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A Minneapolis Optician’s Shop Gets Architectural Eyewear

Challenged by signage code and landscaping, Alchemy Architects used greenhouse polycarbonate to give a 19th-century facade a transparent frame.

The mission of Specs, a downtown Minneapolis optician, is to “make eyewear fun.” The shop’s so-called “visionaries” travel the world curating collections of unusual frames, attracting devoted four-eyes from across the state.

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Specs’ red brick shop, in the turn-of-the-century Minneapolis neighborhood known as Uptown, attracts a lot of walk-in traffic too. So a few years back, the owners decided to put up some signage targeting pedestrians. They found themselves blocked in, literally by city-maintained landscaping, and figuratively by anti-signage code aimed at preserving the heritage of Uptown. They turned to local designers Alchemy Architects to puzzle out an alternative.

Alchemy makes the WeeHouse, a small prefabricated home that partners Geoffrey Warner and Scott Ervin customize on a case-by-case basis with reclaimed industrial materials and warm interior details. They’ve sold dozens of the homes, which start at $79,000, to young homeowners all over the midwest. The partners describe their approach as “tightwad panache.”

Looking at the spare red facade of the Specs shop, Warner and Ervin made the simplest of all observations: like some human faces, it was begging for a pair of weird glasses. They conceptualized a plan that would attach a lightweight frame to the brick, highlighting the window details without completely obscuring the facade. They modeled a faceted skin in 3D, then unfolded the model as you would a dress pattern, cutting the flattened shapes from 5/8″ thick greenhouse polycarbonate.

By perforating flat pieces of inexpensive polycarbonate, they were able to simply fold the facets using industrial tools, not unlike bigger, stronger origami. Rather than bolting together dozens of separate pieces with hardware, they were able to fabricate complex shapes cheaply. The same method was used to built the aluminum planters on the ground floor of the storefront. The final skin juts out from the building, glimmering redly in daytime and lighting up with LED optics at night.

The project cinched an American Institute of Architects Small Projects Award in May.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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