Oliver Kuttner doesn’t do bland. And he doesn’t like building the same thing over and over. His latest project, the Treehouse on the corner of Garrett and Second SE streets, is testament to that.
“I wanted to do a small building,” he says. “I wanted to make that corner interesting.”
The result, beside his Glass Building, is a 17,000-square-foot, three-story, light-filled structure that soars into the trees.
“I like playing with elevation,” says Kuttner. “You get more for less.” That was a lesson he learned with the Terraces on the Downtown Mall, which has four stories—and nine levels. The Treehouse is a three-story building with a mezzanine and basement, but inside, with its tall ceilings, it feels larger.
Ten Flavors’ Jim Gibson is a longtime tenant of Kuttner’s, who sold the building the design co-op had occupied for 30 years in 2013. But the designers had gotten used to tall ceilings and being on the mall. “We looked within a one-mile radius and couldn’t find anything,” says Gibson. “Finding open space is hard. Finding open space with tall ceilings is really hard. We were used to soaring ceilings.”
When Kuttner said he was going to build what would become the Treehouse, says Gibson, “We had no idea what this building would look like. It was a leap of faith.”
Keeping the faith paid off with a location two blocks from the mall, 16′ to 18′ ceilings and walls of windows with natural light flooding into a building that is quite unlike anything else in town. “It’s a funny, polarizing design,” says Gibson, and the reaction to it has been mixed.
“Some say it’s the coolest thing in Charlottesville,” he says. “Others said, ‘Who designed that?’” For the designers at Ten Flavors, says Gibson, “We’re all familiar with the shock of the new.”
Gibson describes the “wildly creative way” Kuttner went about building, redoing something if it didn’t work out. Ten Flavors occupies the second floor, and he says the space on the third floor that will hold WillowTree’s 150 or so employees is “even more quixotic.”
Kuttner wanted to prove that there could be height without an intimidating mass at the sidewalk, and he says there was some experimentation, with architect Gate Pratt helping in the early stages.
Initially Kuttner wanted the exterior to be a living surface of plants, but he backed off that idea. “I was opening myself up to a lot of maintenance problems,” he concedes. And with his goal to spend half his time in Europe, says Kuttner, “I need to get away from maintenance.”
As for cost, he says, “I have no idea. It depends on how much you value your time.” One area in which he invested heavily was thermal mass. “I spent a huge amount on insulation,” he says.
The Treehouse and an apartment building—the micro apartments to which the city gave a cold shoulder—will be some of his last projects here, says Kuttner. He’ll do the apartments by right with 80 units. “It’ll be extremely popular,” he predicts. And he’s selling land behind the Treehouse, which will become a nine-story office building.
Speaking of mass, that project, with four floors of parking and five of offices on top of 200 parking spaces, is squeezed in behind the Treehouse and Glass Building, and shaves off the back section of the latter, according to plans from Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer. It also turns the parking spaces in front of The Bluegrass Grill & Bakery and The Bebedero into a plaza for seating.
While the parking/office nine-story combo inevitably will change some of the views from the Treehouse, for those inhabiting what Gibson calls Kuttner’s “strange but beautiful” building, there’s a certain joy in coming to work in something that’s not a low-ceiling cubicle. “The thing I’m most grateful for,” says Gibson, “is the opportunity to get a space this out-of-the-ordinary.”