Sheds, Meds and Beds

From Beautiful Shells to Life Science Hubs, Evolving Uses for Tomorrow’s Mixed-Use Developments

March 28, 2022

Design Principal

The pandemic continues to disrupt commercial real estate, from remote work and social distancing to supply chains and inflation. As these challenges unfold and organizations evolve in response, we explore the future of commercial developments through the lens of three fast-growing sectors: sheds—industrial-oriented spaces such as production studios and data or distribution centers; meds—commercial life science buildings or medical office; and beds—mixed-use residential developments, as well as innovative design strategies for each type of development.

Sheds: Developing A Beautiful Shell for Creativity and Commerce

As the demand for content skyrockets and e-commerce sales boom during the pandemic, industrial spaces—for film and music production studios as well as distribution and data centers—have become even more essential to entertainment and tech companies alike. The flexible, open environment of warehouses can serve as a blank slate and provide the necessary space for entertainment and tech companies to produce on-demand movies and TV, as well as fulfill, pack and ship online orders. In addition, warehouses also provide an authentic sense of place and history, they can be more sustainable if they repurpose older materials, and they allow for greater flexibility because there are fewer columns than many modern workplaces. Yet these buildings are often siloed from their communities. Instead, they can become better neighbors—especially in urban settings—and by extension, be even more efficient and sustainable.

It is critical that production studios, fulfillment centers and data centers extend beyond a fortress mentality. Doing so transforms “shed” warehouse environments into those that are mutually beneficial to both the tenants leasing them, by driving partnerships and innovation, as well as the neighborhoods that surround them, by fostering creativity and investment in local services for current and future generations.

Furthermore, as urban building stock ages, film industry studios have the unique opportunity to purchase or renovate old studios into production spaces, offices and even community gathering places that are open to the public and provide a behind-the-scenes look into the creative process. For instance, a production studio that is relocated to an urban or a more walkable neighborhood could integrate into office or residential developments and offer space to host interactive exhibitions or partnerships with local nonprofits. In addition, studios open to the public can allow people to create and share their own content. One way is to maximize accessible public space by integrating production studios with public thoroughfares, like riverfront walkways, while also providing open space for concerts and gatherings.

Also, as warehouses are usually located in the suburbs, exurbs or more rural areas of the country, providing space for them in cities can be a more sustainable option—featuring more connected urban transit not just for employees to commute to work, but for the organizations delivering goods and products to and from these warehouses. In addition, as land costs rise and building uses evolve, these “shed” spaces can maximize tight urban sites by going vertical—building up rather than out, and combining mixed-use and production studios, fulfillment and data centers into one. For instance, locating these “sheds,” which are typically three to four stories, in urban areas and surrounding them with office or residential components can help compact their footprint. Wrapping these warehouses with space for different types of uses provides longer-term flexibility. In addition, with the future wide-spread adaption of driverless cars, unused parking garages could be retrofitted or repurposed into distribution centers.

Meds: Driving Life Science and Healthy Innovation

Perhaps now more than ever, health is driving innovations—and the commercial life science industry plays a central part, especially key in the discovery of treatments that increase life expectancy. While healthcare buildings such as hospitals, academic medical centers and specialty clinics are critical forces in this arena, funding for and activity around commercial life science developments is also increasing.

One emerging trend is life science tenants that relocate to key science clusters near leading universities, such as the “golden triangle” between Oxford, London and Cambridge in England or the high concentration of colleges in Boston in the US. There is also high demand for office space conversions, from heads-down zones into lab space and collaborative amenities that allow staff to serendipitously bump into one another to learn, brainstorm and exchange ideas.

For example, The Works repurposes a warehouse in Cambridge, UK’s, burgeoning life science and technology cluster into a unique research and office environment for a new fleet of businesses to collaborate and connect. One- or two-story layouts provide tenants the space they need to expand, while a double-height atrium that hosts amenity and breakout spaces encourages tenants to brainstorm and socialize. Similarly, the University Enterprise Zone, hosted by Queen Mary University of London and funded by Research England, creates an innovative space for emerging digital health, med-tech and AI startups. Dedicated workspaces for each tenant—as well as shared meeting rooms, convertible labs and maker spaces—can grow and adapt as future space needs evolve.

The Works in Cambridge, UK, represents a new approach to life science that promotes collaboration and connection between tenants to foster new discoveries. A central atrium serves as a place to socialize and brainstorm while a variety of layouts accommodate tenants’ current and future needs.

 

Yet while life science tenants rely on collaboration to foster new discoveries and cross-disciplinary research, they are generally more private than tech. They want synergies but need to maintain confidentiality and security throughout their work. To enhance privacy while still fostering connections between different teams and organizations, developments can provide separate lab and office spaces that also feature shared amenity zones. One project in south Seattle, S, is combining 1.26 million sq of Class A lab and office space across a six-building, 6+acre, creative-class cluster-development, located around transit-oriented nodes with a focus on innovative design principles, human health, and environmental well-being.

Commercial developments are also prioritizing healthy buildings for both people and the planet. This includes imbuing projects with five key qualities—light, views, ventilation, air quality and thermal comfort—while a focus on nature can restore and rejuvenate.

Beds: Building Connective Communities

Mixed-used residential developments are becoming increasingly important anchors in communities, serving as key neighborhood lifelines with a diversity of housing types, office space, restaurants and retail, as well as shared amenities and events programming. Mixed-use developments can also help address one of the world’s largest crises—a lack of space for housing—by increasing access to more affordable housing while providing developers and even tech companies with more stable investments. Mixed-use developments with residential spaces can help kickstart vibrant communities, providing not just places for people to live, but the amenities they and surrounding neighborhoods they need to thrive. In addition, some developers are opting to switch uses to help meet the growing demand for housing, for instance, through office-to-residential renewals and conversions. As cities see vacancies rise in Class B office buildings, there is a flight to high quality buildings that are mixed-use or provide amenities that align with the market need, opening up new areas of space for housing. And, with cities continuing to flex and change during the pandemic, we may also see post-pandemic housing transition to an extended stay model to accommodate a work-from-anywhere approach.

A focus on wellness—from physical to mental and community health—as well as connectivity is shaping mixed-use developments. This extends beyond fitness centers and outdoor community yoga to healthcare clinics, nonprofit centers, spaces for environmental and governance groups, and even schools. One example is the mixed-use development Gravity, which kickstarted an up-and-coming district outside of downtown Columbus, OH. Inspired by its eclectic and creative neighborhood, it builds a welcoming infrastructure of amenities, art and culture. Residential, office, retail and community spaces stitch the community together, with unique “pocket spaces” woven between the angular buildings that provide an array of amenities: a food truck zone, gathering space for outdoor movie screenings, vegetable gardens and even a graffiti wall. Projects like Gravity are creating equitable and inclusive spaces by uniting the community, providing inviting spaces for local and visitors, and offering vital resources for the neighborhood and beyond.

Developments like Gravity in Columbus, OH are creating equitable spaces by inviting the community in and offering amenities and resources that can be enjoyed by residents, tenants and visitors alike.

 

In addition, infrastructure improvements—expanding train lines, for example—are paving new opportunities for mixed-use, extending the radius where people can live and work without needing to drive. A catalyst for sustainable urban development, the Spring District in Bellevue, WA, is a transit-oriented LEED Neighborhood-certified mixed use development that incorporates spaces for working and living as well as walkable streets, independent retail and open spaces.

As our urban spaces continue to evolve, mixed-use projects create healthier, more resilient and connected communities than stand-alone projects.  “Sheds, meds and beds” hits on three unique areas that are changing our future cities. At the same time, it is critical to consider how we can better integrate new building types and sizes into our urban fabric. Cities are changing the zoning codes to allow for more density and program uses in urban areas, and the integration of these new archetypes will greatly impact how our cities function in the future. It is imperative that real estate developers, city planners, urban designers, architects and city dwellers challenge convention to bring together traditional and nontraditional programs to create new environments. Tomorrow’s next wave of urban environments demand opportunities to live, work, play, innovate, create and make together.

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Urban Waterfronts Should Be Designed to Protect Our Communities

Four Strategies to Balance Equity, Ecology and New Development When Designing and Planning for Waterfront Revitalization

March 7, 2022

Principal, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Alan Mountjoy and Margot Jacobs.

 

For the latter half of the past century, our urban waterfronts have undergone a major transformation, from working waterfronts to places defined by leisure, recreation and economic development. In particular, the past 20 years have seen a wave of redevelopment that transformed formerly heavy industrial waterfronts to a knowledge-based economy.

Enabled by the passage of the Clean Water Act, a wave of projects—from innovation districts and multi-purpose amenities to green habitat corridors—continue to redefine river, lake and ocean shorelines. As we look to the next chapter of our waterfronts, we now have another set of environmental, social and economic factors to consider. How do we build on the momentum of these new projects while balancing equity, ecology and new development along the way? In this post, we explore four strategies to consider when designing and planning for waterfront revitalization.

Prioritize Resiliency

Although coastal cities have a more obvious challenge with rising sea levels, every community needs to become more resilient and adaptable in the face of climate change and evolving natural stressor events such as heat waves and higher intensity storms. With climate events like “100-year floods” occurring more frequently, green infrastructure—in the form of public parks, wetlands and grasslands, urban forests, green roofs and rainwater gardens—is our most affordable, effective and beneficial strategy in protecting cities from the impacts of climate change.

Thoughtful solutions can restore the natural systems that have been lost in prior industrial development and address multiple goals like reducing flooding risk, reducing heat islands, improving water quality and restoring natural habitats. For example, Louisville’s 85-acre Waterfront Park is designed specifically to flood when the Ohio River breaches its banks. This intentional inundation reduces downstream impacts by providing additional flood storage lost to prior industrialization of the flood plain. And in Shantou, China, a new urban design vision locates the densest areas of commercial and residential development inland, away from potential coastal storm surges thus freeing up the coastal waterfront for public space and cultural uses. As in Louisville, the park is designed to recover from episodic flooding with resilient design that can easily and quickly be regenerated after an event.

The urban design vision for Shantou, China’s, waterfront places the densest zones inland and connects to existing river systems by a series of canals.

 

Shift Perceptions

In many places, redeveloping waterfronts also requires a generational shift in perception and working with communities to help them reimagine waterfronts with entrenched—and often negative—reputations.

In Pittsburgh, the Riverlife Task Force had to counter years of negative storylines and neglect of the city’s once polluted and dangerous waterfronts that housed the city’s famous steel mills. Over the course of the last two decades, the Task Force has shifted public sentiment through persuasive lobbying, continuous public forums and generous funding to ensure full pedestrian access to miles of former industrial waterfront and active recreational use of the rivers despite concerns from barge operators who still ply the rivers. Today, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Park has successfully transformed into the city’s preeminent open space system, hosting nearly all the city’s celebrations and public events with new shoreline parks, sports venues and commercial and residential development facing the cleaner rivers.

The legacy of industrial waterfronts is also characterized by numerous barriers between residents and the waterfront where railways and highways have been located close to shorelines. These places are frequently near to lower income neighborhoods where working people lived to serve the labor needs of maritime industry. In addition to lack of access, lower-income communities have traditionally seen much lower rates of investment—in part because they are more likely to be located near un-remediated environmental hazards. Ensuring that waterfront planning efforts are done with full participation of the adjacent communities, and that brownfield remediation and other decontamination strategies are implemented to address the residual impact from previous industrial uses is critical to environmental justice goals and improving access and health benefits to residents.

Focus on the Human Experience

Cities have been settled along bodies of water for the benefit of commerce for millennia. But proximity to water is more than simply an economic equation. In Blue Mind, marine biologist Wallace Nichols outlines the myriad benefits we experience through our connection to bodies of water—including altering our neural pathways in ways that make us calmer, happier, healthier and more connected to ourselves and others. It’s no wonder that people in cities are looking for evermore opportunities to be reconnect to their waterfronts after industry made them inaccessible for decades. This compels a shift in thinking in how we design for waterfronts—employing an approach driven by human experience, mental health and reconnection to nature.

The next generation of multiuse and multi-beneficial projects compel a shift in thinking in how we design for waterfronts, employing an approach driven by human experience, mental health and reconnection to nature. The Mahoning River Corridor Revitalization Plan, that covers a 25-mile corridor through former steel industrial corridor in Northern Ohio, does just that. The comprehensive open space network provides convenient access a once highly polluted riverway with recreational amenities—including water demonstration gardens, an environmental learning center, and floating agriculture—for residents of Mahoning and Trumbull Counties and the region. The removal of former low-head dams allows visitors the chance to see, feel and interact with a cleaner river and myriad wildlife that has returned to its banks and the chance to kayak and swim in a newly free flowing river.

When restoring waterfronts, it is also crucial to work with underlying dynamic processes and other environmental factors rather than fight against them. Development should be grounded in the ecology of the surrounding area, working with natural systems. In some landscapes, it is also necessary to amplify the natural protections systems such as sand dunes, kelp beds, mangroves or even fallen logs to protect against climate change while still harnessing the natural defenses inherent in the original landscape processes.

Redefine the “Working” Waterfront

Despite years of disinvestment in waterfronts due to offshoring of heavy industry and the consolidation of global maritime cargo into larger containerized ports, we are seeing a return to the “working waterfront” with more light-industrial uses—from prefabrication assembly sites to artisanal creative industries—coming back to our waterfronts. For example, the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, which served as America’s premier naval shipbuilding facility until it was decommissioned in 1966, is currently undergoing its largest expansion since WWII and is now home to organizations ranging from film and television production studios to a Green Manufacturing Center and the country’s largest rooftop farm.

However, the transformation of our waterfronts from heavy industry and maritime uses and the various forms of gentrification that creative clustering can trigger inevitably creates unease around existing livelihoods and fears of economic displacement. In Boston, where the waterfronts are under strong pressure for redevelopment, commercial developments are exploring a hybrid model: incorporating traditional water-dependent industry at the ground floor while reserving the upper floors for offices and biotechnology laboratories that cater to the market demand.

Commercial developments on Boston’s waterfront must cater to a true mix of uses including traditional maritime industry as well as science and technology companies. 

 

Finally, while the idea of a working waterfront may still call to mind billowing smokestacks or crowded, polluted conditions, today’s definition of industry is not the same as it was just 50 years ago. Waterfronts that were once dominated by oil and energy importing and refining facilities now serve as places where we export oil from shale and ports on the East Coast—in places like North Carolina, Rhode Island and the Gulf of Maine—are transitioning to places for deployment of offshore wind.  The so-called Blue Economy promises to exploit more of our oceans for sustainable industries only just emerging in research labs.

Waterfront redevelopment is a delicate balancing act, reconciling economic opportunities with an equal concern for equity and resiliency. This moment, even with all its uncertainty, provides planners an opportunity to design the future of our waterfronts in a way that can protect our communities while building toward a more environmentally sound future.

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From Insight to Action

Three Ways Design Computation Empowers Better Decision-Making

February 17, 2022

Principal, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Megha Sinha, Nate Holland and Melissa Alexander

 

Computational tools—which harness the power of computation to streamline decision making—were once considered “nice to have.” Now they are integral to the design process. So why should clients care?

The reason is simple. Computation gives planners and designers the ability to quickly translate thousands or even millions of data sets into actionable insights. Not only does this lead to better engagement with clients and the community, it also creates more successful projects.

While important to all aspects of design, it is especially relevant to planning neighborhoods, districts and cities. Here, we explore three main opportunities—and corresponding real-world examples—for the use of computational tools in urban planning projects.

Simplify the Design Process to Create More Tailored Outcomes

Opportunity: Computational tools can simplify the planning and design process by allowing project teams to organize and analyze mountains of data sets into leverageable insights.

Example: At Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, planners were tasked with developing a comprehensive long-term master plan grounded in data. Using computational tools, the project team was able to translate over a terabyte of data related to land use, ground water information, topography, trees, and use and conditions data about each building and room on campus into models. These models quickly showed how planning decisions would affect physical space and identify use patterns and opportunities. Further, the insights helped the university decide which facilities could be renovated or replaced, pinpoint the best areas for new investments, identify the most strategic targets for limited capital funding, and budget for the most impactful interventions on their historic land-grant campus.

For the LSU Campus Master Plan, linking robust data sets related to all campus systems, landscape, building size, function, age and architecture through a custom-built interactive 3D GIS-based model quickly and accurately showed how planning decisions affect physical space.

 

Deepen Community Engagement, Co-Design and Input

Opportunity: Computational tools can make the planning process—and outputs—empathetic by giving communities more transparency into the design process, and more opportunities to provide feedback and build consensus with other stakeholders.

Example: On the LSU project, a 24-7 data exchange portal allowed planners to get input from students and staff on how they travel throughout the campus, including their typical paths and modes of travel, and note how they feel while moving across campus. On another project, the Wilburton Commercial Area plan, an upzoning planning study in Bellevue, WA, citizens advisory committee members were able to mark up a 2D map of the area with crayons which became automatic inputs for 3D tools, generating different city forms based on the land use ideas. This rapid visualization enabled quick iteration to build consensus around numerous differing inputs and collectively determine next steps.

Computational tools allowed citizens advisory committee members to mark up a 2D map of the proposed Wilburton Commercial Area plan as an interactive input for a custom data rich 3D modeling platform.

 

Empower Clients to Make More Informed Decisions

Opportunity: Computational tools make the design process more collaborative by providing clients with the tools to make objective and informed decisions.

Example: The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, TN—the largest US Department of Energy science and energy laboratory—needed to develop an interactive 3D GIS-based decision-making tool to guide its multi-year planning and budgeting process for facilities and supporting infrastructure on the 300-acre Experimental Gas-Cooled Reactor (EGCR) campus. In response, the planning team created a tool with an easy-to-use interface that allows a user to easily manipulate physical campus planning scenarios and test and compare development options for feasibility and cost implications. The tool is now being used by the client team to test out potential sites on their campus to locate development projects as the need arises.

In many cases, planning tools like this one created for Oak Ridge National Laboratory are becoming final deliverables for clients, allowing users to easily test and compare development options within their own organizations.

 

One important thread that weaves through the examples above is the growing interdependence between designers and planners, and the tools they use. The artful interweaving of data and information with empathy and intuition can improve our urban environments and create lasting results for clients and the community.

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