December 14, 2006

High-rises open the door to high design

  • Architects have an opportunity to create high-rises that put people first and inject life into Seattle’s urban neighborhoods.
    MulvannyG2 Architecture

    Images courtesy of MulvannyG2 Architecture
    Seneca Towers in downtown Seattle was designed with seven- and 24-story towers to preserve views for interior-facing residents.

    When the Seattle City Council relaxed height restrictions on downtown buildings earlier this year, it opened a floodgate of development. A number of high-profile projects took shape immediately — and more are on the way.

    Indeed, a November report from the Urban Land Institute, citing a survey of more than 600 real estate professionals, identified Seattle as the country’s most attractive commercial real estate market — putting it ahead of New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco.

    With so many projects on the boards, the scene has been set for an exciting chapter in Seattle architecture. Developers are increasingly turning to innovative design as a way to distinguish their high-rises from competing projects and to make them more desirable to prospective occupants and future buyers.

    What qualifies as innovative design in this new era? Simple: Design that is creative, sustainable and, above all, design that serves and excites both the people who will live in the buildings and the communities that will live with them.

    The art of the high-rise

    It’s a great time to be an architect in Seattle. Developers of higher-end buildings no longer want boxy, brick-faced buildings that deliver efficiency above all. To help their buildings stand apart, they want function and form.

    “That’s the opportunity and the promise of the new downtown zoning ordinance,” says Douglas Howe, president of Touchstone Corp., a regional development firm. “Hopefully, it will encourage some exceptional architecture.”

    In the past, architects who wanted to push the creative envelope faced limits both in what was possible to engineer, and in the budgets developers would tolerate. Also, distinctive design too often meant compromising usable space. (That observation deck in the apex of the Empire State Building, for example, is only there because the space was too odd for the developer to lease.)

    Today, architects can leverage cutting-edge engineering and advanced building materials to create structures that deliver high design, abundant usable space, and a higher price per square foot.

    Douglas Howe says West 8th, the 28-story office tower in the Denny Triangle that his company is developing, is a good example of the opportunities relaxed zoning creates. “It has distinct shape and form. It will be slender. It will be light,” he said. He also points to Opus Northwest’s 38-story Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue, as well as Gerding Edlen’s Bellevue Towers, as two examples of creative design among residential high-rises.

    For Joseph Strobele, president and CEO of Lexas Companies, the artistic touches at street level are the architectural elements that most contribute to the pedestrian experience.

    “There’s only so much you can do with a high-rise,” he says. “You can change the color of the glass. You can put an architectural element on top. But the base is really where you can make a difference in the cityscape.”

    Escala, Lexas Companies’ 30-story residential high-rise at Fourth and Virginia, will meld a modern, sculpted tower with an elaborate, neo-classic base that requires custom-made concrete forms, a special concrete mix, custom welding, and more. Strobele says it is those kinds of design details that appeal to the high-end buyers Escala is courting.

    Other architecturally notable buildings under way include Levin Menzies & Associates’ asymmetrical Seneca Towers building at Eighth and Seneca, and R.C. Hedreen Co.’s Olive 8, which, at a proposed 39 stories, is bidding to become the city’s tallest residential high-rise.

    Building greener

    The future of Seattle’s high-rises could evolve into out-of-the-box buildings similar to the proposed Zhengjiang Qianjiang Financial Center in China.

    For the coming generation of high-rises, an eye-catching form is just part of the story. These buildings are also being designed in a more environmentally conscious manner.

    Increasing numbers of projects are striving for LEED certification from the U.S. Green Buildings Council. In fact, under Seattle’s new zoning laws, a LEED silver rating is required for buildings that want to reach the 500-foot height limit. Designs now emphasize such elements as energy efficiency, better stormwater drainage, natural light, fresh air, low-emission finishes and recycled building materials.

    “It’s easier to build more sustainably today,” says Touchstone’s Howe, whose West 8th is seeking LEED gold CS certification. “You have more suppliers of sustainable solutions, so costs have come down. Plus, as we developers become more experienced with high-performance, sustainable design, we can better make decisions that increase sustainability while adding to the bottom line.”

    Lexas Companies’ Strobele notes that, while sustainable design is the right thing to do, it’s not yet a big selling point. “So far, it’s made no discernible difference to our buyers,” Strobele said. He likens sustainable design to hybrid cars. Most consumers like the idea, but aren’t yet willing to pay more for it. “They’d rather have a good location, lots of amenities and rich finishes,” he said.

    Design for the people

    In addition to creative architecture and sustainable construction, developers are also putting a premium on buildings that are more people-friendly. Once considered by some to be community-killing monoliths — a perception that led to the CAP limits Seattle voters placed on downtown buildings in 1989 — high-rises are now viewed as part of the solution for revitalizing downtowns and curtailing sprawl.

    Often, people-friendly translates to mixed-use. Where a developer may have once simply put up an office building, they’re now as likely to fill the same parcel with condominiums, offices, or a hotel, plus, shops, restaurants, health clubs and more — all the essentials of a thriving neighborhood.

    Residential towers typically feature large decks, community spaces, and the kinds of amenities and services once only found in luxury hotels. At Escala, particular attention was paid to the design of the units themselves. Architects designed the condominiums first, and then created the building’s skin around them — a reversal of the typical design process, and, according to Strobele, the first time a building in Seattle has been designed that way.

    A glimpse of the future?

    Seattle’s design trends are consistent with those in other hot high-rise markets, particularly Asia. In China, for example, government officials and developers eager to leave a legacy have recently encouraged the creation of buildings that are a spectacular departure from traditional design — and a boon to surrounding communities.

    Escala, a 30-story condo tower in downtown Seattle, will sit atop a neo-classical base designed to complement the neighborhood.

    In Xiamen, the China Construction Bank built a 42-story headquarters — the tallest building in the city’s skyline — that takes its form from Xiamen’s signature rock formations and oceanfront setting. A provincial power company in Fuzhou created a 32-story building whose profile suggests a flash of lightning, and another power company built a dispatch center in Shanghai that draws inspiration from the shape of a turbine. Like the new high-rises in Seattle, China’s new towers stress sustainability and people-centered design as much as artistic flourish.

    While it’s unlikely Seattle will soon see buildings quite as dramatic or grand as these — both Howe and Strobele note that labor costs, government regulations and other factors make such projects cost-prohibitive in the U.S. — the design in China does offer some clues to the way the high-rise market may potentially evolve here.

    Seattle rising

    Seattle’s high-rise boom comes at an opportune moment. The possibilities for designing creative signature buildings without forfeiting budget and function have never been greater. Building sustainably is no longer extraordinary. And we understand better than ever the need to create high-rises that put people first and inject life into urban neighborhoods.

    We are about to witness an unprecedented evolution in our skyline, and in the very social and cultural fabric of downtown. Designers have an awesome opportunity and a sobering responsibility. If we succeed in designing breakthrough buildings whose aesthetic ambitions are equal to their social, economic and civic contributions, we will help Seattle stand tall, indeed.

    Ming Zhang, AIA, is a senior partner and the director of design at MulvannyG2 Architecture in Bellevue. In August, he was named one of the 20 most influential designers in China by the Chinese Research Center for Urban Development. He is overseeing the design of several high-rises in downtown Seattle.

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