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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What Does the Future of Urban Healthcare Look Like?

Thoughts on a ‘Healthcare Quarter’

August 6, 2018

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post derives from an NBBJ-hosted breakfast talk at the British Library in London focused on the future of the NHS. NBBJ Partner David Lewis was joined by speakers Jodie Eastwood, Chief Executive of the Knowledge Quarter; Peter Ward, Director of Real Estate Development at King’s College London: Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation; and Richard Darch, Chief Executive of the healthcare consultancy Archus.

As we celebrate the 70th year of the NHS, the future of healthcare in the UK has arguably never been a hotter topic with no shortage of debate on how the world’s largest publicly funded health service will survive.

The people who work and care within the NHS remain its most valuable asset and they will continue to shape national pride in what polls have shown symbolises ‘what is great about Britain’.

But what about its places? How is the public healthcare estate adapting to the demands of an ageing population, new technologies and severe financial pressures? And how will it look in 10, 20 and 30 years’ time?

 

Creating ‘health engines’

Healthcare estates should be spaces where everyone comes together for the benefit of healthcare. Not in some utopian dream but in the form of ‘health engines’ that combine and convert the power of healthcare, research and development and industry to deliver positive progress. Instead of selling off surplus land for residential use and reducing the NHS estate, there is potential to create health ‘eco-systems’ in our cities — healthcare quarters with hospitals acting as anchor tenants surrounded by layers of research and wellness services, step-down care, commercial tenants and public social spaces.

These aspirations chime with the concept for a ‘health return’ from public assets, land and buildings to promote healthy lifestyle and wellbeing.

 

Everyone needs good neighbours

The Cambridge Biomedical Campus and Royal Liverpool University Hospital demonstrate how healthcare, research and commercial developments can benefit from being co-located. It’s important that spaces knit healthcare sites back into cities and their urban context, promote synergies between healthcare and education and create societal hubs that encourage public access and community use.

This is the point of view championed by Jodie Eastwood of the Knowledge Quarter, a partnership of more than 90 knowledge-rich organisations based around King’s Cross, St Pancras, Bloomsbury and Euston. Jodie espouses the power of cross-disciplinary partnerships saying “the real value of collaboration comes when you cross sectors.”

 

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At the Quadram Institute in Norwich, researchers and clinicians collaborate around an open atrium overlooked by research labs and balconies. (Photo courtesy of Sean Airhart/NBBJ)

Science on show

However, co-locating sectors alone is not enough. We must create buildings that actively promote formal and informal collaboration; spaces that showcase health and science in one place.

Blurring spatial boundaries can bridge the gap between fundamental research and application in practice, allowing those differing aspects of innovation to drive each other.

At the same time putting science on show, making it accessible to the public, helps to demystify scientific endeavour, while sowing seeds for education and future talent.

The Quadram Institute in Norwich is a case in point, incorporating an environment in which clinicians work alongside scientists at the forefront of food science, gut biology and healthcare research under one roof with one shared identity and entrance.

Bringing together the Institute of Food Research, the University of East Anglia and the gastrointestinal endoscopy facility of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, the Quadram Institute conducts bench-to-bedside research and clinical care related to health and diet.

Within a hierarchy of spaces, the clinical research facility and patient treatment areas are more private to protect patients’ and participants’ confidentiality, whilst the research space is open to showcase the science within.

 

Future proofing and flexible facilities

There are also many lessons the NHS needs to learn from when designing the next generation of healthcare facilities and buildings.

Purely clinically-led design isn’t working and must be supplemented by research-led thinking that inspires sustainable, adaptable buildings offering operational flexibility.

We must also champion strong and proven healthcare, research and technology hubs, such as the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto and UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay, as the best breeding ground for future start-ups and world-leading innovation.

Yes, many garage start-ups have turned into multinational powerhouses but most new ventures will have a higher chance of success from being based in well-connected places that benefit from local cultural and heritage amenities.

 

Technology drives talent

Finally is the undeniable importance of digitalisation and AI to the future of healthcare and driving the talent that will drive healthcare forward. It will be fascinating to see how emerging technologies will advance the practice of medicine, improve health and empower patients to be active participants in their own care. Trends in digital diagnostics, robotics and data are allowing hospitals to put the human experience first.

For example, many hospitals in the United States are already being designed with extra-wide corridors, allowing robots to deliver medicine and other critical supplies directly to patient rooms. Meantime, IBM’s Watson is being utilized to diagnosis illnesses — especially those that are hard to detect — which then impacts the experience of patients and the quality of care they receive.

The NHS needs to sell a vision of the future now, instil public confidence and demonstrate it has a plan to create a future for itself. What’s needed is true collaboration, openness and innovation, inclusivity, community and a need to think flexibly. Don’t let’s design for just one need but let’s create a sustainable health and wellbeing community for the next 70 years.

Banner image courtesy of Timothy Soar/NBBJ.

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