Let’s Restore Hands-on “Making” and Social Justice to Innovation

Reflections on the Future of the Innovation Economy in Boston

November 15, 2016

Partner, NBBJ

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”
—Thomas Edison

I love this quote from Thomas Edison, because it represents the cerebral side and the hands-on, “making” side of innovation. So often we talk about innovation as purely a matter of ideation, not of practical intelligence. Yet there are fantastic intelligences that can be gleaned from making. We invent at our peril without a pile of junk nearby.

Take batteries, for instance. Countries like Korea and China long ago took the lead in battery technology and production. Now the United States is trying to ramp up the development of batteries for sustainable energy, but with the exception of Tesla, the U.S. no longer has the knowledge. So making informs research.

This quote by Edison returned to me at a recent NBBJ salon event, which focused on the future of the innovation economy in Boston. With its world-class universities, technology companies, startups, biotech firms and medical institutions, Boston has long had the research down. But it doesn’t have the making.

Therein might be the solution to inequality. How do we spread the largesse and rewards of an innovation economy to people who don’t have a Ph.D.? By bringing making to innovation. The next Bill Gates will be fine: there are endless opportunities for people who code, but that is a rarified skill. Where are the fifteen-dollar-an-hour jobs? Where is the work for people who don’t have a college education?

By restoring making to innovation — locally, in Boston — we can build an innovation economy based on social justice. After all, Massachusetts was the first to offer public education, thanks to Horace Mann in the 1840s. The first lending library was the Boston Public Library. We have amazing, historic examples in Boston of spreading innovation as a matter of economic justice. What is this generation doing to spread innovation?

Two possibilities came up during the salon. (1) In the same way market-rate housing can be used to subsidize affordable housing, market-rate office space can be used to subsidize affordable incubator space, which could be limited to small firms that aren’t backed by venture capital. (2) Transportation. A proper transportation network, by providing access to more and more housing and workplaces, unlocks affordability.

One final thought… At a recent conference, “Innovation and the City,” hosted by Microsoft here in Cambridge, I heard it said that innovative spaces are places where people let down their guard and recognize each other’s interests and humanity. It’s a powerful sense, that empathy is critical to understanding how to make a group move forward. Are we providing the spaces where people can do that? Is it a town hall? Perhaps it was the space under the Liberty Tree in Boston Common, or the café culture of Berlin in the 1920s or Greenwich Village in the 1960s, or an extraordinary theater experience, or an exhibition of paintings, or a walk or hike in the landscape. Or is it a place to just sit by the fire and break bread? Innovation needs more than an incubator: it needs great public spaces, it needs community-building in its grandest sense.

Image courtesy of Pexels.


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How Mixed-Use Developments Are Going to Evolve

Millennials and Empty Nesters Both Want Experiences, Not Real Estate. Here’s How to Keep Competitive.

November 1, 2016


Editor’s Note: This Q&A developed out of a panel discussion NBBJ hosted as part of the CEOs for Cities national meeting, held September 28 in Columbus, Ohio. Panelists included Brett Kaufman, founder and CEO of Kaufman Development; Mackenzie King, director of design research & insight translation at Lextant; and Daniel Ayars, a principal at NBBJ. The discussion was moderated by Jim Weiker, real estate and housing journalist for the Columbus Dispatch. Responses have been edited for length.


Jim: Why are mixed-use development projects becoming popular, especially in urban settings?

Dan: A lot of people are saying Millennials want to move back downtown, but if you look at the mix in our 250 High building, it’s not just the younger generation, but also empty nesters and others who want to move into walkable areas. It’s happening overseas because of land costs and scarcity, but in the Midwest it’s about proximity to different opportunities within the city.

Brett: There’s an urban sensibility, an energy that people desire. The suburbs are something that people enjoy for certain stages of their life, but the energy of an urban experience is one that people increasingly seem to be seeking. In order to truly create that, a mix of uses is a requirement.

Now, you can’t always combine uses right away, based on market cycles and demand — in Columbus, we led with residential, so that we could create a demand for the other uses. Moving forward, being able to mix uses in single projects, as opposed to separately throughout the city, is where things are starting to evolve.

Mackenzie: So many consumer goods or technology companies are driven by the idea of connectedness, and wanting to be closer to the things you use every day and the people with whom you want to surround yourself. Mixed-use developments allow for that. They allow you to be closer to the city, closer to the energy, closer to green spaces or the shops you frequent.


Jim: Is it easier to design a single-use project than a mixed-use project? What makes a mixed-use project challenging?

Dan: Each use — retail, office and residential — has specific requirements. Your bedroom and living room together are a standard width, say, 25 feet. Offices, however, have a different module, based on desk space. When you stack these uses and align them with the grid of columns that support the building, they don’t always align.

Then there are complications around vertical circulation. In this building there are two sets of elevators: one travels six floors for the offices; the other, twelve floors for the residences. You also have more services that run up and down the building: a retail space with a kitchen needs to exhaust, which requires a shaft to the top. There’s also a trash chute from the residential floors down. Everything gets bigger and bigger, which makes the development less efficient, and therefore more expensive.

All those things impose a cost, but hopefully the value of mixed-use outweighs the complications.


Jim: A lot of tenants are probably not Millennials but empty nesters with the desire to shed the McMansion. Is that true?

Brett: Here in Columbus at least, the majority is still a Millennial market, although we’re seeing that shift more and more. On one recent project we converted 14 units into seven larger “penthouse” units, with the hope of attracting more of that empty nester segment. And we did. One person moved from the Muirfield golf community; another couple moved from Charleston to be closer to their daughter at Ohio State. I expect that to continue to grow.

Mackenzie: I heard recently about empty nesters who were looking at a new development and quickly dismissed it, because subconsciously they thought the dining room was too small for a large dining table, and they didn’t feel like it was a home. So the developer went back to the drawing board, made the dining room larger, and charged extra for storage in the basement instead. That made a big difference because that family can now gather around a big table and have their home, but they also have an urban lifestyle of hopping on a bus and going to a bar or restaurant for the evening. Those little considerations have a big impact.

Brett: On the subject of mixed-use, we’re also finding that when a hotel is nearby, people decide they’d rather have a larger living space than a guest bedroom, because they can put people up in the hotel instead. So a true mixed-use environment can sometimes solve short-term needs, and people can maximize the spaces they use the most.


Jim: Brett, you announced a mixed-use project earlier this year in Franklinton, an area near downtown with a lot of potential. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Brett: We see it as an evolution of our business and — aspirationally — of how people develop mixed-use projects. There’s an outdoor movie screen, rock-climbing walls, a heavy arts component, but the focus is really on the content we plan to program for the space. It’s about curating an environment for events, festivals, lectures, things that create an experience for the people who live and work there. Hopefully that drives value to the real estate.


Jim: What is on the horizon from a design, use or marketing standpoint? What are we going to see in five or 10 years?

Dan: We’re starting to look at things like education. You don’t see many mixed-use projects that have a school at the base, where people are not only working and living, but also attending class and teaching. That would engage a building in a very different way.

Brett: The market right now is saying amenities have to be grand, large, unique, but we’re trying to build amenities as part of mixed-use: things like a co-working space, coffee shop, bar, restaurant, gallery or artists’ studio. They’re retail in nature, but they’re all really amenities. Where maybe you formerly would have sat in a community room, now you go downstairs and sit in a coffee shop. The retail component really becomes the amenity.


Jim: When we first started hearing about mixed-use, it wasn’t downtown at all — downtown already was mixed-use — but in suburban, planned communities. Do you still see a future for mixed-use suburban developments?

Brett: Suburbs are evolving. We’re trying to create environments that have urban sensibilities, both in the building product — more contemporary, more sustainable — but also in the mix of uses. For instance, instead of golf-course neighborhoods, we’re now building “agri-hoods” with open space, outdoor event lawns, yoga terraces, artists’ studios and more. To be able to weave those things together in a walkable town center or suburban downtown, and to create an urban-suburban experience, is where suburban mixed-use is headed.


Image courtesy of Pexels.

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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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