Post Industrial Appalachia


Founded in the 1870’s with the construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, the town of Nuttallburg, West Virginia is located along the banks on the New River Gorge National River in Fayette Country.  Built to support the mine at the top of the ridge, the town was on of 50 established along the river, producing “smokeless coal” shipped by rail to rest of the country. What was once a bustling urban center, home to hundreds of workers and their families and a major piece of Henry Ford’s concept of vertical integration is now a ruin of its once industrial past, slowly reclaimed by nature and forgotten deep in Appalachia since 1958 as the market smokeless coal collapsed.  Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and stabilized by the National Park Service, the site is now one of the most intact coal related industrial sites in the United States.

One of the major challenges in contemporary Architecture today is integration of past industrial ruins within urban and rural landscapes, leftovers from industrial relocation. They are on one hand a valued remnant of a once failed era of waste and environmental degradation while on the other are an incredible material and repository of structural tectonics.

“These features and the fact of being connected by a dense transportation network, sometimes also in ruins, make these buildings become the leading candidates to catalyze the regeneration of urban, suburban and rural postindustrial areas”.

Ed Ford and Luis Pancorbo

The project, located along the former rail spur at the base of the site is a new interpretive and educational facility.  Coal, once collected from the top of the mountain was transported to the former rail yard by a conveyer system, terminating at the bottom of the town.  Using the architectural detail as the major driver of the building tectonics, the intervention consists of a series of heavy timber trusses cantilevered out over the river from supported by steel support towers.  Inserted into this system, a series of cross-laminated timber modules form programmatic blocks while a bar of services containing mechanical and storage spaces forms the spine of the project embedded into the hillside. In section, the truss seeks to minimize impact on the existing land, while keeping most of the program on grade with the parking area to preserve accessibility throughout the lower site. The support towers also act as the structural base for a new overhead crane, which is used to offload the assembly modules from the existing freight railroad, allowing the project to construct and deconstruct itself over time injecting a sense of temporality into the design.  By preserving the original rail spur leading to the historic tipple structure and utilizing its presence as as a design opportunity, a new series dynamic relationship between the proposed and existing structural interventions on the site are formed.  As a result, Post Industrial Appalachia forms a newfound condition between the former town and the river, negotiating the steep terrain and existing infrastructural pieces of the site to create a radical yet responsible intervention into the town’s fabric.


What prompted the project?

The overall brief of the studio was to design a new interpretive center in the former mining town of Nuttallburg West Virginia. Using the context of the town and mining ruins as a library of architectural details, projects were developed as a series of joint studies, developing into a structural system at first devoid from the site, which can be aggregated into a larger form.  Two simultaneous investigations were undertaken early on in the design process.  One was the development of a pragmatic response to the site and its infrastructural ruins while the second consisted of developing a system of structural joins to aggregate into an architectural form.  The structural integration was a key determinant in the project, allowing it to coexist within the historical context while readapting the site for future generations.

“The studio was not about “developing” a design. It was not about “detailing” a concept. It was not about carrying the larger of ideas of the building into the small. It was rather about the simultaneous pursuit of a design from both of its scalar ends, about beginning with both the large and the small, about working from the material to the form and the form to the material, about starting simultaneously with a detail and a concept. It was a process in which the inner life of materials, the varying levels of craftsmanship and the structural nature of the building were not considerations but determinants.”

“People react to beautiful sites in different ways, some want to make as minimal a disturbance as possible, others blow a hole in the mountain”.

-as extracted from Professors Ed Ford and Luis Pancorbo’s brief

How important was the sketch and subsequent drawing as mediums through which to test, discuss and develop the conversation and project?

The initial sectional sketch drawn during an informal deskrit was the catalyst for which the project was launched.  It created a series of steps to follow, from the positioning of the program along the river’s edge, to the constraints and opportunities afforded from the incredible topographic conditions and active infrastructures still present on the site. Due to the piece of the site chosen along the rivers edge and the desire to create a new connection between the river and the former town, the structural system of a truss pinned to the site at one end and cantilevered over the water on the other became the driving design. By using a truss, the project remains very simple in it’s massing, relying solely on the horizontal bar, the support tower and the physical connection of one end to the site.  This creates a minimal disruption in terms of site work, which would be prohibitively expensive on a remote site like this.  The use of small basswood joint porotypes was used to develop this system both structurally and aesthetically.  As the design progressed, the larger structural model was built in stages to refine the system and proportions and became a fully realized as an aggregated system during final production.  Most of the design work was developed through the plan and section drawings, which were supplemented by the physical and virtual model during the later stages of production.

How and to what extent did the initial found drawings of the two effect your approach to the representation of the project?

The graphical approach to the project was derived from the original technical plans and drawings of the mining equipment from the site.  The simplicity of the technical line work was captivating in the way it is able to express a high level of detail in a minimalistic graphic experience.  As a result, the plans, sections, elevations and axonometric drawings of the project were drafted in this language while the renderings were designed to capture the richness of the site in both it’s natural and constructed features, the human experience and the materialistic qualities of the place.

What is your take on colour? What defined it’s inclusion or exclusion within the images, technical drawings and models?

One of the major goals of renderings was to capture the materiality of the project.  Since being abandoned in the 1950’s when mining operations ceased, an amazing material palette of decay has emerged as the town has been reclaimed by the natural elements in the gorge.  The exterior skin of each building is meant to blur the line between indoors and outdoors, creating layered spaces between each building assembly, protected from the weather conditions of the gorge.  This was formed through the use of standardized material assemblies, such as floor grating to create a protective yet transparent facade system. The use of color in the physical models was meant to reinforce structural materials.  Since the project utilizes weathering steel, these components were painted orange, while timber components were left as the natural basswood.

The composition of each of the views was designed to convey two very different aspects of the project. The colors in the waterfront image are intentionally subdued and washed out, playing off the meteorological conditions and the shear turbidity of the rapids. From the towering topography in the background to the class 5 rapids in the river, an incredibly rich and dynamic environment exists which was critical for the project to respond to.  The rendering along the rail bed was given a lighter tone, emphasizing the connection of the project to the tipple structure at the base of the conveyer and how this serves as a new entrance to the rest of the site, invigorating life into this ‘urban’ site.  It was critical for materials of the project to experience their own form of decay, visually tying the proposed intervention with the existing structural elements of the site.

What was your work process in terms of tools and software used?

As stated before, the first month of the semester was spent creating small basswood study models of various structural joint prototypes, which eventually morphed into the larger model and site models.  Most of the drawings were actually drafted in Rhinoceros 5.0, which allowed them to be seamlessly integrated into the development of the virtual model, which was paired with the Grasshopper Plug in to generate the virtual topography.  For the renderings, the completed virtual model was rendered with all material textures already applied through Vray.  The final compositing was done in Photoshop to all of the natural elements, such as the rapids and entourage, and the materials given a gritty overlay to bring out the textural qualities of the project.

If you had to present the project through one image what would this be?

The waterfront rendering is usually the main image associated with this project however the axonometric clay rendering is what captures so many elements of the design in one image.  The creation of this image was actually not originally part of my plan but I wanted to create an image that captured the relationship of the project to its existing conditions.  By stripping the model of all its materials the existing and proposed interventions read as one element, from the trusses relationship with the topography due to the active railroad below to the embedding of infrastructure bar into the landscape, preserving the former rail bed leading up to the historic tipple structure.


Andrew Shea is an architectural designer at designLAB Architects in Boston.  He holds a B.Arch from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia School of Architecture M.Arch program.