One on One: Fennell planted Ivywild’s ideas

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one_on_one_james_fennellJames Fennell is the man behind the groundbreaking design of the Ivywild School, a redeveloped elementary school at 1604 S. Cascade Ave. that houses several trendy new restaurants as well as the famed Bristol Brewing Company.

Fennell, who owns the local architectural design company, Fennell Group, talked with the Business Journal this week about how his vision for Ivywild developed and what sets it apart from other redevelopment projects.

How did you become involved with the Ivywild project? What projects has Fennell Group been involved in that made you a good fit for Ivywild?

I worked with Mike and Amanda Bristol on the design of their first brewery, located on Forge Road, back in the mid-1990s. Chuck Murphy (the contractor at Ivywild) actually introduced me to Mike Bristol.

Around that same time, we had been working on a few projects in Germany and were impressed with the micro-scale of the breweries — it seemed every village had its own brewery. There are environmental, economic and cultural benefits in having these local breweries. When I returned to Colorado I even experimented with beer making.

It was great to work on the first brewery. During and after the design process, Mike and I would talk about ideas for using the byproducts of the brewing process and how a brewery could be aligned with other types of uses. Combining different yet compatible uses could create higher efficiencies and synergies (to save materials and energy and reduce operating costs), plus it could be a cool environment for people. Folks could even live there.

Mike introduced me to Joseph Coleman and I worked with Mike and Joe to design the second brewery and The Blue Star on South Tejon Street.

What makes the concept and design of Ivywild revolutionary, and how did this thinking and planning evolve?

What’s probably most revolutionary is that the Ivywild concept aligns businesses at a neighborhood scale for the expressed purpose of exchanging the byproducts of their operations: minimizing waste (hoping ultimately to eliminate it) and turning waste into a valuable resource for others.

We’ve really only seen this idea of “symbiosis” in a few large-scale applications such as the enormous industrial complex at Kalundborg, Denmark, and the large agricultural operations near Portland, Oregon. Aligning businesses with mutually beneficial byproducts in a neighborhood infill project — while addressing environmental and cultural concerns — however, is truly unique to Ivywild.

The Ivywild model is really an economic and cultural catalyst. Closely locating different businesses, which have readily available byproducts to exchange, creates ongoing social exchanges — a sharing of ideas and vitality — and these mutually beneficial relationships are what truly create long-term sustainability.

There’s a strong environmental piece that’s inherent in the architecture also, with spaces located to produce the greatest environmental benefits. The fermentation process actually generates heat, so it’s located on the north side of the old school to buffer the uninsulated brick walls. A greenhouse is planned on the south side of the old school and designed to gather heat for plants and distribute any excess to adjacent spaces. There’s a solar-powered EV charging station in Phase 1 and plans for other renewable systems as the project moves forward.

Earlier in my architectural career I developed a prototype for a perpetual living machine. It sounds technical, but in reality it’s very simple. It means that a building could adapt and respond to its environment (natural and manmade) in a way that makes it self-reliant. So we really just applied these ideas to the readily available byproducts from the brewing process and configured it to fit the old Ivywild School.

What were the biggest challenges to making Ivywild a reality? What unforeseen hurdles did you encounter?

You know, whenever there’s an opportunity to revitalize a historical structure, create cool new spaces for businesses and create excitement in the neighborhood and community, there’s the tendency to want to do more than the budget allows. So the biggest challenge was trying to fit everything we wanted to do into a very tight budget.

Anyone who takes a tour of the brewery packaging facility (located on the west side) will see one of our biggest challenges firsthand: a massive retaining wall allowing the building to be built into the hillside. This had thermal and structural benefits, but once uncovered the soils were found to need more costly stabilization than anticipated.

Tell us about your upcoming book, what it means to the local community — and what bearing it might have on the architectural world.

The book is titled “Build Ivywild” and it begins by asking: “Can mingling different businesses bring greater prosperity? Can neighborhood buildings and spaces produce happiness? Can the sun and wind actually improve a person’s well-being?”

It goes from there. The book really provides tangible answers to these and similar questions and expresses these in words and sketches designed for everyone — from entrepreneurs and small business owners to government officials to students to anyone, really, who’s civic- or community-minded. It basically tells the story of “awakening” an old school and offers a blueprint for environmental, business and cultural sustainability. It provides solutions for maintaining social and cultural well-being while achieving economic prosperity and creating healthy environments.

Jamie LaRue, author and director of Douglas County Libraries, who reviewed an early draft of the text, provided a brief summary and a wonderful compliment. He said that Build Ivywild has the potential to reshape architecture and urban planning. Now we’re beginning that journey at Ivywild and are very excited to share what’s being learned.

The book is just becoming available and is scheduled to launch about the same time as the Ivywild School grand opening. Copies can be purchased at Bristol Brewing Company’s Dry Goods Store or online at