Of all the compliments Brian Johnson has received during his years as an architect, nothing quite compares to a short, handwritten note from an Alaskan.
A maintenance worker found the note taped to the front door of a Montana Department of Transportation rest area near Conrad.
“I have never seen a public rest area as nice as this one,” the note began. “I really appreciated being able to use it. Thank you, very much.”
Other travelers were similarly enthusiastic. An MDT newsletter said one visitor described it as “the best rest stop in 9,000 miles,” while another wrote in to say, “Beautiful rest stop! Way to go, Montana.”
Johnson, with Collaborative Design Architects in Billings, has been complimented by local officials and the Department of Transportation, but he was especially pleased to hear from the traveling public.
“That means more to me than anything. It means we did our job,” he said.
Johnson shared credit for the rest area with John Pavsek, an engineer with Morrison-Maierle, and Scott Wright of Swank Enterprises, the contractor on the project.
Collaborative Design Architects, Morrison-Maierle and Swank Enterprises put together a joint design-build proposal and won the Conrad contract in competitive bidding.
The 10-acre rest area at Conrad, on Interstate 15 between Great Falls and Shelby, opened to the public last December. It is one of four new rest areas built in Montana in recent years. The others are at Harlowton, Lima and in Lewis and Clark County. Johnson and his team worked only on the Conrad facility.
Chris Dorrington, chief of the MDT’s Data and Statistics Bureau, said the department adopted a “rest area prioritization plan” in 2008 and set aside money to begin replacing deteriorated rest areas.
Two additional structures are being built this summer and four more should be built in the next three to four years, Dorrington said. The cost will be $3.5 million to $4 million for rest areas that serve both sides of the road, like the one at Conrad, and $5 million for separated rest areas, like the pair now under construction on Interstate 90 near Greycliff.
The new rest areas are designed to last at least 40 years and are built large enough to accommodate growth.
“The traveling public has responded incredibly well to our rest area investment,” Dorrington said.
At the dedication of the rest area in Conrad, Mick Johnson, the District 3 administrator for the MDT, said the new facility was “incomparable among rest areas in Montana and maybe among the best in the U.S.” He was quoted in a news release issued at the time by Morrison-Maierle.
Johnson described the Conrad rest area as “kind of a beacon” on the prairie, a bright, secure haven that welcomes visitors. Like many Collaborative Design Architects projects, Johnson said, it emphasizes a look they call “Eastern Montana modern,” incorporating flat, horizontal planes and suggestions of silos, barns and sheds.
“Rest areas to me are an important part of the contextual environment,” Johnson said. “They really should respond to the setting.”
The rest area was also designed for maximum energy efficiency, with a heat recovery ventilator, in-floor heat and large walls of glass that limit the need for artificial light and heat.
The building was also designed to create a sense of safety and security and offers free Wi-Fi. Most important, it’s been a hit with the public.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a project that gives me quite this level of pride,” Johnson said.