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Jefferson Hennessy is a Webmaster and feature article journalist with a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Jefferson is available for feature and profile story writing assignments. He is willing to travel. Click on the "view my complete profile" link to send Jefferson an email message.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Steven J. Oubre, AIA: Innovative Acadiana Architect and New Urbanism Advocate

Innovative Lafayette architect, Steven J. Oubre, is extremely busy these days. His architectural firm, Architects Southwest, is not only an integral member of the team chosen by the Louisiana Recovery Authority to redesign and rebuild the hurricane ravaged Gulf Coast, but Oubre’s firm is also in the process of building eleven “mixed-use neighborhoods” whose design is based upon the community planning principles of what is known as New Urbanism.

Oubre (in photo) was introduced to the planning principles of New Urbanism back in 1984 while attending a series of conferences for the owners of Le Triomphe Golf Club to better understand the leading edge concepts for golf course communities. By 1994 Oubre was a passionate advocate for the potential communal richness of the New Urbanist neighborhood, and began planning his first New Urbanism project in Lafayette at River Ranch on Camellia Boulevard.

“The richness of New Urbanism, also known as a Neo-Traditional Community, is that because you have mixed use of buildings – residential, commercial, retail, civic, religious, private - people can live and work in place within a five minute walking distance," says Oubre. "It allows for young people, retired people, and all segments of the economic ladder to live, work, raise children and retire in place. The average citizen has his daily needs met within a five-minute walk. The neighborhood is designed around environmental sensitivity with open land, green spaces, recreation, with an assemblage of building styles and sizes – a cross section of society can all live within that community. River Ranch is the first New Urbanist project in Louisiana.”

In order to design the River Ranch community using New Urbanist principles Oubre had to convince the Lafayette City Council and Planning Commission to waive 119 zoning and building codes. According to Oubre, “As zoning rules exist today, they do not allow River Ranch to be built.”

Fortunately, Oubre’s presentations were successful in convincing the City Council and Planning Commission to allow his New Urbanist project to proceed. Today Architects Southwest is now building eleven more New Urbanist neighborhoods throughout the south.

Lenny Lemoine, a commercial building contractor with The Lemoine Company here in Lafayette believes Oubre has an extraordinary talent and passion for architecture. “Steve is one of the most talented and innovative people. He has a tremendous work ethic. He’s committed to the community with a strong commitment to responsible design. Steve had such a passion for the New Urbanist project at River Ranch, he did a masterful job of getting local government to trust him.”

As an integral member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Oubre’s firm is tasked with the responsibility of implementing the recovery community plans that his firm helped to design along with his two New Urbanist partners Peter Calthorpe Associates of San Francisco, and Duaney Plater-Zyberk of Miami.

According to Oubre their recovery project efforts are going well. “We have completed the replanning of Lake Charles, Vermillion Parish and St. Bernard Parish. Our focus for the next year is to serve as the local firm responsible to implement these plans that we have generated for these communities, which is phenomenal. It’s a tremendous responsibility and a tremendous honor to be involved in that.”

Architects Southwest has also designed and/or remodeled some of Acadiana’s most prominent cultural, historic, and corporate sites such as the Lafayette Natural History Museum, Dupre Library at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, St. Edwards Roman Catholic Church, Home Bank, and Vermilionville, an historic theme park designed to highlight the evolving styles of early Acadian buildings. Oubre’s innovative design for the park showcases the evolving styles of Acadian homes from 1765 to 1870.

“Vermilionville is an historic theme park on 20 acres,” says Oubre. “The Acadians never lived in a town. They had one house, a farm, no formalized village until later. The park’s design is a narrative of Acadian houses as they would nave evolved every ten years, and would not have evolved in a village, but independently on large tracks of property. So when you get to the very rear of Vermilionville, the Al Broussard house is the 1765 house, and as you come forward roughly every ten years the houses have evolved and become more sophisticated. And it culminates at the very front with the overseer’s house, which would have been built in 1870. The park is a comparative analysis of architectural styles.”

President of Home Bank in Lafayette, John Bordelon, is a long-time friend of Oubre and had this to say about his duck hunting and fishing partner’s personality. “He’s amazing,” says Bordelon. “Steve’s juggling so many projects right now, and still has time for his friends. He’s a super guy, and a great sportsman. We do a lot of duck and goose hunting and fishing together. When we were designing this Home Bank building Steve would bring pictures of historic buildings from all parts of the world during each phase of the project to help us understand what we wanted to do. He’s very knowledgeable. When the project was completed he gave me two framed pictures of famous buildings for my office and said these buildings remind me of you. One picture is the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the other is the Pantheon in Rome. I was thrilled he would take the time to do that. He’s really a wonderful person.”

The Dream of Eddy Knight: A high tech corporate headquarters built for valued employees

In 1982, the founder and owner of Knight Oil Tools, Edward R. “Eddy” Knight, dreamed of building his company’s corporate office on the very spot where it exists today. But unfortunately Eddy Knight died in November of 2002, four years before his vision was completed in March of 2006.

During the years of construction, Knight’s oldest son Mark was determined to fulfill his father’s dream to build a beautiful corporate office with a high tech image, designed for the comfort and safety of Knight Oil Tools’ loyal, hard working employees.

Located at 2727 SE Evangeline Throughway in Lafayette, Louisiana, the recently completed $18 million, 95,000 square foot Corporate Headquarters of Knight Oil Tools is a unique south Louisiana landmark which was built on the exact spot Eddy Knight envisioned over thirty years ago.

“Our corporate office building sits exactly where is was designed to be back in the early 1980’s,” says Mark Knight, President of Knight Oil Tools, the largest independently owned rental oil tools company in the world with 17 facilities in 5 states.

“When we started the process of designing this building back in 1982,” says Knight, “our main office was our smallest building. My dad said it’s time to do something for our people in Lafayette. Knight Oil Tools is a family run business. Our biggest asset is our people. We want to attract and keep quality people.”

And visitors to the new Knight Oil Tools corporate office building will tell you this structure is one of a kind; a comfortable combination of high tech image inspired by a desire to reward Knight Oil Tools employees for their hard work.

A High Tech Corporate Image

According to Donald J. Breaux, Lafayette architect and Knight Oil Tools building designer, this is truly a one of a kind corporate office building.

“This building is their corporate headquarters so they wanted to emphasize their corporate high tech image, using contemporary, modern materials. Since their corporate colors are blue and gray we used blue-tinted double-insulated glass windows, and steel coated insulated panel on the exterior façade for the color gray. At the warehouse and enclosed courtyard wall we used a pre-cast concrete wall system held together by bolts and metal plates to create a slick and clean, high tech corporate image. This building is contemporary architecture using the building materials of our time - glass, concrete, and metal panels. Precision cut materials.”

Breaux’s architectural design for the Knight Oil Tools building has recently been recognized for its extraordinary beauty by The Independent Weekly’s 2006 INDesign Award, by awarding him with a gold medal for commercial architecture in late March of 2006.

One of the main reasons the new Knight Oil Tools building is built where it stands today is because of three irreplaceable huge trees that Eddy Knight loved. When reminiscing about the history of their corporate office, Knight says it was his father’s desire to preserve two large oak trees and a magnolia tree on the building’s property that guided the overall design of their corporate headquarters.

“The design of the building is built around the oak and magnolia trees in the courtyard. Those trees were so important to my dad. The two oaks are registered oak trees. During construction we had a full-time arborist on staff to make sure that those trees were taken care of, because I felt that if something happened to those trees lightening would strike me.”

Breaux says he was also well aware of the sentimental value Eddy Knight had for his three trees.

“Eddy romanced those trees because they’re so old. In the courtyard there are two oaks and one magnolia tree. The oaks are 250 years old and one is 15 feet in diameter, some of the oldest trees in Louisiana. If we would have messed up any of those trees I think Eddy would have haunted us. Those were his trees.”

During the past four years while the Knight Oil Tools headquarters was being constructed the oil rental tool business has been very prosperous. So prosperous that the original building plans had to be altered during construction to accommodate a rapidly growing staff. The original building plans called for the construction of an empty third floor - the top floor - that could be filled with offices as the company grew.

“People ask me why the executive offices are not on the top floor,” says Knight. “My answer is, four years ago when we first started the process of redesigning the building with Don Breaux, the third floor was just a shell, unoccupied. We weren’t a big enough company to fill up three floors of offices with employees. We were a small company. And in the last four years, from the drawing of the building to the end of the process, we are now able to fill up the entire building with personnel, and new construction is starting tomorrow.”

The interior office space of Knight’s corporate office is a smooth blend of granite, dark gray slate and custom colored carpets, employee chosen office furniture, recreation rooms with televisions and microwave ovens, highly ventilated designated smoking areas, lounge areas with lockers and bathrooms for 12 hour shift employees, and office lights that dim or rise when you leave or enter.

Knight says before construction began on their new facility there was pressure to relocate to Houston, Texas. But the Knight family resisted the pressure.

“We chose Lafayette because what Lafayette brings to our business – which we cannot find in any other of our locations – is the quality of people; their workmanship, attitude, their friendliness and work ethic. It’s hard to get any of our people to leave this community to work at one of our other offices,” according to Knight.

Breaux says he knows how important Knight’s employees are to the success of their business. “Employees at Knight Oil Tools are treated with respect,” says Breaux. “And this building says that.”

The Wind Sculpture

Internationally renowned New Orleans sculptor, Lin Emery, was commissioned to create a unique piece of kinetic sculpture to highlight the high tech corporate image of the building. “Lin Emery spent five hours here one afternoon photographing our equipment. The sculpture is her rendition of our business. All five independent pieces of her sculpture are moved by the wind. I was very excited when I first saw the finished piece,” according to Knight.

When Emery recalls her visit to Knight Oil Tools she says, “Behind their building there were lots of machine parts used for the oilfield. Really marvelous shapes; bent pipes and circular gears with a hole in the center. I have never used a circular shape with a hole in the center before. I was so taken with those man-made shapes, two years ago I started a series of sculpture related to open circular shapes, support forms and curved pipes.”

Emery says she hopes someone at Knight will give her kinetic sculpture a name. When asked if she thought her unique Knight Oil Tools piece is destined to become a Lafayette icon printed on postcards from Acadiana, Emery replies in appreciation, “Oh, I hope so. Thank you so much.”

The Boardroom

Like Emery’s sculpture, the Knight Oil Tools boardroom is also quite unique. According to Breaux, “Eddy said to me ‘we need a board room in the form of the Knights of the Round Table.’ So the idea of the Knights of the Round Table generated that form.”

Today their boardroom is indeed round, with a round dome roof, and in the center of the room sits a massive blue and gray 7000 pound round granite and marble table that is surrounded by 12 cozy chairs for each of the company’s top executives. Their boardroom table is 20 feet across in diameter, and required the assistance of a crane to lift each of the table’s seven pieces up to Knight’s executive office window where they were then maneuvered though the executive floor hallway and assembled at their final resting spot.

The centerpiece of their round table is an image of the Knight Oil Tools logo. And underneath the table are electrical outlets for each executive to plug-in their laptop computers. With three televisions placed around the room each executive can watch live feeds broadcast from any one of Knight’s 16 other locations.

Also, the boardroom is soundproof. “The acoustics in that room are perfect,” says Breaux, “you can speak at a very low volume and be heard perfectly throughout the room.”

The Entertainment Room and Training Facility

The Knight Oil Tools entertainment room seats 150 celebrants who can have a drink at the bar and order meals cooked in the commercial business-sized kitchen. Knight says, “We welcome other companies to use our Entertainment Room.”

Their training facility is a large room located in the main building that can seat as many as 50 employees, and was built to offer continuing education for the Knight Oil Tools staff. The classroom is also being made available to oil field related companies for continuing industry education.

The Warehouse and Control Room

The Knight Oil Tools second-story Control Room is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week monitoring facility operations and activities in all 17 locations using 16 television monitors that can access 63 cameras. This way Knight Oil Tools services can remain open 365 days a year and maintain tight security and safety for their employees.

All year-round, Knight Oil Tools provides specialized drilling equipment to oil drilling companies worldwide that request precise equipment specifications. Today, Knight’s employees can receive, clean, paint, test, repair and transport their specialized oil tools in a safe and ergonomically efficient environment in a building space that is 300 feet long and 150 wide, with a height of 45 feet.

This is a huge warehouse facility that allows two eighteen-wheel trucks to load or unload side by side with room to spare as they travel through the center of the building. Thirty-ton overhead cranes are used to pick up 30,000 pound pieces of oil field rental equipment and set them down gently for maintenance. The worktables are ergonomically designed to relieve employee back and muscle stress.

The open-air paint room is designed to suck up spray paint fumes through a set of pipes located underneath the floor, which will keep hazardous fumes away from painters.

And there are tall weaved steel cages built to protect employees from an equipment blowout that might occur while testing a rental tool by simulating offshore rig condition blowouts that can send metal flying at a rate of speed as high as 50,000 lbs per square inch.

“The warehouse was designed by our people,” says Knight. “Four years ago I sat down with my guys and we designed our warehouse facility. I told them ‘we’re having a meeting tomorrow morning so take off your work boots and plan to stay a while.’ I think they all expected we were going to fire them. But that wasn’t the case. We sat down together for eight hours and came up with a design for our warehouse facility.”

While taking an extended tour of the new Knight Oil Tools corporate headquarters the experience gives an outsider the feeling that this dynamic, high tech structure was designed by company owners who want their employees to enjoy working there.