Monday, August 17, 2015

Can Mid-Rise Buildings be Family Friendly?

The Modera Belmont, planned for inner east Portland is typical of new multi-family housing in the city.  It contains 202 units, mostly 1 bed rooms and studios.  Attribution: SERA Architects

Mid-rise, 5-over-1 buildings have become the dominant form of infill development in Portland and in many cities in the US.  It’s a building type that offers urban-scaled housing on a much lower budget than a concrete high-rise.  Very few of these buildings, however, are amenable to families.  In Portland, most newly constructed units are Studios or 1 bed rooms in the 500 square foot range.  While that reflects an influx of young, post-college professionals, the actual residents of these buildings include more families than you might expect, and at some point many more of those professionals are going have children.  The supply of single-family houses in most of the city is essentially capped by the lack of developable lots, so if the city is going to retain the new residents that have fueled Portland's renaissance we should be thinking about how we can create infill housing that supports multiple stages of life.  Mid-rise construction affords density and urban amenities, but in order to make it an attractive proposition for families we may need to rethink the prototype. 

So what would a mid-rise building look like if we truly designed it with families in mind?  Developers, thus far, have not had a lot of interest in this question, but one place it has been considered is in subsidized housing.

Nihonmachi Terrace, Northwest view (left) fourth floor plan (right).  Attribution: Pyatok Architecture + Urban Design

An interesting case study comes from Michael Pyatok, who has been at the forefront of affordable housing in the Bay Area for a generation.  I studied under Mike in grad school and, between his socialist rants, learned a tremendous amount about housing design. I’ve never met anyone who has such a firm grasp of the minutia of kitchen layouts and the exact closet space desired by different cultural groups. His approach to design involves a level of community participation that most architects would cringe at.  Beyond soliciting the residents’ advice on massing and preferred unit layouts, he also invites them to pick the style and suggest design elements.  It leads to a more colloquial aesthetic than most architects would appreciate, but it also leads to buildings uniquely fitted to a community.  If you want to design a family oriented building then working directly with the families that will occupy it is a very precise kind of market research.  Over time Pyatok’s firm has developed a variation on the ubiquitous 5-over-1 building that has become a template for their family oriented housing.  

Typical maisonette unit plans.  A variation of the three bedroom plan contains a "nested" bedroom configuration which allows the unit to be narrower and deeper.  Attribution: Pyatok Architecture + Urban Design

Nihonmachi Terrace in the International District of Seattle is typical of Pyatok’s work.  Most units in this project are two-story maisonettes, not flats.  Bedrooms are accommodated in an efficient upper floor plan while the entry level is an open living space.  According to Pyatok this plan is popular because it is considered the equivalent of a house.  It also allows every unit to have a living space with two exposures, limiting the bowling alley feel of many modern apartments.  However, this unit type also has a second advantage: it allows for a gallery access building without the persistent privacy concerns associated with a motel 6.  Bedroom windows are up out of the view of passers by while the kitchen forms a connection to the gallery.  Wrapping the building around a courtyard gives the gallery a sense of dignity and purpose that you won't find in a motel.  Pyatok laments the lack of landscaping budget, but even in its somewhat spartan form the courtyard provides a place at the center of the building that can be programmed or used as recreational space.  Since every unit connects to the courtyard directly, parents feel free to let their children use it as a play space.   A community room also opens onto the courtyard, reinforcing its role as the central recreational amenity. 

Nihonmachi Terrace, image of courtyard and gallery (left) and section (right).  The first four floors of this building are made up primarily of two story maisonettes with the gallery occurring only on entry level floors.  The  fifth floor is made up of flats intended for smaller households.  Attribution: Pyatok Architecture + Urban Design

Other buildings in Payatok’s portfolio are variations on the single-loaded courtyard type.  The Divine Legacy in Phoenix is an elongated version with more intensively developed landscaping.  Here the courtyard provides sheltered play space in a climate that is often too hot for outdoor activities. Flats are mixed with maisonette units to provide housing for a variety of lifestyles. 

Divine Legacy, courtyard view (left) and courtyard level plan (right).  Here the courtyard level is made up mostly of three bedroom flats with generous porches.  The floors above contain maisonette and loft type units accessed from a gallery.  Attribution: Pyatok Architecture + Urban Design

The Fox Court Apartments in Oakland are another variation still.  This plan divides the block into two courts, which Pyatok insists is necessary to prevent large groups of children from assembling and causing chaos.  The form resembles many late nineteenth century blocks in Europe, which contain several courtyards shared among multiple buildings.  In the European prototype blocks are often assembled by combining several single stair buildings with independent entrances.  Since these blocks contain a series of stair cores rather than corridors they can achieve through units that look out onto both the street and the courtyard.  American building codes require elevators and duplicate stairs the single-loaded, thus gallery access buildings are the only economical way to create through units.  In many European cities, 19th century perimeter blocks are a staple of middle class family housing.  Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Barcelona and a host of other cities that grew in the early industrial era are rife with examples.  Almost without exception these blocks contain a much higher concentration of families than can be found in most American cities.

Fox Court Apartments, East view (left) and courtyard level plan (right).  Here the north courtyard is shared with  a child care center providing convenient services for families in the building. Attribution: Pyatok Architecture + Urban Design

Mietskaserne Block typical of Berlin in the late 19th century (left) and rendering of Fox Court Apartments (left).  Both projects manage to create meaningful open space with a high lot coverage ratio.  Attribution: Charlie Gardner, Old Urbanist (left) Pyatok Architecture + Urban Design (right).

Pyatok's buildings are not the kind of high design that gets a lot of architects excited, but sexy modern design is skin deep.  It is fun to imagine what some of these buildings would look like with  lux finishes and beautifully constructed courtyards. (See my last post for more on that)  And the single-loaded courtyard building is certainly not the only building type capable of housing families in cities.  But this type is worth studying because from a construction point of view these buildings are a minor adjustment to an established formula.  They are still 6 stories tall with wood framing over a concrete deck.  From a development or finance point of view any new prototype requires a leap of faith.  Subsidized housing allows more flexibility to experiment with new prototypes that are not yet proven in the marketplace.  Developers, and more importantly their financial backers, want to build tomorrow what sold yesterday.  But those developers and bankers ought to be paying more attention to affordable housing if they want avoid the historic problem of doing market research by looking in the rear-view mirror.  After all, the future is not always like the recent past.  The millennial generation is heading towards prime child bearing years and a lot of them really hate the suburbs.  For cities its a housing challenge in the making and its not the kind of change we can adapt to overnight.  The development world and city planners need to start thinking about this issue now.  Some cities, notably Seattle and Toronto, have mandated a certain quota of family size units in new apartment buildings.  Its a good start, but ultimately creating housing en mass that works for a more diverse demographic requires both thoughtful city policy and prototypes with proven success in the market.