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Philadelphia rowhouses: new designs and construction show other cities what is possible

2From GreenSource writer David Sokol: “As it experiences its first population growth in decades, Philadelphia is undergoing another wave of rowhouse construction. Contextual yet decidedly modern compositions are filling the gaps and derelict spaces between the city’s existing rowhouses.

“‘The rowhouse typology is very much relevant and alive today, although the essence of it has evolved over time,’ says architect Louis Chang, whose firm, Fishtank PHL, has completed approximately 25 rowhouse units since its inception in 2009.

“A survey of finished and upcoming developments illustrates how the current incarnation of this building type includes all points in the income spectrum.  Last year, the Philadelphia Housing Authority opened the new Norris Apartments, a 51-unit mixed-income project that qualifies as the authority’s first LEED-certified project.  Other projects target higher-end consumers, including the modularly constructed rental North 28 and the green-roofed, geothermally heated Weccacoe Flats.  The Icehouse earned LEED Platinum and Gold ratings for its first phase with a scheme by Continuum Architecture.

“‘Rowhouses are a great place to test innovations, especially in order to achieve optimum building performance’, Chang says, pointing to Fishtank’s custom rainscreen on its Red House project as an example.  Philadelphia is ‘a remarkable lab’, agrees Interface Studio Architects (ISA) founder Brian Phillips.  ISA’s recent series of LEED-certified houses in the subsidized Sheridan Street project for Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha is further evidence of the rowhouse as a medium for experimenting with a green agenda.

“ISA’s longstanding collaboration with the local developer Postgreen translates its affordable right-sizing of urban homes to the private sector.  ISA created 100K House, prototype designs that aim for the namesake construction price by limiting geometry to the simplest forms, cladding the plain boxes in only one material, and embracing the square footages of the average American house of yore.  Since the first two 100Ks were completed in early 2009, Postgreen has built many more versions.

“‘Philly is a city of modest incomes.  Making super-green infill houses takes fundamental advantage of site conditions but also puts money in people’s pockets’, Phillips says.

“Tim McDonald, who, with his brother Patrick, founded the firm Onion Flats in 1997, expands upon these fundamental advantages. ‘The row just makes sense on so many levels: spatial and energy efficiency; affordability; our interest in dense, walkable urban communities; simplicity in construction.  We also love the challenge that these thin slices of urban space offer us as architects.’

“The company also uses sustainable rowhouses to refine its maverick approach to project delivery.  Two recently completed three-unit projects, the subsidized Belfield Townhomes and the first phase of a private development called the Stables, are fabricated by a patent-pending modular construction system and achieve net zero capability.

“Scalability is what catapults an interesting local phenomenon to the national stage.  Success in the City of Brotherly Love promises to lower the barriers to creative green housing everywhere.”  Full article here.

America Saves! Preservation Green Lab’s Retrofit Project [for small buildings] Takes Shape

SOTW_banner_12-18-13From Preservation Nation writers Ric Cochrane and Jeana Wiser: “Small businesses are the backbones of communities throughout the country, exemplified by the countless individual stories and creative passions that together make Main Streets unique.  Although places are as different as people, one thing remains true anywhere you look: Small businesses and Main Streets are underserved and often overlooked when compared to large chains and strip-mall suburbs.

“The Preservation Green Lab, a department of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, believes that specific attention paid to the opportunity that exists in small buildings, home to Main Street businesses, may help level the playing field.

“In a 2013 report, ‘Realizing the Energy Efficiency Potential of Small Buildings‘, the Green Lab quantified the energy and cost savings readily available to Main Street businesses.  The report focused on the primary challenges to delivering energy efficiency to the so-called hard-to-reach (HTR) small buildings sector, and also strategies to help realize energy efficiency.

“Since the release of the Small Buildings report, the Green Lab has developed a national model for delivering energy efficiency to Main Street small businesses and buildings.  The project, called America Saves!, received a $2 million Department of Energy matching award in July 2013 and has since received additional support for regional pilots in target markets.

“The ultimate objective of America Saves! is to use energy retrofits to increase the profitability of Main Street businesses and the capacity of Main Street organizations.  For the first time, small businesses and small buildings are the focus of national energy efficiency efforts and resources.  This is good news for Main Street.”

“The America Saves! model will be tested in a select number of demonstration communities ahead of the 2014 National Main Street Conference in Detroit [on May 18-20].”  Full article here.

Halbur: skyscraper can “meet the street”, but more often 2-6 stories fit together into community

From Planetizen writer Tim Halbur: “Alissa Walker wrote a piece in Gizmodo with the headline ‘Tall is Good: How a Lack of Building Up is Keeping Our Cities Down‘.  I agree, of course, that well-designed density creates a host of benefits, connecting people socially and economically, improving health, reducing energy use and pollution, etc.

“But whether skyscrapers are the one true solution for most American cities is still a matter of debate. The great architect Leon Krier, who influenced many New Urbanists, writes passionately in the recently released 2nd Edition of the Charter of the New Urbanism book that buildings should have ‘an unsurpassable maximum of five floors – in short, to walkable building heights’.  James Howard Kunstler argues that skyscrapers will quickly become irreperable relics when peak oil and climate change transform our environment.

“As Alissa points out, most of our negative impressions of tall buildings are fueled by media depictions of dystopias and a history of sticking poor people in “towers in the park”, but that doesn’t mean that skyscrapers can’t be built that effectively meet the street.  But I feel like an overemphasis on height is misplaced.  New York is an anomaly – should Kansas City be focusing entirely on skyscrapers?  And Alissa’s Los Angeles (where I also live), which has blocks and blocks of poorly-used, undervalued buildings and land – shouldn’t we be fixing the streetscapes and populating those 3-6 story structures before shooting new skyscrapers up?

“There are a lot of ways to structure a building envelope to house a significant number of people and a mix of uses without going up, up, up.  What I think we really need are developers, architects and planners willing to embrace the on-the-ground conditions, build to meet the street in a lively and interactive manner that supports neighborhood commerce and social settings, and adds housing in inventive ways that support the needs of families of all sizes and income levels.  More often the result would be a building with variety of levels, from 2-6 stories, that fit together into a community.”  Full post here.

In Vancouver “towers fall short as social tool” while low-rise density feels like home

From Fast Company writer Charles Montgomery: “Rob McDowell lived in a hip, luxury condo with a sweeping view of Vancouver, but he was miserable.  He could look over the other towers to the forested slopes of the North Shore Mountains.

“Whenever McDowell left his apartment, he would follow a hallway he shared with twenty people to an elevator he shared with nearly three hundred people.  Standing a foot or two apart, well within the zone of personal space and unable to control the duration of the encounter, McDowell and his neighbors would studiously avoid eye contact.

“The city had forced the 501’s developer to build a row of town houses along the podium base of McDowell’s tower.  The townhouses were a bit cramped, but their main doors all faced a garden and a volleyball court on the building’s third-story rooftop.  McDowell noticed that the town house residents regularly played volleyball in the garden.  He and his tower-living neighbors had every right to join in, but they never did.

“After some friends moved into the town houses, McDowell gave up his view and bought a unit next to them.  Within weeks his social landscape was transformed.  He got to know all his new neighbors.  He joined in the weekend cocktail and volleyball sessions in the shared garden.”

“McDowell’s new neighbors were not inherently more likable or friendly than his tower neighbors.  So what had drawn them together?  The front doors of the town houses all led to semiprivate porches overlooking the podium garden.  They provided regular opportunities for brief, easy contact.  These porches were a soft zone, where you could hang out or retreat as you wished.  Without realizing it, McDowell and his neighbors were testing out a law of social geometry identified by Danish urbanist Jan Gehl.  In studying the way people in Denmark and Canada behave in their front yards, Gehl found that residents chat the most with passersby when yards are shallow enough to allow for conversation, but deep enough to allow for retreat.  The perfect yard for conviviality?  Exactly 10.6 feet deep.”  Full article here.

Townhouse life cycle: from single-family to flats to studios and back to single-family

From NYTimes writer Constance Rosenblum: “The New York townhouse has been through a lot since it began appearing in profusion in the 19th century.

“These stately buildings started life as single-family houses sheltering comfortable middle- and upper-class families and their servants. By the Great Depression, most had been chopped into single-room apartments, the unlucky among them getting the greatest wear, as rooming houses for the down and out.

“In the ‘60s, plucky young New Yorkers with more enthusiasm than cash began buying these down-at-the-heels beauties and spiffing them up for their families, usually retaining tenants who provided rental income and in many cases were impossible to dislodge.

“In the past few years, the historic townhouse has started to come full circle. Thanks to the growing appetite for larger and more luxurious private urban dwellings among people happy to pay upward of $10 million, many townhouses have been returned to the elegant single-family homes they once were.

“‘These houses have always been commodities — they were built, after all, by real estate developers’, said Patrick Ciccone, a preservationist who is preparing a revised edition of ‘Bricks and Brownstone’, Charles Lockwood’s landmark 1972 study of the New York townhouse.

“Dexter Guerrieri, the president of Vandenberg, the Townhouse Experts, and other townhouse watchers attribute the shift in part to a desire for bigger and more opulent homes that provide a degree of privacy unavailable in condominiums and especially co-ops. These homes also often offer other benefits: Residents can have a garden; they can own a dog without asking anyone’s permission. Many of these houses are in picturesque neighborhoods with an embracing sense of community.

“Because supply is limited — estimates suggest that fewer than 10,000 pre-World War I townhouses survive in Manhattan, with perhaps 50,000 citywide, mostly in Brooklyn — operating in this market can be highly profitable.

“For couples like Doug Derryberry and Serena Mulhern, whose home must double as a work space, the benefits of a spacious and flexible townhouse are considerable.  When Mr. Derryberry maintained a studio elsewhere, the shuttling from place to place, often with quantities of unwieldy equipment, made a hectic schedule even more demanding.

“Critics bemoan the reduced street traffic and less lively street life — fewer delis and dry cleaners — that come with lower density.  Critics of the shift also cite the gradual disappearance of the townhouse rental apartment, leading to a small but palpable depletion of the city’s housing stock.”  Full article here.

Rochester does incremental urbanism, fills in downtown without “maxing out” zoning

empire-theatre-main-and-clinton-1900From Rochester Subway writer Irene Allen: “I was thinking about our collective reactions to the proposed D&C building, and the completed Windstream building.  Clearly both buildings are more modest than what many of us hoped to see in this key downtown site (and what the zoning code spells out for downtown).  It’s an issue that I think applies to all infill development downtown, and the ideas behind Incremental Urbanism shed some interesting light on it.

“If we look at old photos of Rochester in the early-mid 1900s, we see a mature streetscape, quality materials and design, with many buildings at least 5 stories tall.  And of course we want to get back to that.  But we have to consider that the streets and lots of downtown actually got laid out in the early-mid 1800s, it took a hundred years of incremental development to get from empty lots to those ‘downtown-worthy’ buildings we see in old photos.

“Well, now we are starting over with empty lots [and small parking lots] in much of downtown.  Is it realistic to expect these to go from empty lot to 5-story ‘downtown-worthy building’ in one iteration?  Maybe we need to accept that, for many of these infill lots, that isn’t what any developer can justify building.  Maybe we need to embrace Incremental Urbanism and its inherent messiness and look at proposals as ‘does it move us in the right direction’ rather than ‘is it the desired end-state’.

“By the way, I am NOT advocating building throwaway crap that we’ll tear down in 20 years.  But perhaps accepting more modest infill is ok, as long as it moves us toward walkable mixed use.”  Original post here.

New Vietnam “tube house” has traditional natural ventilation but contemporary style

2bFrom Thisispaper Magazine via urbanist, ceramic artist,  and loyal reader Natalie Weinberger: “This amazing vertical building is a beautiful house designed by architects studio Sanuki + Nishizawa architects.  Typical for Vietnamese cities urban tube house is located in Ho Chi Minh City, on a very narrow and long plot.  Problems with such houses are always ventilation and getting natural light.  This new, contemporary take on such common version of a living space resulted in a stunning interior full of air and beautiful textures.”

From the architects: “All of design intents are to fulfill the tube house spaces with greenery, brightness, well-ventilations then transform the narrow, dark, humid passive residential housing.  We can feel the natural wind and live without air conditioner comfortably in this house that has the lifestyle connecting to the outside natural environment.  This sustainable and ecological proposal is a re-definition of the Vietnamese traditional lifestyle connecting to the outside environment in the contemporary housing.”  Full post with many photos here.

Most valuable property? Traditional development’s “cheap little boxes” with density and no parking

Jimmys%20pizzaFrom Strong Towns: “The most brilliant innovations in building cities won’t come from the current generation of politicians, professionals, and advocates.  That brilliance is already embodied in the traditional development pattern, a fool-proof approach to building places that was developed the hard way: slowly and incrementally over time.

“For millennia, around the world, in different cultures and different climates, we built places scaled to people.  It has only been in the last 60+ years that we in North America stopped walking and started driving.  For thousands of years prior, we walked everywhere, and so our places were built around people who walked.  While there are many variations on the theme, the scale and proportions of these places are very similar.

“The knowledge for how to build this way — those fundamental underpinnings of scale and proportion — does not come from a theory or a brilliant individual but from a experiments that occurred over and over again for thousands of years.  In other words, people tried different things, and the places that endured long enough to be copied were the ultimate strong towns.  They were resilient politically, socially, culturally, and financially.

“The financial strength of the traditional development pattern is still visible today because the remnants of places built in that style still exist.  Joe Minicozzi, one of today’s most brilliant communicators, has taken data from all over the country and created amazing maps that show the financial productivity of different development patterns.  He and I did some work in North Carolina earlier this year where he presented this map of High Point.  The map shows financial productivity — total value per acre — of each parcel in the city.


“You’ll never guess where the traditional downtown is at.  (Hint: the purple in the middle.)  The thing that is most stunning is how dramatically more productive that traditional development pattern is.  It is not just marginally more productive, it is many, many multiples more valuable.

“Here’s one of those high-yielding properties in the traditional development pattern: Jimmy’s pizza [photo above].  Jimmy’s pizza is likely nobody’s idea of success and probably is never held up as a model for High Point (until Joe came to town, that is), yet the numbers don’t lie.  It is vastly more productive than the K-Mart or the Wal-Mart.


“Jimmy’s pizza represents the base unit of development in the traditional development pattern.  It is the cheap little box that was the first increment of investment for cities everywhere.  It is so simple to build that you literally can’t mess it up.  And look at how productive it is.  The traditional approach is, in a sense, fool proof.

“There are thousands of ways to improve Jimmy’s pizza (few that require more than a moderate level of competence).  If Jimmy’s pizza fails, well….that building can be transformed into about anything.  Give it some time and a surrounding neighborhood full of people on foot and that invisible hand will figure it out (if our antiquated zoning codes don’t prevent it).”  Full post here.

Think “incremental urbanism” looks messy? Dan Zack says “get over it” and get better cities

NY Rowouses Under ConstructionFrom Better! Cities & Towns writer Dan Zack: “For the past 70 years or so, much of what we have built in the US has been of the large, ‘master planned’ variety of development.  When New Urbanism rose onto the scene, many of its early and iconic projects, such as Seaside and the Kentlands, were also large, master-planned developments.

“This feels normal to our generation, but historically this is an anomaly.  Prior to World War II, and going back for millennia, most development was not of the large-scale, master-planned variety.  Rather, most cities and neighborhoods were built lot-by-lot, by dozens or hundreds of land owners and  developers.  I refer to this kind of development as Incremental Urbanism.

“After 70 years, we’ve gotten used to the tidiness of master-planned development.  In comparison, lot-by-lot development can look messy.  Sometimes, buildings of dramatically different heights sprout up right next to each other.  Other times, materials or styles are different.  In some instances, new buildings snake around the buildings of owners who wouldn’t sell out, creating strange shaped sites.

“We need to overcome these hangups, though.  To satisfy unmet consumer preferences, improve our economyreduce housing shortages, and reduce environmental damage we need the majority of our growth to happen in areas with a lot of jobs, services, walkability, and transit.  Most of these areas are older areas with a small lot pattern.  If we don’t allow development until a whole block is assembled so that it is tidy, we’re not going to get much development.”  Full post here.

Free lecture “New Community: Co-Housing Opportunity for South Florida” Nov 21 at 6 PM

100From University of Miami School of Architecture: a free lecture titled “The New Face of Community: The German Re-Invention of Co-Housing & Its Opportunities for South Florida” by Kristien Ring of the German Foundation for Building Culture and author of Self Made City, on Thu, Nov 21 from 6 to 8 PM at 111 SW 5 Ave in Little Havana.  “Co-housing” means apartment buildings developed by their future residents, i.e. how to cut out developer fees and reduce costs, making smaller urban projects more feasible.  The time is right for this in Miami.  Please register in advance here.

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