The fourth installment of a series about the launch of a local coffee shop and roastery. Read all of the From the Ground Up stories
For Compass Coffee's architects, research for the design of the eventual coffee shop's Seventh Street NW space was hardly a chore. Brie Husted and George Wabuge of Brie Husted Architecture took a trip to Brooklyn with Compass owners Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez, where they spent a few days sampling coffee at New York roasteries.
But that made for one drawback -- or benefit, depending on how you look at it: "Now we can't drink cheap coffee," Husted said.
So Haft and Suarez bring theirs, freshly roasted, to most of the meetings they have with their architects. While they reviewed blueprints with Husted in one meeting, Haft removed a coffee apparatus from a travel case and began grinding coffee -- a custom blend from Ethiopia and Brazil -- with a hand crank.
"We have a few minutes left on this French press," Suarez said. "We like to start our meetings with coffee."
'Back and forth, give and take'
Haft and Suarez felt Husted's firm, with a portfolio that includes Mockingbird Hill, El Centro D.F. and Domku, would be the right choice to transform a former laundromat into a coffee shop. As project architect, Wabuge was assigned to manage the day-to-day work, such as dealing with contractors and securing permits.
Haft and Suarez wanted a place that would engender a sense of community. They also wanted the architecture to highlight the custom-built Loring coffee roaster, not only to educate guests about the coffee roasting process, but also because it is a beautiful piece of machinery.
Once Husted and Wabuge had a sense of Compass's style, and the building's official measurements had been recorded, they began designing a space that would be many things at once: educational, functional, inviting, warm and, most importantly to its owners, authentic.
Husted started with about 10 options before settling on two or three. The designs have evolved incrementally, but not drastically: The barista counter was moved from the left to the right, so customers can interact with staff as soon as they walk in the door; the seating area has gotten smaller; and the storage area/coffee production space has gotten larger. Once the plans reached 80 percent completion, they were submitted for permits; finishing details, added later, brought 100 percent completion at the end of March.
The final blueprint is 42 pages.
Husted and Wabuge's design for Compass Coffee puts the coffee bar at an angle, making it easy for customers to view the menu and queue up. The design of the bar puts the coffee machinery first and foremost -- it won't be hidden in the back like you might see at a Starbucks. A brick wall from the building's original early-1900s construction will be exposed, and a room enclosed in a cube of glass and steel, fabricated by the local company Square Form, will contain the roaster. Toward the back of the building, there will be a tasting room for hosting special events, a storage and production room, a prep kitchen, restrooms and offices.
Every element of the cafe, from the lighting to the materials and finishes, is selected and placed to draw attention to the roaster and coffee-making equipment.
"In terms of the roasting, we had a choice to make it a hidden process or a process that was open and able to be seen," Husted said. "I think that's one aspect (where) the design of the space guides the understanding of the concept."
Drawing to code
Though computer-aided design is part of the architectural process, "I think people don't realize the extent to which we have to draw to make the project successful," Husted said.
The drawing process is informed by several factors. First, Husted and Wabuge have to make sure everything conforms to D.C. codes: fire, electrical, plumbing, the Americans with Disabilities Act, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and more. Even the coffee bar's lighting is guided by codes.
"The problem is sometimes that the way you interpret the code is not the way the reviewer will interpret the code," Wabuge, the project architect, said. "There's always a back and forth, a give and take."
They make sure to have redundancies of elements that commonly cause buildings to fail an inspection: Extra floor outlets, extra exits, extra sinks (D.C. is very big on hand sinks: "You always have to make sure there are more hand sinks than you'll actually use," Husted said). It is cheaper to add these elements when the building is still in the planning phases, rather than having to fit them in after construction has begun.
That's not the only part of the process that involves a lot of back and forth. The design itself involved a lot of give and take from architect and client.
"[Brie] pushes us on stuff," Haft said. "We had certain ideas, and she was like, 'No.'"
"We also had to come around to a couple of things," Husted said. "We had not had some of the angles in the bar (in early designs), and they really pushed for it."
Budget is a factor that caused both parties to compromise. Though Haft and Suarez declined to comment on the project's budget, they and the architects say they have stayed within it, which meant eliminating beloved design fixtures to save money. The team considered building several large skylights, but Haft and Suarez decided it wasn't worth the $100,000 investment for a building they do not own, so now there are only two. "We're not spending Twitter money here," Suarez said.
Thousands of small decisions go into a restaurant's final design.
"I think that visuals give social cues," Husted said. The design's overall message is that Compass takes coffee seriously, and presents it simply. It's subtly conveyed by the finishings on the walls and ceiling, the lighting and the furniture placement.
"That's why we went with white walls," Wabuge said. "It makes (coffee) the main activity, and nothing else takes away from it."
But the showcased coffee equipment is expensive. The Loring roaster, "The Tesla of roasters," as Suarez put it, cost $129,000. The four Modbar espresso machines, of which Compass is an early adopter, cost $31,500. Haft said the machines are Compass's largest expenditure, which forced them to cut costs from other parts of the project to stay within budget. Through Husted and Wabuge's help, they've found a way to use cheap, quality materials in an eye-catching way, such as placing tile in a herringbone pattern, instead of laying it straight.
It's all about "simple gestures that are unique, but not expensive to construct," Wabuge said. "The lighting and the materials, everything was picked out with that in mind. Everything still works together, and it doesn't look cheap."
In addition to engineering, interior design, regulatory code and coffee roasting, Wabuge and Husted needed to become experts in one additional field to help them in designing Compass.
"You also become a psychologist," Wabuge said. "You may not necessarily know it, but if you walk into a space that's 10 feet tall versus eight feet, you're going to feel differently . . . Where you put a table, where you put a low ceiling, all of those things are felt."