better place to live and we’re doing our best to look within to that quality and consistency about what it is we really, truly want to achieve. If we truly want to make buildings that are habitable for all creatures, that don’t consume a great amount of energy, and that contribute to the environment rather than detract from it, then that’s a process. Material and innovation, all that evolves and we just get more efficient and better at what we’re doing. There’s a lot of this going on on main street and there’s a lot of this in residential applications. Energy efficiency and site productivity can be done for your own home. It’s the right thing to do and it can demonstrate to others it’s possible.

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