Micro-Units: Good for the City, Good for Citizens?

Thinking More Holistically About Housing Typologies and Zoning Will Improve Our Public Realm

January 10, 2019

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was additionally published by Building Design + Construction.

As economically booming cities such as Boston, New York, San Francisco and London struggle with housing their growing populations, there is an increasing fixation on the micro-unit in the name of increasing residential provision. Also referred to as the compact unit, architects and developers are bringing ingenuity and investment to creating spaces that have pared domestic life down to its minimalist essentials. These small units have catalyzed a new relationship with the public realm.

Looking to Europe one can see a long tradition of using the city as one’s living and dining room, where urban middle-income units are small in relation to North American dwellings. In the United States, however, it is relatively recent that Americans are choosing to live in city centers. Part of the appeal of the suburbs was the generous indoor and outdoor private space. The move downtown, where the offer is generally a smaller dwelling, has meant less private space. And so our new city dwellers are venturing out of their homes to pursue their social lives. This is good for our cities. This is good for our local economies.

But who are these micro-units for? On the face of it this “progress” is meant to help address both the accommodation of sheer numbers of people and the affordability of living in the city. However, it is impossible not to question how tiny units truly answer this need.

It has become apparent that we are creating city centers that cater to a thin slice of the population: pre-nesters and empty-nesters. The problem is threefold: the units being built are, even if not micro, rarely larger than 2-bedrooms (and a tight 2-bedroom at that); secondly, only a very small percentage are “affordable,” not to mention that the definition of “affordable” means many lower-middle-income people do not qualify for support; and, thirdly, the city’s amenities and services are often unaffordable as they cater to the affluence of those who can afford the newly built units.

For the millennials currently sharing a dwelling unit, they are forced out of the urban center to the suburbs when they want to have families. Even if housing and services affordability is not the barrier, there are few homes catering to households requiring 3-bedrooms or more. People are left little choice but to join the swathes of commuters emitting carbon, undoubtedly against their better judgement.

There is a further related concern. Thanks to policy and design guidance, many condominium buildings are designed to accommodate retail or food & beverage on the ground floor. However, despite the fact that people may be looking to the city to fulfill their entertainment needs, we find increasing numbers of empty shopfronts on our main streets and city centers. In this era of on-line shopping and food delivery, it is acutely obvious that we can no longer rely only on shops, cafes, bars and restaurants to activate our streets. Meanwhile, competing for market share, developers provide their condo buildings with gyms, meeting spaces, makers’ spaces and indoor dog runs. It is time these amenities are literally brought down to the ground. Let’s redistribute the activity.

As learning and making become more widely accessible and less institutionalized, one can imagine these sorts of uses occupying ground floors and attracting public interaction. Boston’s downtown was boosted when Suffolk and Emerson Universities came to occupy both bespoke and existing buildings. As students do not lead a nine-to-five lifestyle, ground floor activity and “eyes on the street” have improved round-the-clock.

Similarly the contemporary public library can become a space that projects and attracts vibrancy. The Idea Store in London is a good example of this. Community infrastructure — from gathering space to recreation to cultural events — provides clues as to the sorts of uses that co-exist well with the public realm. This may call for revisions to existing zoning to allow for diverse ground-floor uses — indeed, redefining “active frontage.”

The concept of the Business Improvement District (BID) has been a fantastic mechanism in many city centers, improving the safety, cleanliness and temporary events in many downtowns. However, it may also be time to redefine the scope of the BID, enforcing ground-floor activity even if that means providing space to a tenant that is not a commercial enterprise, such as a cultural institution or community use. Positive, or negative, incentives to lease empty shopfronts may be required.

It is time to promote — even demand — building types that accommodate larger households and instigate mechanisms that facilitate the distribution of amenities and services across the scale of not just a building but an urban block or blocks. This entails exploiting the trend to blur the distinction between dwelling, working, leisure and learning. In this way those people living in micro-units — as it is unrealistic, nor even desirable, that they all disappear — as well as larger multi-generation households, will have a more interesting city to venture into.

Banner image courtesy of Kamen Atanassov/Unsplash.

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Timber Construction Doesn’t Have to Be “All or Nothing”

How Hybrid Curtain Walls Can Drive Sustainable Innovation in Architecture

December 5, 2018

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was adapted from the white paper “Hybrid Timber: Performative, biophilic and beautiful” [PDF].

The increased use of timber in construction is a growing and robust opportunity. Wood evokes deep passion and motivation, but why? For one, it’s exciting to have technological and structural advancement within an industry that has been fairly constant since wood balloon framing was invented.

In addition, the prospect of managing our forests sustainably is the future. It supports the use of wood while avoiding the use of old growth species, instead using young saplings or beetle kill forests. It creates sustained carbon capture by circumventing the carbon release that occurs at the end of a tree’s life through decomposition, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Other benefits include low embodied energy, low thermal conductivity compared to aluminum or steel, better indoor air quality (IAQ), biophilic connections supporting a sense of well-being and health, and the outperformance of other building materials “cradle-to-cradle.”

The use of wood in curtain wall construction, in particular, is an emerging trend. A typical approach to long-span exterior curtain wall design is an aluminum curtain wall framing with secondary steel support—but this convention is being challenged by the use of wood as the primary structural support of the glazing.

Given the industry’s unfamiliarity incorporating wood within typical curtain wall assemblies, this proves to be a challenge, for several reasons:

  • Interest in bidding: The curtain wall market has been busy, making it difficult to draw interest in bidding, especially for smaller scale work.
  • Atypicality: The use of wood is not familiar to most large-scale builders.
  • Cost: The prior two variables drive cost upwards, even though the cost of glue-laminated timber is more cost-effective than steel at similar spans.
  • Engineering: Wood does not possess the same properties as steel, and in fact its strength varies by species.

However, the appropriate application of wood is not a matter of “all or nothing.” Hybrid options using wood as the lateral supporting system or as a dead load support, combined with more conventional aluminum systems or a semi-unitized curtain wall system, can yield a more conventional and familiar system design, making wood a more viable option for cost and schedule.

In one example I worked on, the curtain wall subcontractor provided the engineering of the curtain wall and attachments to the glue-laminated timber, and the structural engineer of record provided the engineering of glue-laminated timber and its attachment to the primary structure of the building, similar to the use of a more conventional secondary steel system.

In another example, the curtain wall subcontractor provided the entire engineering of the composite system, including the wood dead load supports, which transfer the window system loads to the primary structure.

With both of these options, the curtain wall consultants worked closely with the full engineering team as the point of intersection and peer-review for the system as a whole. Wood suppliers provided design information on the wood and glue-laminated timbers available, and communicated their unique strength characteristics by species to the design team.

Essential to the success of these projects was our strategic and proactive planning toward connecting markets and suppliers and building consensus between them, defining engineering roles and responsibilities, and effectively addressing fire and combustibility concerns.

Photo © Lawrence Anderson

Building a proper team with supportive and knowledgeable industry partnerships is paramount in being able to meet these challenges with clarity. Therefore, it is critical to partner with both an experienced timber/curtain wall engineer and forestry partners that have an in-depth knowledge of the process and the fluency to ask the right questions at the right time to support success and mitigate risk. I also recommend partnering with local fire authorities early in the process, onboarding them to the use of timber prior to permit submission.

Our hope is to create a ripple effect for the imperative change needed at a larger, industry-wide scale. Similar to code related energy requirements, only larger-scale demand will propel cross-industry advancement and expertise. This will drive innovation towards higher performance, reductions in our carbon footprint, less harmful chemical dependency and beautiful biophilic outcomes. The ultimate outcome will enhance our human experience with respect for our planet.

For more on timber construction, please read my white paper “Hybrid Timber: Performative, biophilic and beautiful” [PDF].

Banner photo courtesy of NBBJ/Sean Airhart.

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When Nursing Meets Architecture

Building a Unique Nurse Consultant Role in Healthcare Design

September 5, 2018

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Medscape. It was coauthored by Kristina A. Krail, RN, BSN, MPH, and Teri Oelrich, RN, BSN, MBA.

Nurses as Design Consultants in Architecture

As a nurse, have you ever watched in wonder the marvel of a new hospital rising out of the ground? Are you curious about the history of your campus or building — how it came to be or who created the design? Have you enjoyed serving on a committee when your organization was planning a new building, unit, or renovation? Was there ever a time in your nursing practice when you were frustrated with the design of your work setting and asked yourself, “What were they thinking?”

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be interested to know about the small but growing group of nurses who work directly with architects, engineers, and construction managers to build or renovate healthcare facilities. Employed as clinical consultants, project managers, planners, data analysts, or group facilitators, these nurses play a vital role at the cornerstone where the design and healthcare industries meet. By representing the various constituents through a keen understanding of the perspectives of each (and the language they use), and by leveraging those effective interpersonal skills honed as healthcare providers, nurses employed in this serve a vital role in all stages of the design process.

This area of specialty is relatively new. In 1989, the architecture firm NBBJ became one of the first to employ full-time nurses after I completed my MBA and responded to a NBBJ job posting for healthcare consulting. Today, I’m a partner in the multimillion dollar company.

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Co-author Kris Krail (at right)

At NBBJ I am joined by, among others, Kris Krail, who came to the firm serendipitously after a long career in nursing administration serving as a chief nursing officer at a variety of hospitals. She was excited to join an architecture firm because her father was a draftsman, she was active in preserving historical buildings, and the most enjoyable times during her administrative practice were when her hospitals were in a building mode.

Although the American Nurses Association does not yet recognize this type of work as its own specialty, it does direct interested professionals to the Nursing Institute for Healthcare Design — a 150-person organization of like-minded professionals with a common goal of integrating clinical expertise into the planning and design of healthcare environments.

The Role of Design Consultant

Nurses in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries must possess leadership qualities, demonstrate emotional intelligence, and be nurse experts in their field of functional or clinical specialty. We work both internally within a project team and externally with healthcare clients, so the ability to collaborate and communicate is paramount, and well-honed writing and public speaking skills are essential. They must also be comfortable and self-assured enough to interact with all client levels of personnel, from entry-level service staff to physicians and board members. An advanced degree may be required, but more important is the ability to demonstrate astute organizational skills and manage projects in a self-directed way.

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Co-author Teri Oelrich (at left)

The work itself and the benefits derived from the role are also varied, which makes the job enjoyable for us. No two days are ever alike; joy comes from interacting with a variety of people both within our firm as well as on the client side. Our nursing and healthcare expertise is relied upon extensively, but our “people skills” are also counted on, because architects are classic introverts. We achieve great satisfaction through building coalitions, managing conflict, and facilitating teams in resolving problems. There are always numerous opportunities to teach and mentor — another favorite nursing skill that gets tapped into often.

It’s hardly an easy job. We are called upon to balance priorities, often at odds, between building requirements and patient care or staff needs. Resource allocation — staffing, dollars, space, and time — continues to be a challenge for all involved. We have to go where our clients are, and so some travel is entailed, a requirement that either fits into one’s work/life balance equation or it doesn’t. And there are always deadlines, tight schedules, and sometimes late nights.

Still, the satisfaction realized by being involved in creating a new setting for patient care is unmatched. The opportunity to translate the needs of staff, patients, and families to those who design and build those settings creates a legacy that makes an impact for years to come — a legacy of spaces that are not just newer but also better, more efficient, safer, and more healing.

Banner image courtesy of NBBJ.

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