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For El Dorado architects, modern design starts with old-fashioned craft

A private residence designed by El Dorado in Lee’s Summit, MO.
Photo courtesy El Dorado, Inc.

This post was originally published in November 2015.

Since its founding almost 20 years ago, Kansas City-based architecture firm El Dorado Inc. has had plenty of time to contemplate out what it’s about. Principal David Dowell names three passions: Culture, community, and craft. The firm is able to realize all of them in surprising quantities, as they work in almost every sector, from residential to industrial, to public space. Their biggest problem these days is the need for more project managers.

The office didn’t always have such a clear sense of what it was, let alone all this work. In El Dorado’s early days, it was just a place where its principals — Dowell (48), Doug Stockman (46), and Josh Shelton (43), who met while working at large Kansas City firm BNIM —could go to explore design and fabrication. The turning point, says Dowell, was when they realized “that we were all logging these incredible hours, putting together these incredible packages of drawings, which were then going out into the field and being systematically disregarded.”

David Dowell and Josh Shelton in El Dorado’s offices.
Photo by Barrett Emke.

The architects, trained in architecture at Berkeley, Kansas State, and the University of Tennessee, respectively, decided to put their egos aside and make a commitment to building things. They started taking welding classes at a local community college, and expanded into furniture design, steel fabrication, woodworking, lighting installation, and so on.

Designer Nick Kratz works in the El Dorado workshop.
Photos by Barrett Emke.

“We realized if we knew how to make something really, really well it could change the dynamics of how things were implemented,” says Dowell.

The firm developed a reputation for creating signature elements like staircases, partitions, and lighting fixtures inside adaptive reuse projects, and soon expanded into new construction and (for a limited time) design build.

The Tyler Residence.
Photos courtesy El Dorado, Inc.

The Tyler Residence in Leawood, Kansas, which added a playroom, bedroom, and storage to a 1940s house without changing its footprint, complements the existing home’s traditional aesthetic with expansive glazing and subtle, elegant wood detailing. They fitted the TWA Building in Kansas Citywith improved lighting, HVAC, and electrical systems while also installing one of the largest planted roofs in the region, with native grasses and wildflowers as well as an outdoor deck. The Byers Residence in Lee’s Summit, Missouri brings a family together with an open floor plan, plenty of natural light, and elegant, custom slatted wood screens.

The green roof on the TWA Building.
Photo courtesy El Dorado, Inc.

Working where they do, the firm has had more opportunities than most to design industrial facilities, and it’s a fascinating part of their portfolio. Perhaps the most dynamic example is the Hodgdon Powder Facility, which incorporates the language of a traditional mechanized form—a Quonset hut—and turns it into something decidedly new and elegant for manufacturing and offices. Tube-like corrugated steel shapes look familiar, but they’re combined with elegant wood entry walls, polished concrete floors, and modern furniture, partitions, and windows.

Hogdon Powder Facility.
Photo courtesy El Dorado, Inc.

The firm wants to incorporate the affordability, practicality, and durability of such industrial systems into new buildings. They’ve sourced corrugated steel on a few residential projects, and are hoping to put similar materials into a new library at the University of Arkansas. The biggest challenge, says Dowell, is changing expectations of what a certain type of building should be made of.

Hogdon Powder Facility.
Photo courtesy El Dorado, Inc.

The firm is also moving into projects of larger scope, with institutional work and large scale master plans in almost every typology that allow them to collaborate with teams and expand the traditional notions of mixed use. The Highlander Accelerator in Omaha, Nebraska, is a collaboration with Alley Poyner Macchietto and Landon Bone Baker Architects to provide affordable housing, a tech incubator, a community greenhouse, parks, and two satellite campuses for area universities. The Ninth Street Corridor project is the reconfiguration of a seven-block stretch of Lawrence, Kansas, which the firm is teaming on with several artists, landscape architects, and engineers.

”Going in and doing something that’s highly formalized and beautiful is not enough,” notes Dowell. “We’re developing new strategies for how to engage people and create new types of places.”

The El Dorado offices in Kansas City.
Photo by Barrett Emke.

· El Dorado Inc. [official]

· Introducing Curbed’s 2015 Class of Groundbreakers [Curbed]

· Groundbreakers 2015 [Curbed]