No additional comment needed.
In this post we’re going to take a look at one of the residential typologies we experienced in Denmark, the Perimeter Block. They are fairly common in many northern European capitals, and we’ve seen something similar in places like Sweden and Germany. They are the foundational residential architecture of Copenhagen and typify the city more than any other city.
One of the first things one notices in Copenhagen is the rather large, uniform blocks in many central neighborhoods. Above is park in Vesterbro, which is mostly late 19th and early 20th century construction. Here is the same area, viewed from above:
As you can see, what looks like a massive, solid block from the street is actually quite a slender structure with a large void in the center. From front to back, these buildings are typically about 36 feet thick or less. This creates a large central courtyard which enjoys ample air and light.
The reason the buildings lining the courtyard are so thin is that they are only one unit deep. That means that each unit has two window-walls, one facing the street and the other facing inward to the courtyard.
This configuration is possible because instead of a single entry and a central corridor, these units are in stacks that share a central staircase. Each “front door” typically serves no more than 10 families.
Often a second back stair provides access from kitchens to the courtyard side of the building. The generous size and shape of units makes them ideal for families. Most importantly, the through-building format of the stacked units allows them to function like a house in terms of daylight and cross-ventilation.
While the outsides of the blocks can seem at times hard and dreary, the interiors are a green oasis.
The central courtyard creates places for children to play outside their apartments in safety. They also allow for gardening, bike sheds and general relaxation for the residents of the block, who essentially share their own private park.
The biggest downside of the perimeter block is that in some cases, they can be monotonous and grim from the outside.
In older neighborhoods, the perimeter building was not a single building, but a series of segments joined together to create a perimeter block. The inherent variety livens things up. Different colors, materials, and often, even different floor heights provide variety. Buildings of different ages and conditions foster diversity.
Better designed blocks eliminate this by creating detail appropriate to the scale of the building. Note the “rule of thirds” hierarchy, where every element is approximately one third the scale of the larger element it is nested within.
The perimeter block is alive and well today. We found some very exciting examples in the new urban Sluseholmen neighborhood in the Sydenhavn district. Built on former industrial docklands, the area’s perimeter blocks are bounded not only by streets, but a network of canals.
By contrast, the typical American apartment building format provides a primary entry and access to units via a central corridor, like a hotel. There is an advantage of efficiency, since a few stairs and elevators can serve an entire building. However, the building itself becomes much thicker from front to back and most units end up having only one outside-facing wall
In a typical pre-war apartment building, unit width was greater than depth in order to maximize daylight. In environmental design, the area of a room that is considered “daylit” is defined as the height of the top sill of the window x 2. So if the top of the window is 7 feet off the floor, then 14 feet inboard of the window is daylit.
If this situation had some drawbacks, the status quo in the industry today is exponentially worse. In recent years (perhaps 2 decades or so), large developers realized that they could maximize leasable space by turning the units sideways so that the short end faced the outside. This resulted in the default configuration of contemporary urban apartments; long narrow units with daylight at the “end of the tunnel.” This configuration maximizes efficiency and generates the most bang-for-the-buck for investors.
This is accomplished by making a bedroom that is not quite a legally-defined room, and therefore needs no window, and eliminating the kitchen as a separate room, moving it onto a wall in the living room. As a result, we end up with a long dark unit. This type of building is really only suitable for small households. To the best of our knowledge, this double-loaded hallway building configuration is not allowed for apartment buildings in Denmark.
The double-loaded central hallway configuration can pack up to140 units per acre, compared to the typical Danish courtyard building which averages 60-70 units per net acre. That’s a lot lower, but for comparison, a typical single family block in Portland has a density of about 9 units per net acre.
Very large American apartment buildings like this one proposed for SE Belmont fill whole blocks, but unlike their Danish counterparts, they maximize the economic output of the building system while providing a unit type that is not very adaptable. We’d argue that while the American system is good for investors, and helps cities achieve short-term goals of reducing the shortage of dwelling units generally, the type and usability of these units is probably less valuable for the long-term stability and sustainability of an urban neighborhood.
On our travels in the UK we discovered types of buildings we’d never seen before. Some great, some not so great, but all fascinating and eye opening - proving that there are many more ways to build that what we’re familiar with. Today we’ll introduce a new typology we’ve never seen in the Western US; the Maisonette. These are basically a row of townhouses stacked on top of another row of townhouses.
Most of the time we encountered these on Council Estates - public housing owned by the London County Council. At its mid-century peak, about half of all English citizens lived in publicly owned housing and much of this post-war legacy remains. In many cases, we found a configuration of small-footprint tower (typically four units per floor) combined with a low-rise “sidecar” of one or more rows of maisonettes. This created a nice variety of tall flat blocks with breathing room and tree canopy around them.
We’ve noticed this house popping up on sites all around the city, from Division to Alberta, much to our chagrin. In an homage to our favorite blog, McMansion Hell, let’s take a look a this ugly Frankenstein hot mess of a building.
This ridiculous pile of garbage is exemplary of why a lot of Portlanders are deeply suspicious of things like the Residential Infill Project. We suspect that if there was any architect involved in this design, it was the sort of architect who spent all their history lectures looking at Facebook on their phone. There’s no coherent design idea here, just a bunch of material samples a realtor might have grabbed from Pinterest and stitched together to make a structure.
This sort of “architecture” passes for “modernism” though it’s really anything but Modern with a capital M. The modern movement’s axiom of form follows function is parodied here with pointless forms that serve no function. There’s nothing intentional about this, just a superficial copy of the most trivial aspects of actual modernist design. Long story short, a bunch of random rectangles composed in an asymmetric pattern (actually kind of difficult when you’re building a mirrored townhouse).
Of course there’s always someone who’s prepared to step up and defend the indefensible. Their argument usually amounts to “but muh freedom” or something like that. Let’s be clear, these arguments are usually pretty disingenuous and come from debate-club wankers who delight in contrarianism because it’s fun to wind people up and have a laugh.
And, of course, if you designed this and you meet us on the street, please, not the face!
Next week, the Plan Design Xplore team will be traveling to the UK and Denmark to meet architects and planners and to seek out the best examples of human-scaled, historically contextual urbanism. Tell us what you want to see!
What if we could preserve what we love in Portland’s classic neighborhoods while creating opportunity for tens of thousands of new households in the coming decades? What if historic preservation and affordability advocates could find themselves on the same side, on the same team? Let’s imagine a future where neighborhoods are partners in growth and change, playing a collaborative role in finding room for new homes for our growing population.
We believe the answer could lie in give neighborhoods a snapshot of what their current population density looks like and facilitate a process of visualizing different ways to meet or exceed a density target using historical prototypes like the ones we’ve documented in our case studies. We can lead neighbors in a series of public design meetings
The Dynamic Density process empowers neighborhoods to direct how they would like to grow, and enables them to share in the economic benefits of development in their communities.
The Dynamic Density process recognizes the inherent value of Portland’s classic neighborhoods and empowers citizens to take an inventory and preserve what they love. This includes historic houses, but also trees and other non-development features
By establishing each neighborhood as a Community Development Corporation under the auspices of a Prosper Portland designated micro urban renewal district, neighborhoods will be able to capture a portion of the System Development Charges (SDC’s) new tax revenue generated by that development.
So while our leaders talk about kneecapping neighborhoods, instead, let’s change the game. Let’s give neighborhoods an incentive to upzone themselves using their own local knowledge and priorities to do so in a way that’s right for them.
Last winter we started hearing things about a plan to move Union Pacific’s Albina Yard from its location on the bank of the Willamette below the Overlook neighborhood and redevelop the property for urban uses. Last month, we finally caught up with Mohammed Baddredine, the visionary behind the initiative. We were really excited about this and decided to take Mo’s work as a starting point for some visualizations of how an urban neighborhood could develop here. We drew inspiration from the new urban districts we’ve visited in northern Europe where obsolete port facilities from Manchester to Rotterdam to Malmö have been reclaimed as vibrant neighborhoods.
Our concept starts starts with a grid of 200 by 200 foot blocks, following the pattern of downtown Portland.
We created over seven acres of new parks within the site, in addition to upgrading the Willamette river bank for more useable open space and habitat. The centerpiece is a spine of park blocks that runs the length of the site. Additional plazas and parks are provided including one dedicated to a new K-6 elementary school.
A spur line of the Max Yellow Line would run along either side of the park blocks, adding three new stops. All portions of the site would be within a quarter mile of a stop. This 1.3 mile line could potentially extend an extra 3/4 mile north to serve Swan Island, which is a major employment center.
We located primarily residential blocks closest to the river. These blocks would allow limited commercial uses but would consist mainly of homes. The rest of the northern portion would be mixed use with a focus on employment; office and light industry/fabrication. Housing and hotels would be permitted here. The southern commercial area would have a similar profile, but would allow much more intensive development.
These proposed patterns are reflected in the district’s height limits. These limits are also designed to avoid disrupting views of the river and Forest Park from the plateau above.
Residential areas deserve special attention, creating blocks that foster slow movement, pedestrian circulation and public spaces conducive to social interaction.
Finally, we feel it’s important to preserve and showcase the iconic chimney, a landmark and testimonial to the area’s 19th century industrial past.
Here’s our model, by the numbers:
Over the last week, news stories in The Oregonian and the Portland Tribune have raised the issue of Portland’s public golf courses’ financial insolvency. It so happens that we’ve been mulling over the idea of redeveloping these properties for some time. As golf declines in popularity, redevelopment is becoming increasingly attractive to cities nationwide.
Just looking at the numbers, it’s tempting to take a maximum density approach and pack as many units as physically possible onto these sites. However we believe that a city designed by spreadsheet is not a city we want to live in. We have to recognize the value of the beauty these spaces hold and the wonderful break from the grid of the city. The open space of these courses also offers opportunities for multiple forms of active recreation, from cycle-cross to running, to adventure parks with climbing and zip line courses like this one we found while exploring Potsdam, near Berlin.
Golf courses can also provide valuable ecological services including hosting pollinators and native plants and absorbing storm water. The 80 acre Oregon Garden occupies a former golf course near Silverton, and now boasts an extensive landscape garden as well as providing a home for Oregon’s only Frank Lloyd Wright building, the Gordon House.
A plan for redeveloping Portland’s golf course properties would have to balance the need for additional housing with the other benefits the open space can provide to the community at large. We took the Eastmoreland Golf Course for a test case. It’s adjacent to two light rail stations, and thus a good candidate for additional housing units. As one of us is a Reed alumnus, we’re sensitive to the neighborhood’s attachments to the open space and the beauty of the site, as well as how it enhances the surrounding community, and our design takes that into account. We think this plan, or something similar, if accepted, is worth a guarantee to the neighborhood that it can stay single family in perpetuity (with ADUs, of course) and place a permanent moratorium on demolitions. Quid pro quo is only fair. We’re completely sympathetic with neighborhood concerns and this would be entirely consistent with our general approach of balancing preservation with strategic infilling where appropriate.
The municipal courses, are of course, publicly owned, and we believe the land should stay publicly owned. The city can allow development on parcels created in the property with 99 year ground leases. The thing about land is, they’re not making any more of it, and the city should not just sell it off out of expediency.
The design aims to maximize housing opportunity while providing publicly accessible green spaces, maintaining and enhancing the parkway character of SE 28th, minimizing negative impacts to surrounding neighborhoods and providing natural storm water management for the site and adjacent community. We began by establishing a parkway about 280’ wide along the existing eastern edge. This matches the block dimensions of the neighborhood to the east. This area would be completely free of development and would include trails and amenities. It would also provide drainage from the western portion of the site which gets very wet in the winter. Visually the experience of SE 28th should be unchanged from how it appears today.
Taking this concept further, we envision diverting all the uphill storm water from the neighborhood into a seasonal swale or creek running the length of this parkway and connecting to the existing crystal springs creek. Our design prioritizes tree preservation, placing all development in existing fairways. We envision an extensive bike/ped network through the site including two new bike/ped crossings over McLaughlin Blvd. Finally, we’ve provided a suggestion about the architecture, favoring a quiet, subdued Scandinavian aesthetic resembling the neighborhoods we found around Copenhagen and Malmö. Finally, we would not touch the Crystal Springs Rhododendron garden, which is a true treasure to the whole region.
And here’s where we ended up:
Given some time and budget, we’d love to develop this into a REAL concept. That would entail a few sample block drawings and some street sections, indicating how pedestrians and cyclists would experience the neighborhood. We’d also like to flesh out the program for public amenities and the incorporation of housing at a wide range of price points, including fully subsidized units. We will try to return to this in a future post, as time permits. For now, consider this a conversation starter and an overture to a dialogue on the future of this public resource.
We’ve gone as far as some rough modeling of how typical blocks could work. Here are a few examples of how the bits should work together:
Taking one more cue from the Danes, we’d like to see places like this include features that make them complete neighborhoods like the ones we saw around station areas in Copenhagen. That means including daycare, supportive housing for people with mental mental health and developmental disabilities, and subsidized housing for people with low incomes or fixed incomes (i.e. elderly pensioners). All these things fit seamlessly into those communities and made them truly inclusive places.
Editors note: this is our first guest post by affiliate writer John Chilson. We welcome submissions and we’re always excited to find more collaborators!
This is the first post of a series that explores commercial buildings around Portland that aren’t quite ready for the wrecking ball (but hopefully ripe for adaptive reuse or preservation).
This may not be the best-looking building in town. In fact, it’s hardly noticeable when driving down Holgate or taking the Orange Line along SE 17th near the TriMet bus parking lot.
It was never supposed to be a building with multiple-use or offices or housing and it certainly was never celebrated. Its original life was as a telephone exchange building, or The Sellwood Exchange, where phone calls were routed. That’s why old phone numbers have neighborhood names like Sellwood or Belmont in them. (Read Dana Beck’s story on what an exchange building is and how it helped advance the modern telephone in Portland.) It’s also rumored that Clark Gable once worked at the exchange before he became famous.
It’s safe to say the building was probably never supposed to last as long as it has. It had a long useful life as Carpet City for decades but has mostly remained abandoned, anointed with the Portland Fire Marshal’s U sign. Now it just kind of sits there, sadly, as commuters pass it every day.
So, why not this structure on SE 15th and Holgate? I’ve spoken with many architects who think the building has potential but can’t do anything with it since it’s “owned by TriMet” (one of many rumors) or it’s in too bad of disrepair (maybe not untrue).
This all might be a moot point though.
Last year Next Portland reported that a project at 1511 SE Holgate Blvd has been submitted for building permit review by Base Design & Architecture to “construct a new 4 story (28) unit apartment building with associated site work.”
Update: The new building is going up on a tax lot across the street, which formerly (and confusingly) has the same address. As part of the plan review process it’s been given a new address: 1590 SE Holgate. (Thanks, Ian.)
So, the plot thickens —looks like the building shall remain in place —for now
The following is Plan Design Xplore’s commentary on the Design Overlay Zone Amendments, currently working their way through the City process. We are glad the City has decided to take a new look at design review, since the status quo for design is not great. Unfortunately, a lot of what’s in the current draft really misses the mark. We’ve drafted a few simple, baseline design ideas that can form a foundation for harmonious design based on observation.
First, the City should conduct a visual preference survey in order to ascertain what design types the people of Portland really value. Without this basic information, it is difficult to define good design when crafting clear and objective standards.
A harmonious built environment is more than the sum of its parts. We can allow architectural innovation while ensuring that the majority of ‘background buildings’ are making quiet contributions to the overall fabric by reinforcing established norms. When cutting edge design is integral to the development concept, it is appropriate for a project to go through the discretionary Type III Process, which uses the subjective guidelines approach.
However, the majority of workaday development projects are not conceived as design-forward investments, and for them, pushing the design envelope is not critical to their success. In these cases, building design should be steered toward a baseline form that is consistent with Portland’s foundation architecture. This basic form of building has been applied consistently for centuries, and consistently appeals to most citizens.
This basic design language requires several simple but very important considerations:
Regular window placement – Windows should be stacked vertically and of consistent size and shape.
Symmetry – facades should by horizontally symmetrical, preferably mirrored around a central vertical stack of windows.
Window aspect ratio – Windows are historically taller than they are wide. This is because of simple physics; spanning shorter distances with a lintel is easier. It also relates to the proportions of the human form, making the building relate to the scale and aspect ratio of our bodies.
No Undercuts – building walls should extend straight up from base to top (upper level step-backs are fine). Historically, buildings are formed by stacking. Cantilevers break the logic of traditional building, and create dark, unappealing streets by causing buildings to loom over pedestrians and deepening shadows in an already dark climate. (limited-width oriel bays are fine)
Vertical composition – buildings should have a very clear base, middle and top. Cornices define top. Base consists of storefront with clerestory windows and higher floor-to-ceiling height.
Minimize articulation – building wall articulation should be at a ratio of the scale of the entire facade. Indentations can provide a break in scale but should be applied to create axes of symmetry. Do not articulate every room or unit. Do not create arbitrary push/pull shapes.
Cladding material – surfaces should be smooth and consistent. Brick or stucco are preferred to metal. Do not compose facades based on increments of 4x8 sheet products.
Consistent parapets – set a datum for the parapet and do not deviate from it. A cornice, even a simple one, should be applied at the top of the highest floor’s ceiling.
Minimize number of materials on walls – differentiating base top and middle is the only reason to vary materials. Do not outline windows or add other shapes. Spandrel panels should be the same material as other wall areas.
You can contact the City directly with feedback of your own.
Kathryn Hartinger, DOZA Coordinator, (503) 823-9714, firstname.lastname@example.org
It is not a formal requirement that TYPE V wood frame over TYPE I podium buildings look like a Freshman Architecture studio project. (that is just a bad set of habits) - R. John Anderson
We’ve had some things to say about façade gimmicks and their cumulative degrading effects on our main streets and centers. There are many reasons why this trend is happening, not least of which is the dominance of building component manufacturers in the way we design and construct today’s buildings. Sometimes, however, it’s simply fun to point out some of the more absurd “trending memes” in façade design. We took a sharpie to this building and cleaned it up a bit in our last post, but we didn’t really talk about why it looks so silly.
Well folks, have you ever done one of those word-search puzzles?
We were looking at this building’s odd composition and noticed the precedent. The designers have used projecting flanges to “circle” arbitrary groups of windows. Perhaps the occupants could place some letters in them and spell things.
Architectural gimmicks get old really fast. The first time a visual flourish is used, it’s creative. The second time it’s derivative, and after that it’s just kind of pathetic looking. All the more so because these gimmicks are fundamentally superficial. Mr. Potatohead graphic design gimmicks are emphatically not Modern with a big M, because they don’t tell us anything about the internal divisions of space or about the building’s structure. They’re little more than wallpaper.
Here’s an exercise in superficiality, proposed for a site in North Portland. Let’s clean it up and make the facade a bit less like an 8-bit Tetris game and a bit more like a building…
Order and heirarchy of forms make this conform a lot more to the Vitruvian rule of reflecting the proportions and ratios of the human body. Stripping away the arbitrary flanges and ribbon shapes reveals a form that more clearly conveys a familiar and recognizable pattern language.
Recently, Plan Design Xplore had the opportunity to sit down for a conversation with Architect Brett Schulz. Schulz is perhaps best known for his long-standing collaboration with developer Kevin Cavenaugh (the two share an office space in one of Cavenaugh’s buildings), but Schulz’s work goes far beyond that partnership. His buildings have a unique vocabulary that stands out from more conventional designs. Schulz’s diverse portfolio includes mid-rise apartments, single family home renovations, restaurants, adaptive reuse projects and multi-tenant office buildings.
Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:
ON SE Ankeny Apartments:
Plan Design Xplore: A position we’ve arrived at from looking at different projects is that not all density is created equal. We’ve observed that there are different outcomes and impacts from creating buildings in smaller or larger footprints. You mentioned a goal of “cramming a lot of units in a small space that doesn't blow out the the scale of the neighborhood.” I see that contrast in your project on Burnside and the one across the street from it. Can you speak to that?
Schulz: Yes... One of the things is that we don’t pick the site. The developers come to us with sites. We find that smaller developers often have a better rapport with what we’re trying to do. We’re a small company and we seem to have a good relationships with smaller developers. This was a fairly small site… a double-length, 50 by 200, or 190ft after the city took dedication. But still we were able to get a lot of units on this site on a relatively narrow site with no corner frontage.
One of the ways we designed this to fit into the neighborhood better was by having a pitched roof with a dormer 5th floor instead of having a five-story building. This is simultaneously a reaction to the requirements based on the zoning code, and it was also a way to be more contextual with Buckman with the single-family residential buildings that are around there.
At first it seems kind of ridiculous to say that a five-story building can at all be contextual with a single family house, but it actually does when you think about this: It’s the language of dormering. What this is doing is creating [...] breaking down the scale of the building instead of eroding it. Now when you look at those buildings that are now done across the street; those are six-story buildings straight out to the lot line, maximizing every single square foot you could possibly do. And they're also pretty much odes to the zoning code in terms of the design overlay. They’re doing exactly verbatim what the planners are allowing you to do in order to maximize your site.
PDX: They’re following the path of least resistance?
S: “Path of least resistance,” exactly. They use the materials and the language of the path of least resistance. We try to avoid doing that and working within constraints, for sure, but also create -- doing something way beyond but also leaving opportunity for some kind of creative expression too, and doing something that we can be proud of. We’re trying to make a city that we want to live in and trying to design a future that we want to live in.
PDX: Now this building is something that we find particularly interesting because it is a mid-block space, and when it comes to new infill It seems like there are a lot more opportunities for mid-block development than there are for corner spaces in Portland. What do you think were the most challenging pieces of this mid-block development, or for these spaces just in general?
S: Construction-wise it was a very challenging site. There was, and still is a vacant lot next door which the contractor was able to rent out, but there was almost no staging area. Much of the property line walls are within a foot or two of the property line. That makes for construction challenges. There was also nowhere to deal with stormwater, so we had to implement a dry well onto the building, which is doable. These are all things we can manage. Utilities also were very challenging with street trees and utilities coming all off of Ankeny St. There was only a very narrow window where we could-- we had to maintain the existing street trees for the urban forester and then we also had to bring in water, sprinkler, gas lines, sewer lines, all that.
S: And a driveway. It was a very, very tight squeeze to get everything in, but we had a really good contractor.
S: Architecturally the primary challenge is getting daylight into the interior units, and especially on a 200-foot long building there are a lot of interior units. So you can see that we built near the property line at the middle and the ends, and then left these half light wells where we set the building back 5 feet in order to provide daylight to those windows. Which also helped break down the scale of what would be a long bar of a building.
On Cheap developers:
S: There was another developer who we worked with soon after this who admired this building (SE Ankeny) and had had a couple of sites that he was asking us to look at. His goal was to maximize the volume that he could put on the site. This was at the time a “C”-zone, which would now probably be a “CM.” Where there are zero setbacks are allowed, but he had acquired sites that had like “RH” or “R1” zoning where there's this variable setback requirement you might be familiar with.
He actually had created a spreadsheet where he had calculated floor by floor what the setbacks could be and how much you could bump out with bay windows and balconies. And I sort of laughed and said, “You know, we’re not accustomed to designing by spreadsheet.”`
S: But his goal was, first of all, to just keep installing the maximum allowed building envelope as something that he had to push up to, and not as an abstract maximum but an absolute design-to maximum. We learned shortly after that he wanted to just use whatever the cheapest materials were that he could get away with by code. And so we parted company with him, you know after doing preliminary design on a couple of projects and just said, “You know, we don't want to be known as architects for future slums.”
On the microbar in the Ankeny building
S: This is actually a really great bar if you guys haven’t been there, it’s called “Chandelier,” it’s about 350 square feet, it’s a sake bar. It’s a really impressive example of what somebody with vision can do with a really small space. The owner, he has decorated it in such a way to make it feel much bigger than it actually is. It’s about the size of that conference room. (points to small conference room in his office)
PDX: that’s about the size of “M Bar” on NW 21st
S: And I’m really glad they were able to do that because Ankeny is a pretty wide street, and it’s the perfect kind of hidden away, sort-of speakeasy feel. As opposed to being right on Burnside which is much more traffic but almost no pedestrian traffic.
PDX: Do you feel like there’s some sort of big untapped market or at least some market for more micro retail spaces like that?
S: Absolutely Yeah this building has five and they rented them out pretty quickly. I think there's a better market for it than larger spaces, even.
PDX: How would you define “micro retail” in terms of square footage?
S: Like with a threshold? Around 500 sqft roughly.
PDX: 500 or less?
S: Yes. We’re seeing everyday increasingly that the internet is taking business away from small retailers. One response to that is to keep their overhead down by having a smaller space and having only enough stock as needed, you know, to use in a few days and have another storage facility off-site if it’s retail, or the same as a restaurant.
On Jake’s run, and other comments on the current state of development
PDX:Can you tell us more about your “Jake’s Run” project. I’m thinking that’s probably an older project?
S: That is. That’s coming up on 20 years old.
When the client came to me with that site, he really was sensitive to the context of the hills above 23rd Avenue in Northwest Portland. It was adjacent to some very high-end properties and he knew it would get pushback from the neighborhood. So we really went all in on trying to make it fit into the neighborhood in an English “arts and crafts” style. And I think -- the density belies the scale of it because there's five units on a 7000-foot site that was zoned R1.
S: But by putting pitched roof on it and adding dormers, you know, we brought the scale of it down. So what are actually 4-story high units look like a 2 1/2 story cottage from the street and it was a pretty successful project, but… we did things that other developers don't: like cedar windows throughout; stucco all the way around, not just on the facade. He went all-in with Viking stoves, quarter-sawn oak floors, handcrafted iron railings. So it was a very unique situation where we were trying to capture the character of the historic houses nearby and put it in a denser environment. And that did have one parking stall per unit.
PDX: Generally how do you feel about the idea of using that sort of design approach to achieve compatibility in historic context?
PDX: You know I’m a believer in context, but … Let’s say the threshold for tolerance among developers of going that extra mile seems low in Portland. And this is true nationwide, that the quality and the amount of money people are willing to put into a speculative project just continually goes down over time, and most developers will just do the minimum they can get away with. I have to admit this developer never did a similar project to that. He moved on to multi-family housing that was more conventional. And no one has ever come to me in 19 years and asked me to do a project just like it, and I think it's because the return on investment is lower.
What you need, I think, are developers willing to take a little lower return on their investment in order to create a quality product. That’s not in the nature of speculative development. Whereas once upon a time if someone built an apartment building like that they were likely going to hold on to it and own it, and have a sense of pride.
Likewise on commercial buildings. If you owned a hardware store you were going to build it and then move into it and it was a representation of your business. Now most often the people who are moving into a space didn't actually create it. Some speculative developer builds it, then someone else buys it and operates it. So there's a disconnect between that sense of ownership and that pride of ownership, I think. I don't know how we bring that back.
Have you ever looked at the current crop of mid rise residential buildings cropping up around Portland and wondered why they just seem “different” from the architecture of previous generations? Here’s an example of a building that really exemplifies the architectural zeitgeist of early 21st century North America.
What if those historical buildings were styled like their contemporary brethren? Let’s try it out! Here’s a splendid older building, the Morrison Park building, constructed in 1912 (and in which the author lived at the turn of the millennium).
Symmetry is so stodgy! A ribbon of Hardiepanel would addd dynamism! Get rid of that cornice! We can’t have fake history! We could put flanges around some randomly selected stacks of windows to infuse this dull facade with some verticality and break up the box!” Now it’s human scale!
Let’s be glad our predecessors didn’t leave us with such a crappy built environment. Instead, lets not be so quick to dismiss the basics of symmetry and proportion that have served us so well for so long. In the quest for uniqueness and variety, we end up with a spectacular amount of sameness that looks dated before the last coat of paint even dries. This is partially due to the use of prefabricated assemblies of off-the-shelf parts and partially due to a complete failure to apply any internally consistent code of visual composition. Every style has it’s own vocabulary, and they’re really not that difficult to grasp.
Recently, I have seen conversations in our community pitting the ideas of affordability, availability and design against one another in terms of new construction in Portland. A recent example, was an exchange over social media I witnessed between two friends of mine on the topic of a newly built apartment building here in Portland.
We find ourselves at an interesting crossroads in Portland; we are experiencing record population growth and will continue to do so for decades to come. As a constantly growing region, it is important that we ensure that our fellow community members actually have enough physical places to live. Statewide land use law in fact requires all cities and regions plan for a 20 year land supply for housing, commercial and industrial. Housing availability, not just affordability, is one of my personal pet issues for our region. The way we currently have our city laid out zoning-wise in terms of its overall population capacity, we are simply not footing the bill for our own future growth. As someone who plans on being around to witness the next few decades of Portland’s story, I am afraid we are not rising to the challenges that are facing our community. We absolutely need more high-density infill in Portland to ensure there is enough housing available for the future citizens of Portland.
While I am concerned about us meeting the demands of our own population growth over the next couple of decades, I am also concerned about what the qualitative experience of living in Portland will be like decades from now. We do have a strong likelihood of having to accommodate millions more people in our region in the coming decades, due to factors like climate change. When we build new things in our city, especially larger pieces of construction like apartment buildings, we need to understand that these are things that can stay with us for 50 to 100 years.
Buildings don’t just stand alone, they get to be a part of our everyday lives, the things we see and pass by on our commutes, where we hang out after work, or plain simply where we live. What we build now becomes the pixels in the background picture of our everyday lives. It may seem that we have entered a reality in our region where these two needs are now at odds; the need for more housing, and the need for aesthetically pleasing architecture for our community to be surrounded by as well as well-thought out spaces for people to occupy and build their lives around for decades to come.
Whenever I see this argument pitting design against housing, I can’t help but think:
Expanding housing supply is a “good.” Preserving historic architecture is a “good.” Planning places that encourage beauty, walkability, sustainability and sociability is a “good.” We believe it is shortsighted and foolish to pit goods against one another.
At P-D-X we have been chewing over the question of what “good design” is, and over the implications that come to mind for most people when they hear others talk about “good design” in architecture. We often hear that asking for better design is “Elitist” or adds “unnecessary costs” to projects that provide a functional use for our community - something we see in public housing all the time. I would personally like to challenge this thought process, and it is something that we do on a regular basis here at P-D-X Blog. It’s time to knock a huge hole in the false dichotomy of affordable vs well designed. Good design does not have to be expensive, it does not have to mean adding on additional costs to new housing, and frankly the conversation does not need to have an air of elitism tinged to it at all.
Most of the time, the best designed buildings aren’t the ones that you see on the cover of an architecture magazine or text book. They aren’t the buildings that architects and enthusiasts want to rave about around the world. They are the buildings that understand their role as a pixel in the background image of our lives, ones that simply choose to blend into the background, becoming a normal part of the city’s fabric, those are the buildings that represent good design. Those building examples, are often not the most expensive pieces of construction either.
In the past Jonathan has identified and broken down some of the elements that we regularly see in new construction around Portland that contribute to those new buildings often being seen as “ugly”. Simple design is often good design, focusing on tried and true elements is often good design.
Urban Design, as a discipline, takes a more holistic view of cities and districts and focuses on how the parts of a community add up to a greater whole.
When we talk about design, we’re also talking about things like curb cuts, curb radii, street trees, stoops, front porches, front doors, driveways, “eyes on the street,” etc. Some of these things are site design and arrangement elements, others take place in the public realm, i.e., the right-of-way, which we own collectively.
Some of the worst design we see in modern construction doesn’t come from low-budget efforts, but from higher-cost luxury designs. If anything, the wealthy happily prove time and time again that they are more than willing to lay down huge amounts cash for the most tasteless poorly designed housing imaginable, in fact, there is a whole other blog dedicated to just this point.
Portland does deserve high design but let’s be honest, if you don’t really have the chops in design skill and are more than willing to lay down the extra capital on higher quality materials and design, then don’t even bother. High design is great left for institutional developments and other organizations with higher capital and the grit to throw down in a type III design review.
If your goal at the end of the day as a developer or architect is to throw up a regular commercial/residential building in the city and collect a paycheck, then stop trying to cheaply pursue high design that looks terrible and just go with a tried and true simple, classic, and already affordable design pattern. Most of the time we need our new buildings to be a pixel in the image, a part of the scene, not the stand out kid in the class. We need architects to stop looking at every new piece of construction as a standalone piece of art formed by their own mighty hands, but as a player in the greater symphony of its location.
In part because of our trailblazing architectural history, we can often find our best urban future in our urban past - no need to reinvent the wheel everytime we build something new.
Check out these neotraditional new construction examples by R John Anderson from the Small Developers Facebook group.
We need more housing, we will need a lot more housing to keep up with future demand. But we have to remember that we aren’t just building housing, we are building places for people to live and build their lives. Places where people tell their own stories. Are we building the best setting for the story of future Portlanders? When we are building Portland, we need to be considering the perspective of future Portlanders.
Will we enjoy living there?
Will we still want to live in it or use it 50 years from now?
Will we be proud of it?
Everything in housing is a trade off, but we don’t have to trade off good design for affordability and availability. We have to change the way we interact with design at the regulatory level. The market will follow the path of least resistance around the codes and regulations we put in place, so we need to understand how the design rules we make play out on the drawing board when market actors are balancing regulation, design, and financial considerations.
We can streamline our design standards so doing the simple, time-tested approach to design is the path of least resistance. There is a common myth that better design requires more man-hours put into design. This implies that buildings basically design themselves and the default outcome is an ill-formed ugly building. Throw more hours at it, so the myth goes, and the design gets better, but the architect’s bill gets bigger. First, architecture is not a big enough share of total project cost to have a huge impact. Systems Development Charges (SDCs) for example, have a much greater impact on a developer’s pro forma. Moreover, much of our worst “developer modernism” reflects a pointless quest for novelty that is inherently wasteful. Slashing the architect’s fee to a bare minimum won’t have any discernible impact on rents either. For one thing, owners set rents to what the market will bear, and any savings in cost to to the investors. The overall design fee is trivial compared to land, construction, fees and labor costs.
Modularization and creating form based design codes so that it is less resource intensive for builders and designers to create reliable and abundant housing consistent with the design standards of the community is the key.
“Where design gets expensive is when bad design gets caught by design review and sent back to the drawing board for a do-over. It’s really the time and redundancy of multiple attempts where costs pile up. The bland and forgettable Aura Burnside was rejected multiple times before approval. It’s only as good as it is because the previous attempts were so bad. Developers wanting a quick one-and-done design review process could opt for a more traditional composition mode for a guaranteed outcome. This leaves discretionary review to those who a) have the chops for it, and b) count on high design having a real pay-off in terms of project value and feel like it’s a worthwhile investment. Communities have already done much of the hard work to figure out and codify a baseline standard for design of good fabric buildings.”
-Jonathan Konkol on Aura Burnside
In the past, we have proposed a transect type system, tools such as pattern books: simple, pre-approved designs that get to skip review because that have already been vetted are things that should be offered by neighborhoods to alleviate much of the friction in design review.
This isn’t a zero sum game; we can have both things, and we have every right to demand them. We can build the housing capacity we need while also ensuring that the environments we build will be enjoyed for generations to come. Someday Oregon’s population will be double what it is today, what is the best possible version of life in an Oregon with that many people? How do we start laying the groundwork for it today? We start by involving communities in planning for their future. Once we establish that we are going to grow, we must work for a grass-roots, community-supported vision of how we’ll grow. Already, pioneering groups are leading the way in this process here in Portland. We should expand and build on work like this.
All design is expensive. Good, bad, no new building is cheap, and no brand new apartment is going to rent for below market rate, unless it’s being subsidized.
Even adjusting for inflation, all the inputs to building, land, materials and labor, are more expensive than they’ve ever been. Loans aren’t cheap either. Therefore, no building is going to be cheap. Good design, bad design, it’s all expensive. Rolling over the good design argument in favor of availability and affordability does not compute when it is taken into consideration with the daunting other costs associated with new construction.
Let’s take just one minute to get together and talk about design as a community, talk about what we want to do and see in our home for the following decades of our lives. Let’s wrap that up into a nice package so that builders have an easy path and know exactly what they need to do when it comes to building Portland. No more need to have every new piece of construction caught up in months of debate over design with the community, the community should set their expectations ahead of time.
We as a community need to get together as a group and have an honest conversation about what our growth over the following decades is going to look like. We will need to add more housing in all neighborhoods, let’s plan that out ahead of time so nobody is taken by surprise. Let’s talk about what our visions are for the future of Portland, and set our design standards for the community. We here at PDXplore are working on partnering with other like minded groups to do just that. Please reach out if you would like to join that effort.
Science fiction is replete with metaphor, so to continue our theme from the previous post, we’d like to explore some particularly unfortunate design trends using Gene Roddenberry’s idiom. Readers may recall Star Trek episodes where transporter technology was central to the storyline. If Scotty, or Miles O’Brien screwed up the transporter, horrible things might happen, like somebody getting beamed into a wall or something.
Something similar seems to be happening to buildings in American cities.
Where the quest for novelty and expression of a zeitgeist meets investor driven budget concerns and standardized off-the-shelf parts, we get the current architectural meme, “break up the box.” The idea comes from a dictum, frequently expressed in city design guidelines, that architects break up large masses into smaller scale modules. On the face of it, this sounds like a good idea. And it might be if it were done with any logic or rigor. The idea is that large buildings are inherently ugly and alienating. A categorical assumption like that should make you suspicious. We can all call to mind large buildings we’ve seen that are elegant, pleasing and allow us to get a sense of human scale by the way they are composed. Some large buildings are dreary and oppressive, and these codes can probably be seen as a reaction against failed utopian megastructures like the public housing projects of the mid 20th century.
At the same time, in a post-postmodern world, we don’t really have a coherent style we can identify with our time. Other eras had dominant styles, and most people were pretty familiar with them. It was pretty easy for the lay person to tell which designs embodied the style well and which were interpreting it poorly, or in a superficial way. Today it’s very hard to judge competent application of a style, since we can’t even agree on what styles are appropriate. The culture of the architecture and design world has become divorced from the culture of building and trades, exacerbating the problem. Before this schism, builders with little formal education participated in a culture of building that yielded uniformly coherent, pleasing forms regardless of the budget of the project.
Today’s typical speculative buildings, by contrast, offer no sense of craftsmanship, and often flat-out reject well established principles of symmetry, proportion, hierarchy or really any kind of visual logic at all. Instead, we’re presented with pointlessly arbitrary shapes and materials, arranged in a skin-deep composition that starts to look more and more forced, the more we’re forced to look at it.
Author Charles Siegel puts it pretty clearly:
“Unfortunately, almost all contemporary architecture schools ignore traditional design, so architects who try to imitate the human scale of traditional architecture sometimes do not know its basic principles and come up with very strange designs. Their most common error is trying too hard to break up the box: they overdo it and produce cluttered designs, because they do not know that traditional architecture uses a nested hierarchy of scales, with a ratio of about three-to-one between each element and its sub-elements.”
Here’s how it works. A goofy array of shapes, suggesting a bunch of different smaller volumes are overlapping in space.
This is what we’re supposed to understand about those shapes; that we’re actually looking at several distinct volumes that have materialized in the same space, with little bits spilling out around the edges.
Viewed from above, we clearly see this for what it is. A silly outfit on the surface of a box.
Take off the garments, and the true nature of the form is apparent.
Let’s watch the design process for this obnoxious gimmick in action:
What’s the answer to this mess? We have two recommendations. First, build smaller. Human scaled buildings, like the ones we built throughout human history, don’t need to be broken up. Take a walk along NW 21st for example and this will be very evident. Second, if you must build big, just own it and be big. Appropriately scaled details, per Siegel’s ratios can make a beautiful, coherent composition that doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks. Our counterparts across the Atlantic have been doing this quite well for a very long time. We’ll conclude with a selection of European examples, in a variety of styles. We’ve rounded up four Danish examples, followed by three from Rome. All of them are large, but none look like a smattering of smaller elements arbitrarily jammed together. You be the judge…
The authors of this blog have been spending a lot of time roaming the suburbs for work lately. As we drive our vehicles around the postwar landscapes of Gresham, Happy Valley and Washington County, we’re stuck by how much the experience is like being outside the atmosphere itself.
Suburbia consists of a formless void with no oxygen or habitat suitable for humans between buildings and designated activity zones. There is no “Life between buildings” (Jan Gehl). The shopping center is a space station. Your house or apartment is another space station. So is the school, and your workplace. You can’t go outside without a space suit. You get in the shuttlecraft and pilot from destination to destination at warp speed, so you hope, but instead you’re stuck creeping along at one quarter impulse. The cops are Cardassians. The teenagers are Klingons (who cares if we die? We’re going to Stovokor!).
There’s lots of space here, but it’s not for humans. It’s all interstitial. At best, one can walk safely across a parking lot, but it’s not a place to linger.
Take a starship and fly to a planet. Beam down in Downtown Portland, Hawthorne or some place on the coast or the mountain for shore leave. Walk around. Go back to your station. Entertain yourself in the holodeck (a simulacrum within a simulacrum).
One of last year’s most iconic images sums up the experience beautifully!
There’s a perennial debate in the design and planning world about what kinds of standards are appropriate for new development in a historic context. Should new buildings blend in, or stand in contrast? Is it “phony” or “context-sensitive”to replicate historic vernacular forms?
This post is the result of a conversation with city staff regarding Portland’s Conservation Districts. Over the course of the conversation, while trying to articulate what I thought was most important about compatibility and integration of new buildings with existing fabric, I hit upon the phrase “Diagramatic Compatibility.” This idea really connected because it stands in contrast with other conventional notions of compatibility, and gets at a deeper level of design than the (literal) superficial matching of materials, colors, etc. that some codes prescribe.
Diagramatic compatibility can be defined as matching the key schematic elements of composition for a block or district. It includes approximate massing, proportions, overall height and setback lines, relationship of the building to the street, to its site, and the rhythm of buildings along the street in relation to one another. This is distinct from the particular vernacular style of the building (Queen Anne, Tudor, Craftsman, Prairie Style, Streamline Moderne, etc.).The latter refers to the particular visual language of a building, while the former refers more to what it’s saying in a given language.
Often a new building is neither stylistically nor diagramatically compatible, in which case it’s easy to be confused about why it feels like a bad fit. My argument is that diagramatic compatibility is far more important than stylistic compatibility.
It is my contention that a house or building that is stylistically dissimilar yet diagrammatically compatible is far more appropriate and responsive to its urban context than one that is nominally of the same style while exhibiting a very different configuration, massing, relationship to site, etc.
This row of Queen Anne Victorians in Seattle’s Central District was joined by a new neighbor fairly recently. As you can see, the newcomer is composed in a completely different idiom, yet it continues the rhythm of the row of houses that came before it.
What matters here is the overall proportion of the building, its pattern and placement of windows and doors, it’s overall form factor, and its relationship to the site and to the street.
By comparison, this new addition to the Boise neighborhood at NE Fremont & Rodney is at least nominally compatible, in as much as it is composed in a “historical” vernacular. However, something about it just doesn’t look right. That’s because its particular configuration, large house with the main floor elevated above the ground plane on top of a two car garage, with a wide driveway taking the place of a lawn and stoop, is something that doesn’t have any historical precedent. It’s an entirely new configuration, dating to within my lifetime. There are a few early 20th century houses that have basement garages, but they remain subordinated to traditional site arrangement principles.
Finally, I’d argue that vernacular ways of building, which are sometimes referred to as “historical” are not anachronisms at all. They are still perfectly valid ways of building. Existing examples constructed in pre-war vernacular are highly functional and beloved by their residents.
I personally resided in one of Portland’s oldest houses, the James Duthie house. The house has been partitioned into a triplex with upper, ground floor and basement units. I lived in the upper unit. I found it both convenient and enjoyable (not to mention spiritually uplifting to experience continuity with generations of residents reaching back to the Lincoln administration).
This recent courtyard townhouse project Carlton Landing in Oklahoma was brought to our attention by our esteemed friend and incremental development advocate/coach R John Anderson. It demonstrates that contemporary buildings with a vernacular design vocabulary aren’t necessarily “fake history” - they’re just good, carefully detailed, thoughtfully designed buildings. There’s absolutely nothing obsolete about the overall composition or architectural expression here. Most importantly, the diagrammatic form of the building is entirely consistent with the Prewar, non-autocentric forms we advocate here at Plan Design Xplore.
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This post is a response to a presentation on Autonomous Vehicles to the Issue Forum on the Environment at the City Club of Portland.
If autonomous vehicles are the future, and there's no stopping it, it’s going to be a profoundly depressing one if you’re somebody who loves traditional urbanism. Cities in other countries have already solved the problem of urban mobility, and they have largely done so with 19th century technology. A combination of cycling and rail infrastructure serves Copenhagen very well, and it has the lowest share of all trips made by car of any city in the world except maybe Amsterdam. This is all provided with publicly owned infrastructure: bike lanes and walkable streets, and a three tiered state-owned rail system. Metro subways, suburban commuter rail, and intracity rail.
As with many high tech solutions, I think the AV phenomenon is a case of technological fetishism combined with corporate capitalism's existential need to sell us more things. The so-called Smart City infrastructure needed to get an AV system up and running would be very expensive, and presumably funded in large part by municipalities, for the ultimate goal of selling more cars. A relatively low-tech, very effective method of solving urban mobility issues is a non-starter here because capitalists are the clients of government, which prioritizes their need for profit when addressing any social issue (see the farm bill, private prisons, our health care system, etc.). This is not to say that mercantile capitalism shouldn't exist in any form to deny that it produces innovations. Indeed, lots of great shiny widgets have been developed in recent decades because consumers like them and see value. That's all well and good, but things like smart phones are a technology one can opt in to or out of. When it comes to things that quite literally shape our cities, we must recognize that it is not in societies best interest to let capitalism and corporations drive the bus, as it were.
In short, just because we can, doesn't mean we should. Our mobility problems are not a result of insufficient technology, but rather poor resource allocation. Doubling down on a technology (cars) that has already proven extremely destructive from a land use, sustainability, resource efficiency and public health perspective does not strike me as great policy.