October 2, 2003

Reinventing the residential high-rise

  • Growth, regulation and traffic are causing a shift toward high-rise living
    Weber + Thompson

    The Edge
    GBD Architects
    The Edge is under construction in Portland. The LEED-certified compact high-rise building is designed in the “loft aesthetic.” Units have big windows, few walls, exposed concrete ceilings, wood floors, and stainless kitchens.

    Over the next decade, the U.S. population will grow by 30 million people. The population of King County is projected to expand by 500,000. Meanwhile, our buildable land supply continues to shrink.

    Add the following three major confluences to this tension between supply and demand: current growth management restrictions designed to curb sprawl and preserve rapidly diminishing forest, farm and water habitat; worsening traffic congestion; and a lifestyle shift whereby we now value free time and convenience above almost all else.

    The result will be an inevitable shift toward high-density, high-rise urban housing.

    Consider this astonishing example: the average suburban planned community requires about 7,000 square feet of land per house. In Seattle, the first true residential high-rise in 13 years is under construction near Pike Place Market with 197 units on less than 14,000 square feet of land. In other words, this new high-rise condo will provide 195 more residential dwellings on the same amount of land devoted to only two houses in a planned suburban community!

    It is a given that Seattle and other West Coast cities will experience a proliferation of high-rise residential projects that will densify our urban cores — a trend that is in sympathy with the Growth Management Act that seeks to curb incessant sprawl. This trend will forever change the way many of us live. What influences this shift toward high density, vertical housing, and how is the residential high-rise being reinvented to create a meaningful lifestyle choice?

    Less sub, more urban

    Today’s residential developer is faced with a scarcity of economically viable land, increased impact fees surcharged by many municipalities in order to help pay for infrastructure impacts, and opposition from “not in my backyard” types that often create costly project delays.

    The intent of the Growth Management Act is to protect the environment and reduce sprawl. GMA accomplishes this mission — at least in part — by decreasing the availability of viable land outside the urban centers. As suburban land prices, impact fees and entitlement costs escalate, the ability for making a reasonable profit to balance the risk of development in suburbia is increasingly margin-thin.

    Compound all of this with an escalating insurance crisis that is in part due to an abundance of lawsuits against those in the wood-frame construction industry, and it’s not hard to see why many developers are moving back into the city, where high-density housing development is welcomed.

    Urban infill development capitalizes on mature infrastructure and captures economies of scale based on density. Also, because these infill structures are constructed of more permanent materials, many construction problems associated with wood-frame construction are mitigated.

    Many traditionally suburban developers are recognizing both practical and economic reasons for shifting to urban infill projects, and this trend is expected to gain velocity in the coming years.

    It’s about time

    Weber + Thompson
    Cristalla is currently under construction near Pike Place Market. The project will contain 197 units using the same amount of ground required for only two suburban houses.

    It’s not for everyone, but converts to high-rise living swear by it as a vastly superior alternate to living in suburbia.

    What is it that most appeals to those that convert to living in the sky? The primary incentive appears to be time. Daily commutes rob us of valuable personal time, cultural opportunities and community life. When precious free time can be spent enjoying the things we value most — instead of fighting traffic — our quality of life improves. Not having to be a slave to one’s house or car can be liberating.

    Many are rediscovering the pedestrian joy found inside a city that is full of cultural and sensual seductions. Unlike suburbia, which often lacks a soul, the cityscape has evolved slowly over time — just like good cooking. Being able to walk to great restaurants and entertainment venues, or to the Pike Place Market for fresh-off-the-farm produce is more rewarding than a car trip to the mall.

    City dwellers also like the peace of mind that comes with knowing that someone else is tasked with maintaining and securing the building. A high-rise condo homeowner can leave on a moment’s notice, knowing that his/her unit will be safe and sound.

    Many people are leaving a single larger home in favor of multiple smaller homes that allow for variety in their living accommodations; a pied-a-terre in the city and another smaller home on the island or out in the country. Simplifying life by downsizing and learning to live with less of the “stuff” that comes with a large house can translate to new freedoms.

    Welcome to the 21st century

    It’s not hard to see why the benefits of high-rise living are appreciated both by environmentalists for reducing environment impact through urban center densification, and by city dwellers for promoting a liberating lifestyle alternate.

    More people are moving back into the city and the trend toward high-rise living in the 21st century is clear — But how will the design of these new towers evolve in response to changing lifestyle demands? In order to create meaningful and livable spaces that enrich the lives of those who live in high-rise “boxes,” architects must rethink conventional residential high-rise design criteria.

    What’s the plan?

    The successful design of a high-rise condominium unit requires more than a furnishable floor plan. It is essential to connect philosophically and emotionally to the values and lifestyle needs of the target buyer, based on a study of psychographic buyer profiles.

    Creating a bond between buyer and product is vital. Customization is an emerging trend that is here to stay. Allowing buyers to tweak their unit plans a bit and craft their own finishes helps them bond with their new home prior to moving in. For the developer, this makes buyers less fickle and more likely to lock in on a purchase.

    Loft aesthetic

    The residential loft idea was originally conceived in New York City half a century ago, as struggling artists converted vacant warehouses and factories to live and work in. More recently, the appeal of the loft aesthetic — huge windows, open spaces with few walls, exposed concrete ceilings and mechanical ducts, expansive wood or stone floors, and bathrooms/kitchens made of concrete or stone and stainless steel — is being integrated into some high-rise projects, at least as a part of the unit mix. This is especially appealing to younger buyers who thrive on an edgy urban experience. We will see more of this in the future.

    Room service

    The hotel/condominium combination — highly successful in cities like New York and Chicago — is anticipated to make an appearance in Seattle in at least two projects in the next few years. For the condo buyer looking for that extra level of pampered service and security, the combination of uses provides the luxury of curbside valet service, hotel-style concierge care, room service, house keeping and on-site event catering. The idea of combining a four- or five-star hotel with a condominium is particularly appealing to world travelers with homes in multiple cities.

    Bright lights

    It’s all about the view and the light. Living in a high-rise provides a constantly changing post card view. In Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., Portland and San Diego, we are blessed with sensational water, cityscape and geographic views. Many high-rise dwellers state that their outlook on life improves with the view from a tower — even inclement weather is fun to watch when living in the sky!

    In recent years, spectacular advancements have been made in technology to allow for energy-efficient floor-to-ceiling glass, which is often cited as the feature that condo buyers desire most.

    Where is my garden?

    Quality high-rise projects provide generous courtyards, rooftop gardens and terraces, decks or walking areas. Some high-rise homeowners miss their yards and gardens, but most find it liberating to manage a smaller deck garden in pots, and believe that the large common patios and terraces give them plenty of space for enjoying plants and flowers without the maintenance.

    1000 First
    GENSLER / Weber + Thompson
    1000 First will be Seattle's first high-rise condo/hotel. Homeowners can use the services of valet, hotel concierge, room service, housekeeping and on-site catering. Construction is slated for 2004.

    Vertical New Urbanism

    Psychologists lament that in the automobile-focused suburbs, people become disconnected, lacking a sense of community. By thinking of the residential tower as a city in itself, the architect can apply some fundamental urban design principles that are normally considered only at the ground plane in order to foster a sense of community.

    High-rise condo dwellers relish their privacy, but most also appreciate the opportunity for chance meetings of their neighbors in “the public realm” — which in the case of a tower occurs in the hallways, which are like streets; in the lobbies, which are like plazas; and in the amenity and garden terrace areas, which are like the proverbial “town center.” The transition between the public and private zones is important. For example, residential doors should be inset with an alcove in order to provide a buffer from the “street.” This small gesture says: “This is my front porch.”

    Common amenity areas should be carefully designed to foster a sense of community and should be located where there is sun and view and not relegated to substandard or leftover spaces. Place-making is about creating evocative places that are grounded in time and history. It is important to recognize that every residential tower should create a connection to the past by saving vestiges of what was once there if possible, or at the very least by providing photos and stories that allude to the past.

    Creating meaningful gathering spaces and transitions between public and private zones is just good design. A little bit of urban design goes a long way, and thoughtful developers appreciate the fact that this helps buildings sell.

    Welcome home

    Before the invention of the suburbs, most people lived and worked in the city. Here in the 21st century, many of us have come full circle. We have returned to the city not because we have to, but because it feels like home.

    Blaine J. Weber, AIA, is a partner at Weber + Thompson, a Seattle-based architectural and interior design firm focused on the design of high-rise towers and live/work/play mixed-use structures.

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