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The Cotton Gin: A Deeper Look

Hutton Cotton Gin

This month's Top Honors column features the Cotton Gin at the CO-OP District in Hutto, Texas. The project is a wonderful example of how a city took buildings that spoke to its past, and updated and modernized them in a way that provides a beacon for its future.

I spoke with architect Michael S. Antenora, AIA, founding principal of Antenora Architects LLP in Austin, Texas, and he shared some more insight into the city's plans for the future, as well as what they did with the Cotton Gin project.

Hutton Cotton Gin

Community Plans

According to Antenora, the project is actually the culmination of seven or eight years of work, starting with a citywide facility needs assessment. "We went in and looked at all of the buildings in the city of Hutto and then made an assessment of their future needs," he explains. "At the time, they were the fastest growing city in the U.S., and so we were looking at what they had currently and what needed for the next period of time based upon continued growth."

After the facility needs assessment, Antenora Architects did a preliminary design for a new city hall, in which they were going to try and incorporate the north and south gin buildings. "The reality was that they weren't really buildings at all, but were more like big metal tents," Antenora says. "They were just there to keep the cotton gin machinery dry and out of the weather. There was no insulation. They were basically open-air buildings. And because of that, to try and make them work would have been very expensive."

Hutto Cotton GinA City Landmark

The city wanted to keep the cotton gins because of its history. The cotton gin building was a common landmark for citizens, as one of the main streets, Farley Street, goes through downtown and terminates at that building. And, as Antenora explains, the building represents the city's culture for the last century. "Hutto was essentially a farming community and this building was emblematic and iconic to them, as it was their past. And they didn't want to lose that," he says.

There were several different proposals for what to do with the buildings, including disassembling both buildings and reassembling them as a part of a new City Hall, farther to the west so there was a green space in front of it. "Later, the proposal was modified to leave the one of the buildings in place, and simplify it, clarify it, and modernize it," Antenora says. "The idea was to make it a pure architectural shape, almost like a steel prism."&nbspnbsp;

Ultimately, the designers took the best of both buildings to make one building. "The real beauty of that building is that it has a set of steel trusses that were put together with rivets back in the 1940s, and they're really beautifully made," Antenora explains. "There's a repetitiveness to it that makes the ceiling in there almost like a cathedral. It's very, very striking. And you couldn't see it at first when all the machinery was in there, and all the extra mezzanines and walkways and things, but once you stripped all of that out, it became this really beautiful repetitive pattern of trusses. And that was what we were trying to get to. The elemental essential basic quality of the building was what made it the most beautiful; getting it down to its sparest parts."

Hutto Cotton Gin

A Glowing Box

The building features stainless steel, regular mill steel that's been painted, galvanized steel, and shop-finished steel sheet metal. "We had to be able to interweave identical shapes that matched the old structure but allowed the building to now meet current code," he explains. "The real challenge was to brace and stiffen the building so that it met current building code, but not lose the delicacy and elegance of what the original building looked like."

Since the building faces directly south, Antenora says they wanted a material that could reflect the sun during the day, and also draw attention to the building. "We had this idea of a glowing box," he says. "The stainless steel was the way to make the box glow during the day by reflecting the sun. It doesn't just reflect the light, but it reflects the color of the light. If it's a cloudy day, the metal will look white or blue. If it's a warm, sunny day, especially at sunrise or dusk, the building will take on these warm reddish and orangish hues.

"Then at night, we wanted to have a very modest lighting scheme that would be enough so the building would glow at night. And the perforated metal was a way for us to do that. We tested several different perforation patterns to find out the maximum amount of perforations we could have so the light would go through it at night, and it would still reflect it on the outside during the day. And that's a critical part of why this design looks the way that it does. And it's very successful. It's a striking building all day long, and all night long."

While the perforated metal makes up one side of the Cotton Gin, the other three sides are solid, which allow the building to be used even when there's a cool breeze blowing. "The open side of the building is the south side, so the wind can travel through the building, and it's actually very cool in there even when it's 105 degrees outside," Antenora explains. "The combination of the breeze that's coming through the perforated metal, and the shade that that building provides, it will be anywhere from 15 to 25 degrees cooler inside that space than it is outside."

Antenora says he's heard from the former mayor and city council members that people passing through the town are stopping and looking at the building because it's so simple and striking. "The entire point was for the building to draw attention to itself so it can be a catalyst for the development over the next five to 10 years," he says.

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