In 2040 Seattle, How Should the City Grow?

We Need to Create a More Affordable, Dense, Inclusive Puget Sound

September 13, 2016

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Seattle Business.

Seattle has an enviable problem. More and more people are moving to the Puget Sound, so many that, by some estimates, the region’s population could increase by one million residents by 2040. At the same time, Seattle is constrained geographically by water and hills. Our topography is scenic and beautiful, but it also makes it difficult to build new housing.

Further complicating matters, approximately 65 percent of Seattle’s land area is zoned for single-family residences. The hourglass shape of Seattle, at its widest point — between Ballard and Magnuson Park, parallel to 65th Street — is zoned for the lowest density [PDF]. Meanwhile, the area zoned for the densest development — downtown — is narrowest and where land is most scarce.

Water, land and zoning regulations: these are the facts. If population trends continue, how will people live in our city? As Seattle densifies, how can design provide a more humane environment and housing that all residents can afford? These are some of the questions I’m interested to explore at an NBBJ salon event in October, “Seattle 2040: Where Will All the People Live?”

As an architect, I’m particularly interested in how we might insert greater density, for people of all incomes, into our existing street network including the single-family areas that constitute such a high proportion of Seattle. Mother-in-law apartments, residential units over garages, duplexes and townhouses are just a few options. Done right, we could increase density and affordability without dramatically changing the character of those neighborhoods.

This November a major ballot initiative, Sound Transit 3, could raise billions of dollars to expand light rail. If that happens, it would substantially increase the number of transit-oriented centers in our region, which would lessen the impact of building because we could spread it across more light rail stations.

There are other options. We could look at reusing and densifying public rights-of-way. High-rises like the “no-shadow tower” could mitigate the impacts of tall building on the urban environment. Or driverless cars might create a new transportation system in the next 25 years that fundamentally changes how we get around and where to encourage development.

If you think about the design of office space, 25 years ago, a majority had a private office with limited public amenities; now office space is moving in the other direction, asking people to have less personal space at their desk, but having access to a wider range of shared amenities. I almost think we need a similar approach whereby people move from large single-family houses to smaller homes or apartments. The key to making this work is to have access to more shared, semi-private amenities or nearby public open space.

Some of the issues Seattle faces also challenge many other U.S. cities, but these challenges cannot be solved by design firms single-handedly. A city’s growth affects everyone, young and old, rich and poor, newcomers and long-time residents. We are in this together, and it will require everyone to bring about our shared future.

Banner image courtesy of Harold Hollingsworth/Flickr.

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So You Want to Build a Biophilic Workplace. Now What?

6+ Things to Consider When Bringing Nature Indoors

September 6, 2016

Principal, NBBJ

The benefits of bringing the natural world, particularly plants, but also daylight, water and fresh air, into the places we live and work are now well-established. When we design for biophilia — humans’ inherent attraction to other living things — hospital patients heal faster and use less pain medication; students learn better; shoppers spend more; and employees are happier, healthier, more productive and more creative. It’s a reason Amazon is building a glass conservatory at the heart of its new Seattle headquarters, where employees can retreat to think more creatively or simply relax.

Biophilia can benefit any organization that wants to leverage it. It can be as easy as providing employees with views of the outdoors, opening the windows or placing a few potted plants around the office. Other companies may wish to reap greater benefits by integrating nature in a more concerted way; for them, the increased complexity introduces additional considerations. Here are six things to keep in mind:

1. Light
The problems to solve around light — both sunlight and artificial light — are straightforward when only humans are involved, but they become more complex when a significant number of indoor plants are introduced. The light that plants need might cause glare on computer monitors, or it may simply be too bright or direct for people to work comfortably, so some method of controlling, balancing, sequencing or separating the divergent light levels must be found.

2. Air Quality
Temperature and humidity, and the ability to finely control those, is critical. They’re easy to control in a typical office building set at 72 degrees with 60 percent humidity. But plants have a diurnal cycle, so when you have a significant amount, the temperature needs to go down to 55 degrees and humidity has to go way up at night. Depending on the weather, operable windows can also allow tenants to introduce atypical temperature or humidity conditions into the workplace. That requires careful thinking about furniture, fixtures, equipment, everything.

3. Maintenance
Extensive plantings require trained staff to care for them, and that staff will need access to the plants both night and day, so they can’t be hard to reach. Plants need to be changed frequently, especially smaller ones, so staff will need access to additional specimens to cycle through as the existing ones need to be replaced. Water features require the maintenance of more mechanical equipment, but the need for access remains the same.

4. Engineering
Plants can introduce a significant amount of soil into a building, and water features introduce a lot of, well, water. Both create unusual weight requirements that engineers must factor into their structural calculations.

5. Monitoring
Soil also introduces new microbiology into a building, which must be monitored and managed. A sophisticated array of monitoring devices are necessary to keep track of light, temperature, humidity, soil quality and more.

6. Food Safety
Finally, collaboration with regulators is necessary to ensure safety if food is going to be served in this kind of unique environment.

These are all technical considerations, but there is a conceptual side too: that is, how do you think about the appropriateness of a plant collection and where it comes from in the world? You don’t grab random plants and throw them together; you think about whether these plants exist together in nature, whether they belong together, whether there is a story that ties them together? A plant collection can serve an educational purpose by helping people get a micro view of the global system and why certain plants live together and have a symbiotic relationship.

One last question: Can a plant collection support the bigger picture of international horticulture? Several experts are working to save rare species that have been nearly wiped out in the natural world, species that are now being propagated by universities and conservatories. Ideally a plant collection can contribute not only to creativity, but also to global conservation — to make sure we aren’t the last generation who gets to enjoy the benefits of nature.

Photo © Rob Murray/NBBJ.

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Understanding How Our Brains Work Makes for Better Buildings

Insights from Brain Science Researcher Dr. John Medina

August 18, 2016

Affiliate Professor of Bioengineering, University of Washington School of Medicine


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by JLL Real Views.

Applying the cognitive neurosciences to architecture and real estate development may raise some eyebrows and creates a certain amount of skepticism.

However, some solid peer-reviewed studies give reason to believe that, one day, these disciplines might be more closely aligned and complementary than we thought. Let’s go back in time by way of illustration.

We’ve spent more than 99 percent of our entire time on the planet not in a building, but in a savannah, sojourning for millennia in the unstable worlds of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. This big fat brain of ours was thus forged outdoors, scrambling around Africa in small bands. Such pre-history affected the way we interacted with our environment. Still does. We’ve not spent enough time in civilization to outgrow our Darwinian reflexes.

There are two ways to illustrate how this might inform the design of buildings, from workplaces to retail environments.

The first comes from something that’s been researched famously: the impact of natural environments on behavior. Well-regarded data shows that exposure to natural elements — trees, running water, even pictures of trees and running water — provides benefits ranging from shortened hospital stays for adults to increased academic performance for kids. Researcher David Strayer uncovered a 50 percent boost in problem-solving abilities after test subjects sustained a 72-hour exposure to nature. This makes perfect sense, given that 99 percent history part. The brain sees natural elements and says “I’m home.”

The second illustration also concerns evolutionary history. Most of us think humans were among the Pleistocene era’s biggest chickens, ones who got beat up a lot in the hardscrabble African plains. Just look at human fingernails and remember we competed against African lion claws for survival space. Not exactly a fair fight. With a founding population measured in the low hundreds, we almost didn’t make it.

The will to survive

But we did make it. One reason was our ability to use our obese brains to respond and develop preferences for specific types of physical surroundings. We needed to survey the vast flatlands quickly, which might involve scrambling up a cliff, looking in the distance for sustenance and predators, formulating acquisition and avoidance strategies.

But we couldn’t stay up there forever, given our extreme physical vulnerability. We also had to be able to hide quickly. Developing simultaneous preferences for expansive space and enclosed shelter was thus fundamental to our survival.

The late geographer Jay Appleton proposed years ago Prospect-Refuge theory, which embraces this history: “People prefer environments where they can easily survey their surroundings and quickly hide or retreat to safety if necessary,” he wrote.

Designing modern buildings

How might these translate to architectural design? For companies, what kinds of spaces can get the best from your employees?

Many people want creative, friendly spaces to be competitive in the global world of 21st century business. Yet most don’t take into account the intersection between Darwin and Appleton. Designers end up either creating prospect or refuge, but never deliberately putting both together in dynamic, accessible tension.

Is that imbalance toxic? Could be. Open office spaces are a form of prospect, closed rabbit-warren offices are a form of refuge, and in isolation from each other, neither perform very well. Open offices often raise stress hormones. Closed environments don’t allow much collaboration.

These are questions behavioral researchers need to tackle in collaboration with architects, even given this evidence, because the real answer concerning toxicity is “we don’t know.” If the data showed that such asymmetries were counter-productive, however, monolithic designs should be binned.

The pessismist in me says it’s still too early for brain science to be prescriptive. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know enough to collaborate, to design behavioral experiments capable of inserting bricks and mortar into the pages of On the Origin of Species. The optimist in me says we know just enough to fill up a blog.

While architects and developers are not neuroscientists, everybody involved in the design ecosystem should know something about how the brain works. Better informed they might make better business and design decisions.

Banner image copyright Carl Bower.

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