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October 28, 2010

Architectural viability can enhance mixed-use projects

  • The most crucial decisions by developers are made during the pre-design and concept design phases.


    An urban mixed-use development is the archetype of smart growth strategies. It is endorsed by the state Growth Management Act, most municipal planning departments and numerous sustainability publications. Because dense urban mixed-use developments can reverse so many of our society’s environmental, health and economic problems, they are important resources not only for the people in the region, the community, the neighborhood, the block and the buildings, but most certainly for their developers.

    However, developers of urban mixed-use projects have substantially more to lose or gain than other individual stakeholders. Developers are responsible for making numerous risky decisions about their projects that can significantly define their eventual success.

    Their early decisions establish the project’s essential DNA upon which all of their following decisions are based. These initial macro-decisions are so substantial that subsequent remedial ones may not offset the magnitude of early missed opportunities. None of their project decisions are more crucial than those made during the initial pre-design and concept design phases.

    Initial influences

    During the pre-design phase, the developer aspires to create a project that represents their company’s values. Initial aspirations involve the developer’s preferred types of uses, proportion of uses, market targets, structure types, amenity priorities, sustainable strategies, development scales, construction phases, qualities and quantities.

    Also during the pre-design phase, the project’s site is selected. The unique inspirations that are inherent in each specific site include its proximities, dimensions, area, proportions, topography, geology and hydrology, infrastructure, easements, access, exposures, views, existing and future contexts, neighborhood guidelines, and all of the site-associated zoning, building, transportation, fire and environmental code regulations.

    Each site’s unique inspirations can substantially influence the development project. For instance, two properties may be identical except for their proportions. This one variable alone could produce considerably inefficient site utilization or compromised floor plans. Without adequately exploring conceptual designs, this fact would not be revealed until much later in the design process — after the inappropriate property had already been purchased and valuable time was wasted.

    By not designing with all of the site-specific inspirations, a development’s conceptual capacity is likely to be extremely suspect. A seemingly innocuous and unnoticed jurisdictional exception, interpretation, definition, overlay, or measurement technique could produce similar consequences.

    To further complicate the development process, program aspirations and site inspirations are always changing:

    • Demographics are cyclical.

    • Lifestyles mature.

    • Tastes vary.

    • Sustainable strategies evolve.

    • Economies contract and expand.

    • Technologies modify space needs.

    • New transit routes predict development paths and concentrate density.

    • Codes are periodically reconsidered, challenged and rewritten.

    • Buildings become too obsolete to renovate.

    • New neighboring developments and existing contentious neighbors influence future development.

    Despite these complications, constant changes also guarantee that new urban developments will always be needed and confident, well-informed developers will always take the risk to meet the changing demand.

    Enhanced predictions

    So how can urban mixed-use project developers reduce their risks and enhance their prospects?

    During the pre-design phase, the architects collaborate with the developer and lead the pre-design team. They analyze and document the developer’s program aspirations, the specific site’s inspirations and the jurisdictional requirements to discover compliant and compatible relationships.

    Sometimes, site inadequacies or code conflicts are revealed that will impede the program’s full realization. Diligent discoveries frequently expose unseen opportunities for enhanced development. Often, the program is modified to better coordinate with the specific site opportunities. A pre-design feasibility study is usually produced that summarizes the findings and describes the likely appropriateness of the program and site design determinants.

    During the concept design phase, the architects lead the design team to synthesize the design determinants and integrate the favorable relationships to create conceptual designs. As this design process becomes iteratively refined, beneficial synergies are revealed, which can further enhance the conceptual design. These creative insights can transform a challenging property into a cherished project. The resulting optimal design concept will exhibit confirmed feasibility and can express lively viability, if sustainable smart growth strategies are used.

    Lively viability

    Most urban communities promote smart growth sustainable principles with incentives that encourage the lively viability of vibrant urban developments. Although the range of sustainable features that can be designed during the concept design phase is more limited than during subsequent design and development phases, sensitive considerations for sustainable site planning, building massing, architectural configurations and orientations can be proactively integrated.

    These primary architectural viability ideas for mixed-use developments can be considered during the concept design phase to initiate optimal synergies:

    • Configure and orient buildings to harvest, conserve, regulate and discharge natural elements such as energy, light, wind and water.

    • Vitalize pedestrian activities to engage with common amenities.

    • Acknowledge and accommodate concerns for community and privacy.

    • Propose common areas with internal and external views.

    • Correlate the architecture with the topography and landscape.

    • Consolidate extended-season entry plazas, landscape and sidewalk amenities.

    • Integrate solar panels or passive solar glazing with the building forms.

    • Consider flat roofs for future green materials and roof decks.

    • Orient residential units to the south, east and west for natural daylight.

    • Resolve office daylighting/glare conflicts with proper window orientations.

    • Coordinate functional requirements and infrastructure availabilities.

    • Relate operable windows and prevailing breezes.

    • Incorporate live/work units.

    • Include convertible units and multi-use spaces.

    • Add affordable or demographically oriented units in the residential mix.

    • Combine a variety of synergistic uses.

    • Share parking or reduce quantities.

    • Position uses to positively relate to adjacent developments.

    With feasibility studies, developers can predict likely capacities. With viability concept design services, they can also perceive lively capabilities. In this risky competitive economy, creating likely capacities and lively viability during the earliest phases should enhance the success of vibrant urban mixed-use developments.

    ArchiViable specializes in providing architectural viability concept design services for developers of urban single- and mixed-use projects consisting of residential, retail, office, hospitality and educational uses. Owner/architect Ken Jensen has specialized in providing this service for the last quarter of his 30-year career while associated with reputable western states architectural firms.

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