What do a real estate developer, museum director, furniture designer, home-tech creator, and the owners of a design/build firm have in common? They’re all using design ideas to solve problems and dream big for Denver. By Hilary Masell Oswald | 5280 Home December 2019/January 2020
Mike Blea & Breton Lujan
Co-founders, Raw Creative
About six years ago, Mike Blea and Breton Lujan—who met while attending the graduate architecture program at the University of Colorado Denver—took a flyer on a fresh idea: They would open a one-stop shop that could design a building, construct it, and then fabricate its custom furnishings and interior architectural details. The realized firm, called Raw Creative, is now responsible for some of Denver’s most beautiful commercial spaces, including restaurants Señor Bear and Morin (pictured above).
5280 Home: What makes this concept work so well?
Mike Blea: We’re control freaks—in a good way. We can retain unique design concepts that might intimidate someone else and bring them to life. The lack of familiarity with fabrication can drive some designers not to push the boundaries. We can.
Breton Lujan: So many people have great ideas, but they don’t have the resources to get them done. We use our tools, knowledge, and background and do it. When we meet with [potential clients] at first, they look at our work boots and say, “Where’s the architect?” We’re the architects, but we’re also the guys building. It’s really fun to do it all.
Give us an example of a time when you applied your problem-solving savvy for a client.
BL: Table 79 in Steamboat. Our budget was really tight, but we wanted to make a big impact by cladding the walls in gray-wash wood. We bought the cheapest plywood at Home Depot and applied a chalk-gray whitewash; it gave the restaurant a unique, Scandinavian feel. We took materials that you wouldn’t expect to be finish materials and manipulated them in our shop to make them look good.
MB: Or Elle.B Salon Central. We were the designer and the builder. To design the hair-cutting stations for each stylist, we had the salon owner pretend to give us haircuts and we observed all of her movements. From that information, we created everything—down to the laser-cut [styling] tool holders.
Apply that creative thinking to our city: If you were in
charge of designing all the public buildings in Denver, what would you
MB: I’d work toward more intentionality than star power, than making a big splash. There seems to be a push toward making a lot of the larger buildings feel like an attraction rather than connecting to people who live in the neighborhood.
BL: A great example [of good architecture] is the Clyfford Still Museum. It feels really connected to the community. The architects took into account how people would approach and enter and experience it.
What’s next for Raw Creative?
MB: We’ve created a series of concepts for micro-housing. We think these concepts can be influential in helping solve issues of affordability in Denver and mountain towns.
BL: We’re moving into more residential [work], too. We designed a home in Aspen that’s about 1,000 square feet. It’s exciting because we made it modest but really comfortable and sustainable.
MB: The theme here is that architects are problem-solvers. We should be tackling some of these ideas—smart residential design, affordable housing, sustainable building—and we can.
Co-founder and CEO, Josh.ai
In the world of Alexa and Siri, there’s a standout guy named Josh—a digital man of sorts, who uses artificial intelligence software built to understand natural human speech. Integrated into a home-automation system, Josh (who was created in Denver) makes it easier to control the vastly expanding realm of at-home technology. Josh.ai co-founder Alex Capacelatro explains how the home assistant came to be—and why he’s smarter than your average voice-control system.
5280 Home: What makes Josh.ai different?
Alex Capecelatro: When [co-founder Tim Gill and I] started, we felt like there was an opportunity to bring real software and real intelligence to the home to create a super-helpful assistant. Josh can monitor the house to see if anything breaks; he can monitor energy usage to see if you’ve forgotten to turn down the thermostat; he can monitor weather, the sunrise, the sunset. From a voice-control standpoint, Josh can understand natural language and even location. So if you walk into your home gym and say, “Play some music,” Josh knows you don’t mean the same music you want when you’re in the dining room at the end of the day.
Where does Josh live in a home?
When we started, we were focused on the software, but when you want to give voice commands, you need a hardware product. Ours is Josh Micro. It’s installed in as many rooms as the customer wants, and it’s room-aware, meaning it knows where it is.
And it’s good-looking.
We think so. The hardware performs best when it’s in a clear line of sight, where the audio is uninterrupted. Because a lot of our clients have luxury homes, we thought a lot about [Josh Micro’s] design. It has a beautiful concave shape inspired by Richard Serra sculptures I love. And there’s not a single visible button on it. Around the outside, there’s an LED ring that is invisible when the unit is off. A little rainbow lights up when you speak to show that it’s listening. If you say, “Play the Beatles,” for example, that ring becomes a touch dial. If you say, “Turn on the lights,” it becomes a light dimmer. Plus, Josh Micro does most of the processing locally, without going onto the Cloud—which means we can guarantee privacy to our customers.
In that vein, what’s next for home tech?
We’re seeing a lot of movement toward using technology to improve your health and wellness at home. A house is not super smart when it comes to things like indoor air quality and water quality and how well you’re sleeping. I would love it if we could build products so people could live longer, healthier, better lives because of what we do.
Partner, Westfield Company
You might not know the name Westfield Company, but you’ve probably heard about the Mission Ballroom, the buzzy new concert hall that the company developed as part of its North Wynkoop project near 42nd Avenue and Brighton Boulevard. The firm is also responsible for creating Stanley Marketplace, the food- and retail-centric reincarnation of the old Stanley Aviation building in Aurora, and S*Park, an innovative condo community in RiNo with an on-site urban farm and greenhouse. Here, Westfield partner Jonathan Alpert breaks down the good, the bad, and the promising about growth and development in Denver.
5280 Home: How does a developer get to create a concert hall?
Jonathan Alpert: [Entertainment company] AEG came to our door. They had been looking for an opportunity to build a prototype venue, and what hooked them—besides the location [which we had already secured]—was the willingness from our side to do it. The Mission Ballroom is part of our North Wynkoop project, which is about 14 acres at the north end of RiNo. It will have an office building with ground-floor retail, and eventually, a [separate] multifamily building and a hotel.
Let’s talk about sustainable development. Everyone professes a love for it, but what does the term even mean?
Sure, it’s become kind of a buzzword. I believe in solar, efficient
envelopes, natural light, and natural ventilation, but for me, “sustainability” also means taking into account social impact and economic viability. Our working urban farm at S*Park is an example: It’s expensive to run a farm, but it makes sense from an environmental standpoint and it’s a driver of interest, so it helps the economics of the project overall.
What do you say to people who grumble about Denver’s growth?
I catch myself complaining about the traffic, but then I take a breath and remember: This is how cities thrive. Do I want to be in a city that’s growing, or do I want to be in a city that’s shrinking? People are interested in living here, and that means there will be employment growth; there will be interesting jobs, interesting people. But I’m not naïve enough to believe it doesn’t have an impact on people who have been here a long time and can’t afford to continue to live here. That piece is troubling.
So what do we do?
We need more tools to get affordable housing built. We need public-private partnerships. We need a separate line for permitting [at the city] for affordable housing; we know we need it, so let’s expedite that process. And a lot of developers are trying to meet the need: Right now, we’re building 14 three-bedroom townhomes in Curtis Park within the affordable housing parameters. I’m excited, but it’s really hard to make those projects work financially, and we need more of them.
What’s your end goal?
For many years, Denver was a stop on the way to the mountains, but now, Denver is the stop. People come here to experience the city, and I want to make sure there’s a place for everyone. When you put down roots and a city becomes your home, you have a different care for it. We want to give people opportunities—and reasons—to stay here and grow.