A discussion of modern design from the Northwest. This blog is really about architecture, but they deserve a mention as one of my favorites. The projects and ideas they share are stunningly artistic and wonderfully designed. If you are into modern architecture, check them out.
It’s been a decade since we launched our original Residential Construction Cost Cheat-Sheet and since then it continues to be one of the most searched and read posts in the history of the BUILD blog. We originally developed the cheat-sheet after seeing many shifting and shifty budget conversations. Subsequently, we decided to take the topic of construction costs head-on. Since the Cheat Sheet’s introduction, we’ve been having ever-more informed conversations about construction costs with current and potential clients. Escalating construction costs and protracted permitting timelines amongst most building departments in the Pacific Northwest have made the Cheat-Sheet more useful than ever. As an architecture firm with both feet on the ground, discussing the finances of design and construction couldn’t be more important. The goal was both simple and far-reaching. We wanted to create a straightforward baseline for discussing project costs (simple) and one that our industry could start using to help compare apples to apples (far-reaching).
We released The Residential Construction Cost Cheat-Sheet 2.0 in 2014 during a booming economy that has continued into the present. A roaring economy has its own challenges, though, and the sharp acceleration in construction costs has surprised many architects, builders, and homeowners in the Pacific Northwest.
Now in 2019, we are sensing a slowing market, significant economic challenges, and political turmoil. Further, we are deeply mired in an affordable housing crisis in cities like Seattle, along with permitting challenges that are nearly paralyzing. It’s a minefield of issues for the design and construction industry to navigate with each factor pushing and pulling regional construction costs.
We believe that housing will continue to be created and groups like BUILD LLC, with our 20 years of experience as a firm, can guide that process to continue to have happy clients. We have always maintained that this is best accomplished by being candid from the initial conversation all the way through the process to get the final result. With all that said, it’s timely to update our numbers and so we’re unveiling the 2019 Residential Construction Budget Cheat Sheet.
It’s worth breaking things down further to better understand why we’re seeing construction costs continuing to accelerate, far beyond just typical inflation. Here in the Pacific Northwest, several items have continued to intensify over the last 5 years, while new items have been added. These items, more than others, have fueled the construction cost acceleration.
BUILDING DEPARTMENT REGULATIONS
The requirements around drainage, impervious surface area, andstormwater management have become permitting projects in and of themselves in the Pacific Northwest. The design requirements often introduce additional pages to the drawing set, weeks of extra design work, additional consultants, and time-consuming reviews at the city/county. Civil engineers are now required to provide a design package on a single-family residence that would have been commensurate with a commercial project 5 years ago. The construction involves additional earthwork, costly site measures, and significant increases to site labor — all to support both temporary and permanent measures. All of this has left us with the feeling of literally pouring cash into the ground.
The necessity of geotechnical engineering is almost a guarantee on residential projects now. In the previous decade, a geotechnical engineer was required by the building department on a project only when extreme environmental factors were present (e.g., steep slope, potential slide area, etc). Lately, building departments have added a geotechnical report to their standard permit submittals frequently enough that the geotech has become part of most design teams. This work requires additional site visits, construction inspection/observations, additional coordination, and expensive reports with added cost implications in construction.
We have wonderful engineers we work with so this isn’t meant to disparage them in any way. We’re noting that they are now being pulled into all scales and types of project, and this can simply increase conditions and costs on those projects.
On the permitting side of the equation, far-reaching permit document requirements are adding significant time and energy to the permit process. Whereas the permit review process used to be an evaluation of the construction documents, the permit requirements are now tangential to the point of requiring a set of drawings, and a slew of supporting documentation, unique to the permit process alone (read: not used for construction, but simply hurdles in getting to construction). The additional time, energy, and costs of this are reflected (if not magnified) on site in both time and dollars.
Occasionally, a regulatory agency will misapply land use designations to a property. This could be in the form of a critical area like a steep slope or a potential landslide area, even if neither are present. Having these designations removed from a property requires consultants, reports, and lengthy permit reviews. If the building department doesn’t concur, the only path forward is to agree to their stipulations.
Beyond the land use and building code impacts, the secondary codes for MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, etc.) continue to add gratuitous provisions that make our heads (and wallets) hurt. We’ve discussed this previously, but new electrical provisions (for example) like adding ground fault protection throughout a home rather than to critical circuits adds 5% to an electrical budget. Once you tack on a series of code changes like this, with marginal benefit, your MEP costs can easily be 25% more than just a few years ago.
More so than in years past, we’re noticing higher expectations on behalf of clients. It’s becoming more difficult (and expensive) to attain a level of acceptable completeness. Some of this is just math…as costs increase, it seems like more should be gained with the expense.
We’ve found ourselves in a bit of a Catch-22 here. We very much understand and appreciate that our clients are making a substantial investment in their project. It’s typically the single largest personal investment in their lifetime. For many, it may also be the only time they build new or substantially remodel. Without a doubt, the level of execution in construction should be of very high quality given the investment. We also do not take for granted that our clients trust us to lead them on this journey, including the journey of setting expectations and delivering on them. We greatly appreciate that our clients haven’t been able to find something they could simply purchase to meet their needs and desires, so they are hiring us to make it for them. That is a clear indication that this is very important to them.
Yet, we find this situation needs to be balanced with a reasonable level of execution. Many hands (and overlapping feet and tool belts and equipment) go into making the final product. While we don’t accept even a whiff of substandard work from any of these participants or their part, not every single inch of a project will reach perfection. It certainly could, but that’s a whole different level of budget that we are not promoting. As the cheat sheet above notes, achieving perfection is a 40%+ construction budget addition. In our view, we are achieving “A” quality work. Attaining flawless perfection in every aspect of a project isn’t what we consider to be cost-effective or even sensible. There is an acceptable level that we can agree to and deliver (and we may have another whole blog post on this topic).
VENDORS & SUPPLIERS
A decade’s worth of industry demands has placed most vendors and suppliers into a constant state of being overwhelmed and overcommitted. Subsequently, their pricing continues to increase. And this has a chain reaction. Our vendor’s vendors have supply and bandwidth issues and this effects the whole chain.
Plus, as our region has become a denser metropolis, costs for items like trucking of soil and recycling material have exploded. Not only does our region suffer from detrimental traffic which increases trucking costs linearly, but we have to source and take material further from the City core as property has increased in value.
OTHER & UNFORESEEABLE
There are other factors beyond our control or influence that we are continuing to uncover, or simply get smacked across the head with. For example, due to the amount of infrastructure work in Seattle, every single thing related to concrete (mixing, trucking, reinforcing, pumping) continues to increase in cost at an unimaginable rate. We keep trying to peel the onion on items like this to reign in costs, yet it feels like the more we peel the larger the onion gets. We may use 60 yards of concrete on a project, while 60,000 yards go toward municipal work. We are left feeling fortunate we can get concrete at all.
As a resourceful, cost-effective architecture practice, we’re obviously not fans of unnecessary cost increases. We like to think of ourselves as the group that produces effective and accurate design budgets that complement the elegant and functional homes we endeavor to create. Along with that philosophy, we’ve generated some methods for savvy clients to navigate through and minimize the escalating construction costs.
Years ago we may have suggested that the ideas expressed above are simply our opinions and that there are different ways to go about designing, building, and financing a project. But with much more experience under our belts and more projects added to the portfolio, what may have been subjective information is moving more into the knowledge-based category. As with any advice, feel free to take it, leave it, or counter-offer.
Anyone in a design-related profession toils with the constraints imposed on the objects of their labor. For architects, these come in the form of ever-increasing land use codes, building codes, and community covenants. And to say that these rules have a real effect on houses and buildings is an understatement. In extreme examples, such regulations can all but shape a project. This enforced control of the built environment often seems antithetical to the very innovation and creativity that architecture aims to achieve, and yet it is precisely these constraints that make a place harmonious and exceptional under the right circumstances. For quite some time now, the circumstances we’ve been most fascinated with are those of planned communities. Some planned communities are among the most thoughtful built-environments we’ve experienced, while others are middling or feel like a weak replica of past times to the design-minded. All are subject to their respective codes and community covenants, so it isn’t the mere presence or absence of constraints that seem to make or break a planned community, but other factors.
We’ve selected three planned communities as examples of the harmony that can be obtained with the correct balance of these factors.
The first, an architect’s go-to for planned communities, is The Sea Ranch which was established in 1965 and is a community of approximately 700 cabins and homes located about 100 miles north of San Francisco on California’s Sonoma County Coast.
The second is Central Oregon’s Black Butte Ranch which was started in 1970 and is a community of about 1,200 cabins and homes nestled in the Deschutes National Forest about 150 miles southeast of Portland.
The third is a relatively recent community with plans to grow. The Pass Life, was started in 2011 and is a community of 30 loft cabins perched on Snoqualmie Pass, just 65 miles east of Seattle. These three communities have a great deal in common and one of these factors is the presence of strong community covenants. But as mentioned earlier, covenants alone do not guarantee the character of the community.
Take, for example, the Sea Ranch Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs) which address the acceptable exterior color palettes of cabins relative to their lot location (Section 3.03, subsection 5 if you want to get all technical):
The colors of all exterior surfaces shall be shades of grey or brown of values between black and white or shades of grey-greens or brown-greens (such as russet, citrine, and olive) of values between black and medium, and the value range for each lot shall be further limited by the applicable letter key, if any, set forth on a subdivision map, as follows:
(aa) the value range for “A” lots shall be white to medium;
(bb) the value range for “B” lots shall be medium light to medium dark; and
(cc) the value range for “C” lots shall be medium to dark.
At face value, these covenants don’t seem decisive or compelling enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. They could just as easily be a recipe for dull, suburban homogeneity rather than helping define the ideal that The Sea Ranch has become. The CC&Rs of each of the planned communities are full of passages like this one, and getting to the root of their harmony begs for a deeper more cerebral read of the planned communities we love best.
As students of, travelers to, and even owners within planned communities, it’s an issue near and dear to us. As architects and designers, the issue is also too important to dismiss as mere subtly, serendipity, or, worse yet, chance. Digging into the matter further, we believe that there’s an essential DNA to the planned communities that achieve harmony.
We’ve read the books, we’ve spent weekends, weeks, and even summers at some of them, and we’ve photographed them inside and out. We’ve picked them apart architecturally, we’ve read through their covenants, and we’ve studied their business plans. While there are many ways to approach these planned communities, and even more ways to experience them, we believe that we’ve got our catalog of qualities that set these special communities apart.
But before we get to these qualities, it’s worth sharing some of the gems we’ve found along the way. The following quotes and observations were pulled from our research and experiences over the years. They get to the essence of each community and help go beyond pretty pictures and speak to the thoughtfulness and carefulness of each community.
[The Sea Ranch Lodge (left) and Condominiums (right), Photo by BUILD LLC]
“At The Sea Ranch we have developed a community—based in wild nature and sustained by its beauty. We have an important responsibility here. What do we bring to this environment and how do we alter it? I feel myself a custodian rather than an owner of it. . . . I feel I owe constant vigilance and care for its poetic and spiritual survival. I hope those who follow me feel the same.”
–Lawrence Halprin, Landscape Architect of The Sea Ranch, from the book: The Sea Ranch
“Ordinary Architecture “Not an act of ordinariness, but allowing a building to do what it was meant to do by ordinary means with a minimum of strain.” “You don’t have to engage in structural or shape making gymnastics that require a lot of huffing and puffing and the spending of a lot of the client’s money.”
–Charles W. Moore, Architect of The Sea Ranch, from the book: The Sea Ranch
[The Pool House at Black Butte Ranch, Photo by BUILD LLC]
“With Lakeside, we set out to both honor and evolve the Northwest modern aesthetic of Black Butte Ranch. Because of the site’s stunning setting, it was essential that the building be secondary to the landscape—that the architecture serves as an aperture for the site, making connections to the land stronger and more immediate.”
–Hacker Architects, Architect of the new Black Butte Ranch recreation center
“The architecture [at Black Butte Ranch] was a larger story about Pacific Northwest Modernism, and the region has a legacy of creating buildings that are self-confident interpretations of Modernism, but also subordinate themselves to the natural environment” –Corey Martin, Hacker Architects
[The Pool House at Black Butte Ranch, Photo by Jeremy Bittermann]
“No man-made structure should even attempt to compete with the view of the Three Sisters and surrounding snow-capped peaks.”
-George Sheldon, Architect of Black Butte Ranch Lodge, from the book: There Is A Place; Black Butte Ranch
“The meadow and entry [were kept] wide open to make spaces that are completely visible when owners turn in from the highway. That creates ‘a feeling of generosity,’ each owner having a sense of proprietorship beyond his own piece of land.”
-Don Goodhue, Planner of Black Butte Ranch, from the book: There Is A Place; Black Butte Ranch
“If there’s a higher-level consciousness around crafting and creating a space, people respond to it. But you don’t do it to sell stuff. You do it because you care.”
–Bryce Phillips, Evolution Projects
Evident in the thoughts and quotes about these three communities, the quality and harmony of these places stem from a life philosophy. The codes, covenants, and rules are necessary guardians, but it’s really the shared vision of being stewards and curators of places and communities that make these projects special. Sparing the reader the homework and cogitations of our study, we came up with a list of what we believe to be the essential DNA behind these three communities.
Focus on Activities and Nature (rather than property and real estate)
At The Sea Ranch, the focus is on walks along the ocean bluff, horseback riding, and swimming. At Black Butte, it’s golf, swimming, hiking, skiing, cycling, and fishing. At The Pass Life it’s skiing, hiking, biking, and snowshoeing. Each of the communities also has a thoughtfully designed community space for gathering and dining.
Cluster the Dwellings and Share the Land
Dwellings at The Sea Ranch are strategically clustered together leaving natural spaces open to all. Cabins are discretely tucked together into the trees at Black Butte Ranch so that contiguous forest remains as the primary experience. At The Pass Life, lofts are paired into common structures and the structures are tightly organized. Each requires that people appreciate their neighbors and enjoy sharing the natural spaces with each other.
Owners within each community own land that is considered commonly shared space and it’s understood that everyone takes care of it. An organic and linked whole is more important than the constituent parts.
Each community shares a common understanding and appreciation of keeping things neat and tidy. Owners make decisions about their home and land based on the good of the overall community. A shared discipline with the built-environment benefits everyone.
Touch the land lightly and appreciate nature going about its usual course. A shared resistance to the domination of nature keeps structures modest and environmentally unobtrusive.
There is a mutual agreement of a design language specific to each particular place. Each community establishes its own architecture that responds to the environment and spirit of the place.
There are probably many more examples, but these 6 have made themselves apparent to us over the years. It’s difficult to ignore the frequency of the words – share, appreciate, and community – in our list above and perhaps they are the true DNA of harmonious community (planned or not).
Important development factors were also at play to realize these projects. The Sea Ranch, Black Butte Ranch, and The Pass Life were each built by brave young visionaries willing to challenge the status quo. The Sea Ranch was founded by a group of young architects and landscape architects willing to go toe-to-toe with politically backed opposition groups. Black Butte was founded by a handful of young locals whose average age was 30, none of whom had ever had any experience in resort development. The Pass Life was started by 36-year-old developer convinced that he’d wake up to picketers on his lawn for trying to build the project. In addition to the initial vision, determination, and hard work, the development teams behind each community have a vested interest to follow the vision through over the life of the project. So while the covenants and codes provide a basic framework for how to achieve specific results to shape a planned community, it’s ultimately the intangible qualities and personal commitment that infuses projects like these with life and longevity.
The first thing a passerby might notice about the 602 Flats building, recently completed at the corner of 12th Ave East & East Mercer on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, is one of two forty-foot tall green walls or the solar panel rain screen system. These systems are an uncommon feature for an apartment building, especially in Seattle’s booming market of generic apartment mega-blocks.
These wall systems are expressive of the resourcefulness and innovation required to design, permit, develop, and construct a small, multi-family building in Seattle these days. Rising construction costs and a scarcity of tradespeople in the Pacific Northwest required that the architecture team from BUILD LLC implement a laser-focused design strategy that limited the variables. An overwhelmed building department also posed challenges with constantly moving goalposts, necessitating that the owners and design team exercise creative problem solving and a high tolerance for protracted schedule (aka, pain). Last but not least, soaring land values in Seattle coupled with high entry costs for any project, particularly for small projects, require an owner who is committed to their project and their property for the long haul (like their lifetimes). The time and financial investment of an intricate project like the 602 Flats does not lend well to maximizing value in only the short term. Rather, the owners of the 602 Flats are longtime Seattleites committed to fostering neighborhoods and building community.
The owners were so committed to creating lasting value in the neighborhood, in fact, that they took on the green walls and solar panel walls as personal projects; they were conceived, designed, installed and tested by the clients. Each green wall has an innovative drip irrigation system to regulate water requirements for the carefully selected plants throughout the seasons. The solar panel rainscreen reduces the energy needs of the building while helping to achieve the 4-Star Built Green status of the project.
Composite aluminum rain screen panels create a crisp, machined envelope to the building. These panels were specified to match the finish of the windows; the color and texture of the panels offer a neutral backdrop for the green wall and solar panels to visually pop as design highlights. Aluminum windows (another upgrade that requires longer-term commitment) are used for their durability, slender profile, and refined finish.
Inside, the project continues the clean lines within sensible, modern spaces. There’s no sales theme designed in here – just light-filled spaces, sensibly configured for modern living. Common areas are designed around views of the city and neighborhood, while bedrooms are positioned for optimal natural light and fresh air. Gray-stained Abodian cabinets, Pental Quartz countertops, and stainless-steel backsplashes create a timeless material palette.
Building systems are composed of energy-efficient, but user-friendly, Built Green 4-Star compliant selections. In-floor radiant heat, although an upgrade over traditional apartment heating systems, was selected for its long-term effectiveness, and immediate enjoyment of the apartment dwellers. Electrical and lighting systems were intentionally laid out during early design and fine-tuned during install. Durable and proven appliances and fixtures were selected to keep maintenance (and tenant inconvenience) minimal.
602 Flats consists of two-bedroom units, with the exception of the one-bedroom 4th-floor unit that concedes a bedroom to comply with Seattle upper level setback, but gains a generous terrace with views of the city, Sound, and mountains. As with many aspects of the project, this design move transforms a constraint into a . Care and attention to detail set this building apart and, not surprisingly, the flats were rented out before the project was even completed.
The design team at BUILD LLC would contend that small, dynamic, multi-family buildings like the 602 Flats are a vital part of the urban fabric. They may only play a minor role in the livability and affordability of the city on their own, but en masse, they provide thoughtful density within neighborhoods (replacing dilapidated single-family homes) while maintaining granularity and character. They allow property owners to develop small parcels of underutilized land and give renters a greater diversity of apartment options. These buildings fit in with the proportions of surrounding older buildings and lower-scale neighborhoods. In a contentious city going through as much change as Seattle, we noticed there was curiosity, but no strong or negative reactions to this project. We can only infer that the scale and care make a smaller-sized project like the 602 Flats a welcome new neighbor.
Projects like these also play a role in supporting small to medium-sized architecture firms, and give local design teams the opportunity to exercise innovation and creativity in a city overly populated with apartment building templates. For all these reasons, projects like the 602 Flats are unique and necessary puzzle pieces of the urban fabric.
Given the current laws of building economics in the Pacific Northwest, where land value has reached oxygen-depleted levels and construction costs have soared, future small-scale multi-family projects are in serious jeopardy. When you pile on ever-increasing regulatory hurdles, City agencies that resist coordination, and base utility service fees that border on outlandish…. future innovative projects of this kind are very challenging to conceive and implement.
The design team at BUILD LLC applauds the clients for making a long-range commitment, and, in parallel, for creating an example for others to follow. BUILD also encourages and welcomes the brave souls of Seattle who are willing to play a longer game by adding innovative projects to our city. Many well-meaning neighbors are grasping, and outright fighting, to keep Seattle’s soul intact. It’s a worthy battle with many possible solutions. The architects at BUILD offer that small, thoughtfully designed, multi-family projects can preserve some of Seattle’s grit and character while nourishing its future with a new spirit.
[From left to right: Aaron Freedman, Pete Nelson, Brian Boram, David Branson, Albert Shum, Aaron Pambianco, Mark Carson, Greg Plaunt, John Reynolds, Peter Gray, Kevin Eckert, Sweet Tea Smith]
As we do each August for the past 8 years, BUILD LLC and friends departed from our Seattle office and pedaled to Vancouver BC for the 9th annual Seattle to Vancouver invitational charity ride. This is our yearly opportunity to train up to our peak fitness, visit with old friends, and raise awareness and dollars for a worthy cause.
[Photo Credit: Brian Boram]
Our official fundraising has now come to an end (though donations toward the cause are always accepted, of course), and as we do to commemorate each ride, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on another safely completed, 188 mile bike ride.
While this year’s journey offered more liquid sunshine than most other years, which helped to “keep the dust down,” we were reminded that we’re fortunate to have had taken the opportunity to give back while sharing a weekend with a friendly crew and receiving the broad support of so many others.
[Photo Credit: Sweet Tea Smith]
We want to thank all of our generous donors who helped us surpass our $25,000 goal for Reading Partners, as well as an additional $3,000 raised for our return sponsor and ride supporter, Bike Works. And a big thanks to fellow rider, Brian Boram, for designing the S2V 2018 team jersey and Castelli Cycling for making our custom designs a reality. Our ride sponsors, The Welland Company,BUILD LLC, and AJP Engineering consistently put their dollars, labor, and heart into making this ride a reality each year. Huge thanks for their commitment and efforts toward another successful year.
[Photo Credit: Sweet Tea Smith, Aaron Pambianco]
Really, way to go to each contributor who was moved enough to support us and put their hard-earned dollars into demonstrating their support. This is truly a big accomplishment and we had a range of supporters—some repeat supporters who set the tone with large contributions and inspired others to give what they felt they could. Every dollar counts as we continue to raise the bar on literacy, which raises life prospects for those who are struggling to find their way.
[S2V 2018 Jersey: Design by Brian Boram, Made by Castelli]
As we look toward S2V 2019, which will be our 10 year anniversary, we look back at our previous rides for renewed inspiration. To date, we have raised over $208,000 across nine years in support of such important causes as Shelterbox,Mary’s Place, and Team Gleason. Taking stock of the overall contribution of S2V, we’re inspired and energized for a remarkable 10th Annual S2V Invitational in 2019.
Seattle, like many large cities, has a required Design Review process for most large-scale commercial, multifamily and mixed-use projects. This program is run by the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) and the size thresholds for this program vary by zone and project type. For instance, Design Review is required for a townhouse project in a Low Rise (LR) zone with more than 8 dwelling units. Similarly, Design Review is also required for an apartment building in a Midrise (MR) zone with more than 20 units.
According to the SDCI, there are three principle objectives of this Design Review process:
1. To encourage excellence in site planning and design of projects such that they enhance the character of the City.
2. To provide flexibility in the application of development standards.
3. To improve communication and participation among developers, neighbors and the City early in the process.
This design review process involves a public notice, a presentation by the design team, an evaluation by a Design Review Board for guidance and recommendation, and opportunity for comment by the public. The time, energy, and capital necessary to lead a project through the city’s design review process are substantial. While the requirement of Design Review is controversial in Seattle, for large projects that have a significant impact on the city, context, culture, and people around it, these objectives are, at the very least, admirable.
Earlier this month, the SDCI put Director’s Rule DR 4-2018 into effect which will require all projects going through Design Review to also comply with an Early Community Outreach Rule as part of the permitting process. Each project is now required to include at least 3 different types of outreach including a printed form of outreach, and electronic outreach, and an in-person outreach. According to the SDCI, the purpose of these outreach methods is to establish a dialogue with nearby communities early in the development process in order to share information about the project, better understand the local context, and hear community interests and concerns related to the project. In theory, this sounds great. In practice, it’s an urban planning nightmare that will slow development and threaten the quality of projects that manage to navigate through all the red tape. Here’s why.
Adding more steps to the permitting process will not foster healthy growth in Seattle, it will penalize it. The added time, effort, and cost of the new Design Review process favors large architecture firms with out-of-town financial backing rather than small to medium-sized, local architects and developers. The groups capable of jumping through the new bureaucratic hoops will more often be less invested in these projects and the quality of work will suffer. For a city in a homelessness crisis, we need an abundance of housing yesterday. The added red tape will extend the timeline of every multi-family project in the city.
As more effort, time, and funding are required of the permitting process, fewer resources can be allocated to the actual design of the projects. Required outreach will make it more challenging to provide efficient, affordable, equitable, and beautiful housing in Seattle.
It promotes design by committee. Seattle doesn’t need any more big, bland buildings with their imitation facades chopped up to look like a quaint cluster of buildings with paint-by-numbers color schemes. Bloating the Design Review process will reward architects and developers who can navigate the process more so than encourage thoughtful, community-minded designs to be built.
In order to offset the costs of the added layers of permitting, projects will continue to experience diminishing square footages and escalating rents. Apodments and micro-housing will become increasingly prominent. It becomes a numbers game. Quality and diversity of housing (which Seattle desperately needs, as families aren’t looking for 300 sf studios) will fall by the wayside to the goal of adding the most units and collecting the highest rents.
It will scare design and development talent away from Seattle. Mindful architects and developers will choose to work in outlying jurisdictions because their time and effort will be actually utilized in collaboration with a jurisdiction to meet a community’s needs—whether it’s more housing, better housing, or revitalization of a neighborhood, etc. SDCI’s new regulation demonstrates an adversarial rather than a collaborative approach to solving one of our city’s biggest issues.
And last but not least, it’s making housing more expensive in a city already plagued by ridiculously high rents. The addition of steps like this have a cost, and that cost will be felt by the end user.
Seattle, you talk about the immediate need to increase density and affordable housing, yet SDCI’s actions continue to run directly counter to these “commitments”. Even the AIA, the leading advocacy group for architects in the nation, has come out against this new Early Community Outreach Rule, you can read their response letter, inclusive of their own recommendations, here.
Early Community Outreach *sounds* wonderful, but for 95% of projects, is entirely unnecessary as a formalized process. And upon peeling back the layers of this new process at work, it will result in further burdened projects, a likely increase in liability, and leave us with lower quality projects. Please stop with the abstract, idealistic nonsense and listen to the reasoned logic of groups like the AIA and the broader community of design professionals.
The City needs to remove steps and de-regulate. Seriously. Housing has gotten so expensive due to land costs (which is market driven), but more importantly, it has become more expensive because of the insane amount of rules, processes and red tape of all City agencies. It’s time for all of us to acknowledge this issue and to cease all activities that make it worse.
Last summer, BUILD met with engineer-architect-artist, Cecil Balmond at his London Studio to discuss his most recent projects and the thinking behind his experimental design process. Prior to opening Balmond Studio, his career spanned 40-plus years at Ove Arup & Partners where he worked on pioneering projects with renowned architects all over the globe. Balmond discussed the notion of architecture in a dynamic environment, the designer’s intuition, and his most recent projects. For part 1 of the conversation, hop over to ARCADE Magazine, Issue 36.1, available in print and on their website.
Tell us about your previous role as Deputy Chairman at Arup, where you led thousands of engineers and architects.
There were seven of us on the board of directors at Arup and I was head of building business globally with around 6,000 people under my supervision. When I joined, Arup was a company of about 5,000 people and when I left it was 11,000 people. The job was a huge bureaucratic task in one way, but on the other hand, I was the only director who had an active design group. My design group ranged from 25 to 60 people and we handled about 30 jobs per year. I would choose two or three of these projects and I’d personally lead the design.
It was at this time that I began setting up the Arup architectural practices in Beijing, Shanghai, and Turkey, as well as the sector architectures such as ARUP Sport and Arup Health. Arup Sport was a great success and we hired expert architects to lead the projects, like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster.
How would you characterize the spirit at Arup?
Arup was a special organization because really it was led by Ove Arup at the beginning, who was a philosopher and a mathematician more so than an engineer. He was a man of the world with open ideas. That way of being really filtered down to certain people, like myself and others, who, if I’m honest, believed in design, and not necessarily engineering or architecture. Design was a much wider thing to us. Architecture had its own expert skill zone, and when it comes to the real grit of architecture, the specifications, window schedules, and the engineering, there is a horrendous, humungous amount of calculating to be done. But those are the mechanical parts of it. A great engineer is simply wonderful to watch at work because they’re intuitive, and I don’t just mean structural engineers, but environmental engineers, lighting engineers, etc. They’re dealing with intangibles almost, and yet they have an intuition that influences the building in a very holistic way. This method of working significantly contributed to my thinking that there are no limits in design.
Was there a particular moment or project that encouraged you to formalize your practice as an engineer-architect-artist?
No, it’s like a lot of things in life, you drift. It’s a question of being an opportunist. Occasions occur where your instinct is primed to take advantage of key opportunities. If you are a creative person, you are pushing, not knowing what you are pushing at and then something comes up and you just jump, you take it, and I think my career has been a series of those jumps.
There was a cathartic moment at about age 35 when I was smoking outside my office and decided when I went back in I could never do the same thing again. It was that decisive, I just knew. But I didn’t know what was next. So, I went back in and threw out all my learning and started learning again. I went through a personal mentorship for the next five years. I studied at night, going back to the original treaties of mathematics, going back to the three forbidding books and six postulates of the Greek mathematician Euclid. I went back to the very first precepts set by the Greeks, like the philosophy of the point above a line, above a plane, the line being drawn through thepoint, above the plane, being parallel, and so on. The books written about those postulates engaged my mind totally. It provided me with a mobile sense of geometry. Those postulates soon led to the idea of proportion.
The next step took five to ten years and it involved believing in a mobile sense of geometry, where forms are constantly in motion and architecture is only a snapshot in time. This led to a proportional sense of space and ultimately an episodic treatment of design. This sequence was dependent on releasing my hand and thinking more freely. It required that I start thinking differently about design, that buildings don’t stop at the four corners, and that they don’t necessarily have to have a floor, a roof, and sides. It was a personal odyssey of unlearning and it is key to the work I’m doing today.
Is there a common way that you approach each design project?
The way I work is generally scale-less as an idea. I tend to start with a metaphor or a feeling, something really vague. Then comes a sketch of something in space, some notion of space, or more accurately the notion of the intersection of space between it, it’s interiority, and the relation of the context of where it is. Just purely conceptually and it’s nothing to see yet. It might just be a few lines or a blotch. Then comes the idea of what is it. Is it art, engineering, or an architecture piece? Then comes the functionality, then comes the choice of scale. Once you choose scale, the material locks in. If it’s very small its thread or wire. If its humongous, its steel or trusses. Then comes configuration of scale. Last of all would be structure — actual structure as it means to an architect today. The actual skeleton, the actual thing is the last thing. If you start with that at all, you’ve lost the building. You’ve lost the spirit, you’ve lost what the building can do. At the end of my book Informal, there is a very interesting table of the hierarchy of decision making that goes through my mind.
You note that challenging assumptions is critical to your work. What is a recent example where challenging an assumption made a significant difference to the outcome of the project?
Toyo Ito and I designed the 2002 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion together and we decided to start with a box. Upon looking at a map of London’s Hyde Park, where the Pavilion is located each year, we realized that the park is a collection of crisscrossing lines. Then came the idea that this pavilion is the gathering of lines. We started playing around with algorithms and the type of geometries similar to the movement of a ball around a billiard table until we hit upon a geometry that came back on itself and completed the box. This exercise allowed us to break the boundaries of the envelope and challenge the notion of the box. Even though it was a 50-foot by 50-foot structure, the viewers inside had no idea that they were in a box. Spatially, it was much bigger than the bounding box of its geometry.
Tell us about your discovery of aperiodic tile invented by the mathematician Robert Ammann.
20 years ago, I felt that architects and the graphic arts had no idea what mathematics does, so I started researching numbers. I quickly realized that the prime numbers have powerful sequences that are unpredictable. They look like a kind of music when I interpret them, and they’ve held my interest for years. The geometry of these tiles is based on the prime numbers and this is what makes them aperiodic in that their assembly results in a new pattern each time — they never repeat. Daniel Libeskind and I applied the tile to the V&A Spiral which is the proposal for an extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Your QXQ project addresses the need for prefabricated, modular housing. In your experience, what are the hurdles of implementing prefabricated, modular housing on a mass scale?
It’s the biggest challenge in the industry and no one’s cracked it — not even Arup. Years ago, they went in with a huge contractor here in the U.K. who does housing and they spent a lot of money researching prefab design. The result ended up looking like every other prefab. And that’s the problem, because in the end, for mass production, you need corners and right angles, and once you have corners and right angles, to save money you close the surface and then you’ve got a box. You can go and cut corners and triangles out and make it look interesting, but it’s still a box. You haven’t cracked the sense of living.
In order to be successful, prefabrication shouldn’t start with conventional ideas. It would be great to think that prefab housing could inject a new idea of living in such prescribed spaces. No one has been successful at this yet and I tried a bit with the QXQ project. So many boxes have already been done and I don’t want to do another box. What can I add to it apart from cuteness and your sensibility of design? I was interested in refuge housing and wanted to investigate low technology, using my ideas to make things less expensive. I wanted to try to use architecture in adaptable ways using cheap materials but highly sophisticated design techniques to make an interesting statement while being functional. My design started with a dodecahedron and sliced off parts. This allows stacking in any direction and, interestingly, it created the idea of a colony of tightly fit modules rather than a collection of prefabricated homes. All the sudden, you’re into biomorphic design and while the architecture and structure are straight-forward, the services become challenging. Where do the ventilation, water, and sewer systems fit? We haven’t quite cracked it yet. We’re building two units as a test, but we really need to build 12 of them to check our assumptions, and we need to be building hundreds of units to be commercially viable. There are a number of interested clients from all over the world and a particular army was interested in 40,000 units. That’s the kind of scale we need to make the concept great, but we need to get the first one right.
Rem Koolhaas cites that, “through your work, engineering can now enter a more experimental and emotional territory.” Are academic engineering programs following your lead?
I know certain architecture and engineering programs have taken my books as curriculum. The Scandinavians were the first to take up Informal, then some universities in the States and in England started using the book. I think it’s impacted young architects more than the engineering community as I suspect that the engineers may be enticed by the work but are afraid to pick up the book because the thinking is so radically different.
How has a non-linear approach to design affected the other areas of your life?
I started organizing parts of my practice at Arup in a non-linear basis and it was very successful. Rather than applying top-down thinking, I began using an informal, emergent thinking. As an example, I deliberately don’t file my books, so I go searching my library and randomly pick a book, and then open up to the middle of the book and I read. That immediately kicks me into something I never even thought of. In the early ‘90s I became convinced that the world was non-linear. We simply fight it to be linear in order to understand it. But actually, it was not understandable in the first place.
You’ve had a synergistic relationship with artist Anish Kapoor, including your collaborations on the 2003 Marsyas exhibit at the Tate Modern, the Temenos sculpture in north England, and the Arcelormittal Orbit built for the 2012 summer Olympics. Tell me a bit about the balance you two have found working together.
Anish and I came together originally for the Marsyas exhibit at the Tate Modern. It’s not so much the mechanics of the form making with Anish, it’s more about the discussions we have of what does it mean. I think that’s the driving spur between us. The mechanics of how you make the form is part of whoever’s skill set it falls under. So, if the items involve big spans, I’m doing it. If it’s an issue of color and surface, he’s doing it. Creative tensions about what is good or not arise, but it’s precisely these discussions that lead to the power of the form. It’s about a visceral reading of the form and how it moves you physically.
In any of these designs, you’ve got non-linear architectures and engineering forms, but it seems like you’re typically able to use a standard kit-of-parts like steel channels and I-beams. Do you feel that the materials and parts ever limit the form factor?
No, because I always take the materials as a given out of pragmatism rather than thinking that I’m going to invent a new material or form. This isn’t to say that you compromise what you’re doing, but you need to rationalize how you’ll build a design and in that comes certain decisions to make about the material.
Do you have any structural inventions that you’re particularly proud of?
The roof of the Arnhem Centraal project in the Netherlands includes a giant column that’s approximately 100-feet wide. It twists in space to support the roof and ground floor planes and it’s one of my best inventions. I thought the design would be prohibitively expensive, but it wasn’t.