Ten Years Later, RFMs Office Continues to Tackle Climate Change Head On

Rice Fergus Miller Office & Studio

In 1987, architect Steve Rice opened a solo practice in Bremerton, Washington. Bremerton, home to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, was reeling from having lost nearly all its longtime retailers – Nordstrom, JC Penney, Sears — to a newly-opened regional shopping mall. Soon, downtown movie theaters, restaurants and bars went by the wayside. In the nearly-abandoned six-block by three-block downtown, Rice saw a need and an opportunity.

“It was gritty, but I saw something special here. I like things rough around the edges, I didn’t want to settle into someplace with nothing to improve. I visited here as a kid, and I remember how alive it was back then. I felt it would turn around over time, I just didn’t realize how long it would take.”

Three years after Rice settled in Bremerton, Dave Fergus joined the studio. They grew the firm, and in 2002 – with 15 staff – Mike Miller, who attended school with Rice at the University of Washington, joined the partnership. Today, with a staff 50 people, Rice Fergus Miller works on a regional scale in healthcare, senior living, fire & emergency services, hospitality, housing, education and Tribal markets, in addition to the local, community work Rice dedicated his career to.

The firm’s success saw it outgrow its original office space. Surprisingly, empty buildings were difficult to buy in downtown Bremerton until the economic recession of 2008. RFM’s innovative, pioneering spirit kicked in again. Why not tackle the most deteriorated and overlooked building in town?

“We came close on a few deals that would have been easier, but something always got in the way. When the recession hit, this one fell into our laps. It was roomy, but it was in the worst shape, by far, of any we’d seen,” recalls Rice. The former Sears Auto Center was gritty — hazardous materials, a rotting roof, broken windows, and dozens of pigeons roosting upstairs. “Our wives questioned our judgment, but we could see the potential for a great fit. It was a huge leap, but once we got it cleaned out and took a closer look, we could see we could create something really special.”

The building had opened 1948 when Bremerton was enjoying the beginning of a long post-World War II heyday. When the mall opened, it was shuttered and sat empty and unmaintained for 24 years. Most others would have demolished it and started from scratch, but the firm saw it as the perfect setting to reimagine a new life for the building – one with a heavy sustainable certification.

“We had done four or five LEED projects around Puget Sound at that point, including the Kitsap Community Resources center, which was Bremerton’s first green building, but sustainability was still a foreign language on our side of the water. Clients thought it sounded good, but they mostly were concerned with extra costs,” said Rice. “We needed a way to show them the advantages.”

Once Rice Fergus Miller decided to transform the Sears Auto Center into an energy-efficient Office & Studio, the firm did so “in a way that made sense to us, instead of following a checklist. Most architects never get a chance to design for themselves, so they don’t really understand what it feels like to be an Owner. But here we were with our Owner hats on, so we just embraced the guinea pig in us and looked at it from both perspectives,” says Rice. “We were prepared to learn some things – good and bad, maybe – the hard way. Our budget was tight. We didn’t have extra money to spend. We looked at each other and pledged to make the best decisions we could with what the building offered us, and stay away from ‘point shopping.’ It felt so genuine that way. It took the pressure off.  We knew, whatever the outcome, it was the right thing for us and we’d be satisfied. We’d carry this experience forward to future projects, and bring more value to our clients.  They’d benefit from our mistakes and our successes.”

Rice Fergus Miller’s headquarters, although aspirational in design, was grounded in the practical from the beginning. In the end, the design earned 93 points in LEED Version 2,

tied for the highest score ever achieved by a North American building – and the only renovation to do so. The building operates with an Energy Use Index of 18.2, about one quarter the energy a typical 32,000 SF office building uses.

In 2012, the LEED Platinum project was awarded the national First Place Technology Award from ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers, an AIA What Makes It Green? Award, a Gold Award from Building Design + Construction Magazine, an Evergreen Commercial Interior Award from Eco-Structure Magazine, and a Washington Green 50 Cutting Edge Building Award.

RFM believes climate change is real, and better design can do something about it.  t can be difficult to quantify what impact efforts like RFM’s can have, but when Rice talks to groups about their Office & Studio, he leaves them with this: “If every commercial building owner in Washington State took measures to reduce energy use to the degree we did, you’d be able to remove 7 of 9 dams off the Columbia River.”