October 25, 2007

Tiny urban lots are full of challenges and rewards

  • “Pocket” sites are now feasible for development with the right design approach.


    Over the past 50 years, the trend in city growth has been outward into the suburbs. Fueled by automobiles, suburban expansion has largely been a commuter proposition.

    That tide, however, has changed. Within decades, it’s predicted that Seattle’s center city will produce 50,000 new jobs and more than 22,000 new housing units. The total regional growth target, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council, is 909,000 new residents between the years 2022 to 2025 — with nearly 60 percent of that growth in cities.

    This trend in urban revitalization has resulted in the need to rethink what constitutes a buildable lot. In order to truly maximize density, properties that may have formerly been considered too small should now be re-considered.

    Thinking small

    Image courtesy of GIS International Group
    The design team for Bellevue's European Tower was inspired by the International Style, where beauty and form of function are favored over ornamental flourishes.

    Progressive cities — such as New York, Toronto and Seattle — are developing “pocket” sites in an approach that simultaneously and ingeniously addresses the most complicated issues for extraordinary small urban site development.

    This innovative design approach leverages small sites through the use of unique features such as automated parking systems and single unit floor plates. It’s not an entirely new approach; New York’s legendary Flatiron Building, built on a small, triangular block in Manhattan, is considered one of the finest buildings in the world.

    What is new is the distinctly modern take on the issue. Many of the new slender towers are part whimsical, instantly memorable, quite practical and, given the rapidly constricting nature of urban development, absolutely vital.

    One of these creative and innovative projects is European Tower, a 200-foot-tall condominium building located in downtown Bellevue. It is the first of the new small-lot developments in the Puget Sound area.

    Early collaboration

    To be successful, any small site development has to start with a close collaboration between designers and engineers. When space is at a premium, and not one square inch can be wasted, working closely is mandatory to a project’s success.

    From the start, architect CollinsWoerman and structural engineer DCI Engineers worked closely with developer GIS International Group to plan European Tower. The primary architecture and engineering firms — along with additional team members for specialty systems — worked closely to solve potential problems on paper long before construction started.

    With a 6,600-square-foot lot to work with — less than a typical house lot — it was decided early on to take a design cue from that single-family analogy.

    “We were attracted to this project for two reasons: the density of development on an extremely small urban site and the single unit per floor concept,” said Mark Woerman, principal at CollinsWoerman. “European Tower is at the leading edge on both fronts — there’s nothing comparable in the market.”

    Eugene Gershman, chief operating officer at GIS, said, “We loved this concept because it offers larger spaces not typically found in the urban core. Not only is European Tower nestled in a neighborhood where residents can work and play, it also retains the feel of a single-family home.”

    An international flair

    The European Tower design team reached back to the International Style for inspiration. A movement from about the 1920s to the 1940s, the central concepts fit well with the single-home-per-floor concept — expressing the volume of a space rather than its mass, seeking space separation through balance and changes in elevation, and reducing elements for the sake of decoration. The beauty of form and function are favored over ornamental flourishes.

    With a full floor for each residence to work with, the design team accentuated high ceilings with loft-height windows. The Northwest can be a dark place, so bringing in light is a sensible solution.

    The engineering team also took advantage of improvements in construction materials and technologies.

    “Advances in materials, which make them lighter and stronger, allowed us to shy away from bulky looking features while still retaining strength and safety,” said Guy Conversano, principal at DCI Engineers. “We worked collaboratively in design and construction in order to utilize every inch of space within the building’s footprint.”

    These design choices also give European Tower a pleasant street appeal. On a small lot, a “heavy” building with hard edges favoring concrete would seem oppressive. By choosing an international flair, the building seems to float.

    Such considerations are an important element in developing any small lot. Urban density doesn’t have to present as a monolithic, dense urban landscape. Good design, even on small lots, can provide space and beauty.

    Innovative solutions

    One major issue preventing small-lot development in the past has been parking. Sensible regulation states that room for cars must be provided in residential buildings, but a traditional parking lot would eat up a massive amount of space.

    However, through technological innovations, parking can be addressed, as well. Cars at European Tower will be automatically sorted and stored below grade through an automated vehicle storage system — increasing safety and efficiency without sacrificing convenience or space.

    The auto-storage system acts as a true enabler for the project, allowing the design team to meet city requirements for parking and access, without limiting space needed for critical systems.

    “In the past, no one would think to build on a small lot because of the parking issue,” said Conversano. “Now, automated parking cuts that space usage problem down to a manageable figure.”

    Golden opportunities

    The good news is that both Seattle and Bellevue have an abundance of pocket sites to work with. When street grids were laid out over the course of the past 100 years, they had to circumvent features such as hills, lakes, canals and the sound. The resulting borders left small, oddly shaped sites whose development potential was largely ignored. Now, those sites present a golden opportunity for builders and architects that are willing to be creative.

    As cities get denser and more people move back to city centers to get away from long commutes, developers will reconsider lots that had previously been rejected. But if size can be turned into an advantage, if the design teams can rise to the challenge with ideas and construction innovation that turn the space into a distinct and unique living experience, then those underutilized properties suddenly become high-value examples of a true urban renaissance.

    John Whitlow is an associate at CollinsWoerman, the Bellevue-based architecture, planning and interior design firm in charge of European Tower’s design.

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