Gardenstop designers featured in H-L story

From bus shelters to visitors’ centers, Prajna builds environmentally friendly

By Andy Mead at 12:00am on Dec 27, 2010 —

Modified at 3:49am on Dec 27, 2010

TROY — David Whittmer interviewed at two architecture firms as he was finishing his degree at the University of Kentucky. The process showed him that he didn’t want to work in an office.

“I just like building,” he said. “And I didn’t want to get old and fat and wear a tie.”

Instead, he and business partner Garry Murphy live a tieless existence, running a successful design-and-build company out of a 19th-century grist mill in a corner of Woodford County.

The problem with the way architects usually work, Whittmer said, is that they design something and hand it over to someone else to build, minimizing their interaction with both the client and the finished product.

Eschewing that route, he and Murphy, along with Martin Richards and John Yadack, formed a company called Prajna Workwerks soon after graduating in the early 1980s.

Prajna is a Sanskrit word meaning intuition. The “werks” spelling suggested German craftsmanship. The group also adopted a Japanese symbol that has various interpretations, including “master carpenter.”

Yadack died in a car crash in the late 1980s. Richards retired. The company evolved into Prajna Design & Construction, which more accurately reflects what it does.

Murphy and Whittmer, now in their early 50s, have completed hundreds of projects in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, New York, Florida and the Bahamas.

Their largest job was the woodwork in the visitor center at Bernheim Arboretum and Forest in Bullitt County, the first building in Kentucky to receive a platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certificate from the U.S. Green Building Council.

One of the smallest jobs is Gardenstop, the bus shelter on Euclid Avenue in Lexington that was dedicated this fall. Like the Bernheim building, it is environmentally friendly to the point of having plants growing on its roof.

Murphy and Whittmer are often called on to do a woodwork portion of a larger building or renovation, such as the timbers in the entry to Gray Construction’s headquarters on East Main Street (as well as work on such Gray projects as the Bernheim visitor center and remodeling work on houses belonging to members of the Gray family). They also worked on the interior of Tomo Restaurant in Chevy Chase.

They have built six or seven houses from design to finish.

In northern Franklin County, they tore down an 1850s tobacco barn and built a house for Hanna Helm, a retired state employee.

The house was finished in the fall of 2009. In talking about it, Whittmer and Murphy can speak in detail about the fine oak, ash, beech and old-growth poplar that was in the old barn.

Helm, who boasts that “I live in a work of art,” noted that the company also did the stone work that is an important part of the house.

She chose Prajna to design and build her dream house because it had earlier built a house for friends of hers.

“They were the only people I knew who were still friends with their contractor after the house was built,” Helm said. “There were no contractor horror stories.”

Murphy and Whittmer pride themselves on their relationships with clients, all of whom are invited to an annual Fourth of July party at the mill.

They also take obvious pride in their level of workmanship, and in reusing wood that in many cases already has had a long, full life.

Much of the interior of the Bernheim visitor’s center, for example, came from old cypress pickle barrels that had been in a Heinz factory in Ohio.

The wood used in the Gardenstop bus shelter came from a variety of sources, including the Morton’s Row buildings on Upper Street that were demolished for the stalled CentrePointe project.

The idea for Gardenstop was to make an environmentally friendly shelter that would draw the eye away from the towering new power poles that were erected to supply UK, said Yvette Hurt, who is with the Art in Motion series of shelters.

When a panel of judges were put together to consider the dozen and a half proposals for Gardenstop, Prajna was a unanimous choice.

“They just totally, totally understood the concept and then took it even further than we could imagine,” Hurt said.

Friends of Murphy and Whittmer have pointed out they were green long before green was cool.

“We have a reputation for using old wood because we’ve always done that,” Murphy said. Early on, the decision might have been for “economical reasons because we could get it cheap.”

They also were pioneers in talking about things such as designing a building to fit its surroundings and using passive solar energy.

Prajna has kept ties with UK’s architecture school over the years, doing jobs for some of the professors and occasionally conducting workshops.

Every few years, someone will graduate from the school who, like Whittmer and Murphy, don’t want to follow the standard architect’s path. They often find their way to Prajna, which usually has a crew of three to six people. They make up a new generation that suggests Prajna’s efforts will continue for many years to come.

One of the more recent arrivals, Jay Moorhead, started working there a week or two after graduating in 2005.

“I love it,” he said. “One of the best things about the job is the relationship with clients. It’s not just a business; we’re making friends.”

Murphy and Whittmer brought electricity years ago to the rambling old mill that houses Prajna.

Most of the building is a large wood shop. They have created a small heated area that is used as an office and a place to store chemicals that could freeze.

There’s a computer used for job-cost estimates, but it is not connected to the Internet.

Architects today use computers for their designs, but Murphy and Whittmer still make small-scale models when the mood strikes them. Murphy describes their work as “designosaurs.”

Other than going too long without health insurance and waiting too long to begin saving for retirement, they have no regrets about the career paths they chose.

On a recent rainy day, Whittmer was explaining to a reporter that the floors of the mill aren’t even, and that has to be taken into account when building something.

“On the other hand,” Murphy said, “there are days when you hear the rain and the creek’s running and you look out the window …”

Whittmer finished his thought, “And there’s no place better to work.”

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