Future Shack or Future Schlock?

Two panels wrestle with the future of Washington's residential architecture, and especially the fabric of a growing Seattle. An overriding question: How much can good design solve the problems of density?
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Arbutus Walk, an eco-density project in Vancouver, B.C.

Two panels wrestle with the future of Washington's residential architecture, and especially the fabric of a growing Seattle. An overriding question: How much can good design solve the problems of density?

Two juries have deliberated but their verdicts are not yet known. The Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects is sponsoring a program called FutureShack which invited Washington state architects to submit recent residential projects, from bungalows to lofts to high rises, for judging by two panels, one of professional architects and planners, the other of lay people. I was on the citizen's panel. Over 70 projects were submitted. Each jury had to pick five winners. Our verdicts will be announced in the Seattle Times on September 13, followed by a public discussion.

The idea is to acknowledge architecture that addresses issues the whole region is facing in the 21st century, and that are in some combination forward thinking, economically inclusive, adaptable, aware of neighborhood or historic contexts. This isn't, however, a look at a Jetsons-like future a la Seattle's Century 21 World's Fair with atomic cars and Space Needles. It's a look at the future, meaning what's being built now that's headed in (arguably) the right direction for the next five, 10, 20 years. By definition, FutureShacks are NowShacks in that they already exist.

Sustainability was never mentioned as a specific criteria but assumed: it's hard to define, but our jury certainly wanted to see what kinds of efforts were being made to design and build with more environmental sensitivity. But sustainability is difficult to assess without real criteria. Is a high-density block of condos sustainable if no one wants to live there? Is a home built with recycled materials sustainable if it will fall apart in 15 years? Is a fancy remodel of an old Seattle box house an example of making an older home more green, or a case of wealthy people making it less affordable? Is it more sustainable to build a detached dwelling unit, or better to keep a bigger yard and more trees? Without measures, you can recycle arguments on this stuff forever.

Like real trial juries, ours had to deal with the facts as presented and wrestle with the intangibles in our own way. Even our interpretations of the guidelines varied. Good architectural design for us citizens is a bit like art or pornography: You think you know it when you see it. A question it was tempting for us citizens to come back to was a very non-academic one: Would you want to live there? Or would you want your mother/daughter/grand children to live there? In the end, I voted for projects that I would never want to live in, but I could see why others might, or might have to. In some cases, my biases guided my vote. This jury was selected because we had opinions, not because we didn't.

While personal tastes didn't necessarily rule, they did play a factor, especially at the beginning. Each jury member had to whittle over 70 projects down to a list of 10, then collectively to five. There were three people on our panel: me, Kent Kammerer of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, and Bob Melvey, a longtime Seattle real estate professional with Windermere. Our three lists were combined and it turned out that the merged list had about 30 different projects on it. In other words, there was almost no overlap. So we began our deliberations with very little consensus, at least on the surface. We spent a half-day intensively reviewing each project in detail, categorizing some of them as exemplars (or not) of trends or styles that we thought were important, or ubiquitous.

For example, we debated the merits of all manner of townhouse developments, considered very problematic all over Seattle. They offer density but are often too dominated by garages and driveways to meet city codes. Indeed, many seem built more for cars than people. How can the four-pack or six-pack be improved? Or can we build townhouses without parking and let the buyers decide if they want to fight for street parking or ride the bus? Can Seattle develop a liking for the front-stoop urban culture of East Coast brownstone neighborhoods, or will such a thing be anathema in privacy-loving Seattle? We even learned new terms, such a "woonerf," which is a Dutch alley that gives pedestrians the right of way. I decided the name was derived from the sounds pedestrians make when they're hit by a car.

What about allowing more residential units into industrial neighborhoods, even on a small scale? Does that risk of pricing out blue collar businesses (it can), does it create a constituency of complainers about noise and pollution who could jeopardize existing uses (they could), but is it also a way to gain in-fill similar to the detached accessory units being considered in residential areas (it might)? Think about the potential of small housing units on the rooftops of Seattle and suburban factories and warehouses.

The old "bungalow courts" you find tucked into older Seattle neighborhoods have found new expression as "cottage clusters," a popular alternative to typical post-war suburban development. They consist of smaller single family homes with commons spaces to encourage community. They're tough to do in the city because the cost of land is high and the availability of large lots is less, but in the suburbs, they offer denser, more urban-style suburban development. Is that something to be encouraged, or disdained as simply more sprawl? Is it a forward-looking concept, or an example of being stuck in nostalgia?

We also looked long and hard at historic preservation and adaptive re-used projects. Is saving a wonderful old building a thing of the future? Is it meritorious, from an architectural standpoint, to save and modernize a grand landmark, or is it better to acknowledge projects that have preserved less distinguished but perhaps more locally significant older structures? In other words, is it more important to recognize and encourage saving the less remarkable because it is often what Bob Melvey terms "bulldozer bait?"

So much of urban design comes down to two opposing ideas. One is that good design solves all problems. The second is, good design isn't everything.

Here's how I break that down. First, all the debates about density or in-fill or transit-oriented development etc. really get sidetracked by techniques that are neither good nor bad. A good apartment or townhouse design can really overcome many density objections. A bad one can confirm everyone's worst suspicions. But they don't have to "spoil" the neighborhood. Creative designs can help break some people's addiction to "needing" 3,000 square feet for a family of two. All old houses aren't treasures, and neighborhoods can be enhanced by the addition of newer, wonderfully designed small single family homes or affordable multi-family structures that integrate into the community. The jury saw a number of examples of this done well and poorly. Some architects seem to want to "challenge" their contexts (i.e. give the finger to the stuffy neighbors) while others find ways of blending the new with the old while keeping the new utterly modern and unique. Good design can overcome many objections.

To get good design you need good architects with the right values. You also need sensible rules and regs. Everyone complains that Seattle's code micromanages and limits creative options (thus so many car-centric townhouses). One fantasy is that it would be better to simply let everything rise and fall on the quality of what's built. Or as William Dietrich describes it in an overview of Seattle-style urbanism, "let the market rule."

The traditional Nordstrom approach to customer service is pretty simple, instructing salespeople to: "Use good judgment in all situations." A well-trained staff can operate widely with such loose guidelines if it is inculcated with the right values. Could designers and architects, builders and developers operate that way? If we trusted them, if we took the shackles off, would our built environment blossom architecturally? Would they treat Seattle right?

You'd like to think so. But I doubt it because while you might be able to trust a few firms with such freedom, in America, the market is more chaotic and more opportunistic and more profit-hungry. If lack of regulation resulted in great design, wouldn't the paragons be in Florida or Arizona or Auburn?

The fact is, the marketplace can be a measure of success, but it also encourages a standard of copycat mediocrity as developers and builders attempt to minimize cost and risk by building projects that are mediocre by intention. They build projects that don't appeal to anyone, but are acceptable to large enough numbers to be commercially viable. The most successful, risk-free design seems to be one where enough buyers say "I don't really like it, but it'll do." This is the hallmark of both the horizontal sprawl of suburbs like Redmond and Issaquah and the vertical sprawl of urban high-rises in Seattle and Vancouver, BC. In many cases, the market produces FutureSchlock.

So while great design does occur and often sells itself, it is not easily imitated nor even the goal of many developers. For them, excellent design, even if affordable, is not always a risk worth taking. If we valued, as a culture, the nurturing of community more greatly than the maximizing of profits, we might be better trusted with a Nordstrom-style flexibility. A key to revising codes is to figure out how to balance creative freedom against the worst excesses and outcomes of a market that is often more destructive than it is creative.

But neither is good design everything, and by that I mean that some goals can be enhanced by good design (say, creating attractive urban villages), but that other elements of shaping the city are too chicken-and-eggish to leave to design alone. For example, if you want people to walk to the new light rail stations from Courtland, Brighton Beach, or Rainier Beach, are you going to police the streets better, so that women walking home alone after dark in December feel safe between home and station? In some of these areas the alleys are closed after dark. Does that bode well for walkability? It should be remembered that one driver of suburban flight, according to Edge City author Joel Garreau, was the fact that women no longer felt safe in urban areas. The suburbs have been carefully shaped with that in mind, and it's one reason malls and gated communities have proven so popular.

And if we are going to increase densities and make Seattle more family friendly, are we going to improve our public schools? Seattle had more people per household in the 1960s; we're now the second most childless major city in America. Another big driver of sprawl here in the 1960s and '70s was forced dismantling of neighborhood schools and mandatory busing. School quality is still a major reason families choose the suburbs, even as race per se has diminished as an issue for many. If we could add one or two people per household, we would likely exceed density goals without a crush of new construction. What can we do to make the city more family friendly? Design and planning will play a role in that, but the overarching issues are not controlled by architects.

It will be interesting to compare the citizen's jury selections with the panels of pros, consisting of architects and planners from Los Angeles, Portland, and Vancouver, BC. I don't know how they feel, but I ended the deliberations feeling as though the group we picked were not, collectively, a blueprint for the future so much as examples of projects that creatively attempted to solve current challenges with the kind of design that will help us pick our way through the minefields of a changing city.

NOTE: AIA Seattle has also asked candidates in the region for mayor, city council, county executive, etc. to outline what they think are the most "pressing issues" related to the built environment. You can find their responses here and get a sense of how they would shape policy and the debate.   

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.