Friday, January 07, 2011

Prajna Design & Construction - the Wizards of Preservation & Innovation


For nearly 30 years a handful of architects and builders from the University of Kentucky have been pioneering work in the environmental and recycling fields, since long before the days of Al Gore and those trying to capitalize on the hard work and tireless dedication of people like the Prajna gang.

In fact not since my days working on environmental projects from Keep America Beautiful in 1967 to designing solar energy systems built by PPG, Phillips, Goodyear and Dow Chemical in 1976-78 have I seen such persistent dedication to the cause of our future as evidenced by these characters from Kentucky.

Most people would never have occasion to meet them were it not for the Internet as they represent many of the gems of America, those who do their thing to help make people safer and happier while never seeking the fortune and fame of their more ego driven associates.

Garry "Rasta Man" Murphy on right
A more unlikely cast of futurists and "green" pioneers you will never find. Led by the "Rasta" man Garry Murphy, a Kentucky native who toured the world (at least Europe) while a student hitchhiking to places I would never go. Then foregoing offers from design companies to pursue the American dream, working for yourself in order to live up to your own standards and principles.

Murphy, Irish with a twist of the Caribbean including the dreadlocks, is the most laid back designer and builder you will ever meet. I first met him when I learned he was going to marry my sister in the Bahamas and I went to the wedding. Was that an eye opener.

Later, back in Kentucky where his Prajna business was located, Garry blew every stereotype of a Kentuckian away. Maybe it was because he was trying to be green years before it became popular? It was certainly the Irish part. However, dreadlocks on an Irishman was not what my Irish Grandfather ever mentioned.

Perhaps it was his fascination with history, philosophy and ancient cultures. His circle of friends seemed to include everyone from horse racing kingpins to oddball artists. Murphy never met a person he would not try and help. Still, I was stuck with him as a brother in law because my sister married him and it was one of the best decisions she ever made.

Garry is one of those rare souls who loves challenge, loves saving the environment, and believes we should all be able to live in harmony. Well maybe everyone except the teams playing against his beloved UK basketball ad football teams. He is not radical, does not expect everyone to agree, and is tolerant of anyone with opposing opinions. He really should be in politics.

The following story about Garry Murphy and Prajna appeared recently in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald Leader newspaper. No better tribute from a truly independent source could sing the praises of Prajna and Murphy. I have seen work by this most unusual group everywhere from million dollar apartments in NYC overlooking Central Park to the Bahamas to the Kentucky backwoods and those of you in need of renovation or new construction would do well to check out these Wizards of Preservation and Innovation at their website, and be green.

From bus shelters to visitors' centers, Prajna builds environmentally friendly

By Andy Mead at 12:00am on Dec 27, 2010 — Modified at 3:49am on Dec 27, 2010

Prajna Design & Construction was responsible for much of the the interior and exterior woodworking on the Bernheim Visitor Center, which won a national award for its environmental impact. The company used recycled fir and cypress lumber from pickle vats for the exterior trim and siding. About 14 species of native lumber was used for the interior wall paneling, and various species of lumber reclaimed from a demolished Jim Beam barrel house was used for the interior trim. MARY MURPHY/ PRAJNA DESIGN & CONSTRUCTION INC.

TROY — David Whittmer interviewed at two architecture firms as he was finishing his degree at the University of Kentucky.

The process showed him that he didn't want to work in an office.

"I just like building," he said. "And I didn't want to get old and fat and wear a tie."

Instead, he and business partner Garry Murphy live a tieless existence, running a successful design-and-build company out of a 19th-century grist mill in a corner of Woodford County.

The problem with the way architects usually work, Whittmer said, is that they design something and hand it over to someone else to build, minimizing their interaction with both the client and the finished product.
 Eschewing that route, he and Murphy, along with Martin Richards and John Yadack, formed a company called Prajna Workwerks soon after graduating in the early 1980s.

Prajna is a Sanskrit word meaning intuition. The "werks" spelling suggested German craftsmanship. The group also adopted a Japanese symbol that has various interpretations, including "master carpenter."

Yadack died in a car crash in the late 1980s. Richards retired. The company evolved into Prajna Design & Construction, which more accurately reflects what it does.

Murphy and Whittmer, now in their early 50s, have completed hundreds of projects in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, New York, Florida and the Bahamas.

Their largest job was the woodwork in the visitor center at Bernheim Arboretum and Forest in Bullitt County, the first building in Kentucky to receive a platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certificate from the U.S. Green Building Council.

One of the smallest jobs is Gardenstop, the bus shelter on Euclid Avenue in Lexington that was dedicated this fall. Like the Bernheim building, it is environmentally friendly to the point of having plants growing on its roof.

Murphy and Whittmer are often called on to do a woodwork portion of a larger building or renovation, such as the timbers in the entry to Gray Construction's headquarters on East Main Street (as well as work on such Gray projects as the Bernheim visitor center and remodeling work on houses belonging to members of the Gray family). They also worked on the interior of Tomo Restaurant in Chevy Chase.

They have built six or seven houses from design to finish.

In northern Franklin County, they tore down an 1850s tobacco barn and built a house for Hanna Helm, a retired state employee.

The house was finished in the fall of 2009. In talking about it, Whittmer and Murphy can speak in detail about the fine oak, ash, beech and old-growth poplar that was in the old barn.

Helm, who boasts that "I live in a work of art," noted that the company also did the stone work that is an important part of the house.

She chose Prajna to design and build her dream house because it had earlier built a house for friends of hers.

"They were the only people I knew who were still friends with their contractor after the house was built," Helm said. "There were no contractor horror stories."

Murphy and Whittmer pride themselves on their relationships with clients, all of whom are invited to an annual Fourth of July party at the mill.

They also take obvious pride in their level of workmanship, and in reusing wood that in many cases already has had a long, full life.

Much of the interior of the Bernheim visitor's center, for example, came from old cypress pickle barrels that had been in a Heinz factory in Ohio.

The wood used in the Gardenstop bus shelter came from a variety of sources, including the Morton's Row buildings on Upper Street that were demolished for the stalled CentrePointe project.

The idea for Gardenstop was to make an environmentally friendly shelter that would draw the eye away from the towering new power poles that were erected to supply UK, said Yvette Hurt, who is with the Art in Motion series of shelters.

When a panel of judges were put together to consider the dozen and a half proposals for Gardenstop, Prajna was a unanimous choice.

"They just totally, totally understood the concept and then took it even further than we could imagine," Hurt said.

Friends of Murphy and Whittmer have pointed out they were green long before green was cool.

"We have a reputation for using old wood because we've always done that," Murphy said. Early on, the decision might have been for "economical reasons because we could get it cheap."

They also were pioneers in talking about things such as designing a building to fit its surroundings and using passive solar energy.

Prajna has kept ties with UK's architecture school over the years, doing jobs for some of the professors and occasionally conducting workshops.

Every few years, someone will graduate from the school who, like Whittmer and Murphy, don't want to follow the standard architect's path. They often find their way to Prajna, which usually has a crew of three to six people. They make up a new generation that suggests Prajna's efforts will continue for many years to come.

One of the more recent arrivals, Jay Moorhead, started working there a week or two after graduating in 2005.

"I love it," he said. "One of the best things about the job is the relationship with clients. It's not just a business; we're making friends."

Murphy and Whittmer brought electricity years ago to the rambling old mill that houses Prajna.

Most of the building is a large wood shop. They have created a small heated area that is used as an office and a place to store chemicals that could freeze.

There's a computer used for job-cost estimates, but it is not connected to the Internet.

Architects today use computers for their designs, but Murphy and Whittmer still make small-scale models when the mood strikes them. Murphy describes their work as "designosaurs."

Other than going too long without health insurance and waiting too long to begin saving for retirement, they have no regrets about the career paths they chose.

On a recent rainy day, Whittmer was explaining to a reporter that the floors of the mill aren't even, and that has to be taken into account when building something.

"On the other hand," Murphy said, "there are days when you hear the rain and the creek's running and you look out the window ..."

Whittmer finished his thought, "And there's no place better to work."

Read more about Prajna Design & Construction at

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