Anticipating Change is the Secret Weapon For Building Longevity

A building no longer relevant to its neighborhood

As part of my research into Copenhagen’s BIG architects, I watched a recent interview with founder Bjarke Ingels titled Different Angles.  A story he told dovetailed with something I’ve been thinking.  He talked about visiting an abandoned 2,750-year-old Synagogue in northern Iraq. He found out that it had only become derelict in the past 50 years when cultural hostility saw the congregation move to Israel. In the space of 50 years, a nearly three-millennia-old building fell to ruin because it was no longer relevant to the community.

Architects, he said, could build structures that physically endure, but they can only last as long as they are relevant.  Sometimes relevance equates to their ability to be repurposed.

In January, the Chicago Tribune reported that commercial buildings with extremely large continuous floors were suddenly all the rage after being white elephants for years, sometimes decades.  These are century-old buildings built as warehouses for Montgomery Ward and Marshall Fields, along with disused government buildings like Chicago’s old central post office. We’re talking about individual floors with between 50,000 and 260,000 square feet – that’s a 6-acre floor.

Tech companies are loving the floor space because they believe newer collaborative work environments demand proximity.  Matt Ward of Newmark Knight Frank was quoted in the article, “This thinking of different floor, different planet is finding its way into every boardroom. The idea of us getting out of our offices and being together is seen as a necessity in today’s business.”

These once-difficult buildings have found new relevance in the community.

In the Dallas multi-family residential world, I’ve been having similar thoughts. Unlike the overall single-family trend of building ever larger homes (minus a few temporary pullbacks surrounding recessions), the multi-family world seems to be trending towards smaller units. The most casual observer or house hunter has to have noticed that in the past six years Dallas has built a lot of poky apartments whose average unit size continues to shrink.

Parkland Hospital in the 1950s

On February 10, the Dallas Morning News reported on plans for the “old” but not “Old” Parkland hospital by Sam Ware to repurpose the building.  One residential component speaks of 700-800 apartments averaging just 300 square feet while another touts 1,000-square-foot on average condos.

Sure, we’ve always had apartment projects with small units – any number of 1970s complexes on Cedar Springs Road north of the Tollway spring to mind. But the sheer amount of them in this current build cycle is scale-tilting.

Are these temporary trends or the signal of an enduring shift to smaller living quarters for multifamily residents?  No one knows for sure, but my money is on trend.  Most people buy less only because it’s what they can afford. As Millennial and Gen Z climb the salary ladder, their desire for size will reassert itself.

If, as I think, these tiny apartments are a blip, what’s their future look like?  Are they 25- to 30-year buildings that are planned to be scraped away and replaced with something germane to that future era? Yes, they seem very much built to cash out and tear down. That seems environmentally unfriendly to say the least … and not as certain as builders may think.

By the year 2050 the world’s population will have grown from today’s 7.4 billion to 9.7 billion. Do we really believe we can support 2.3 billion more people without stricter management of natural resources, which include building materials?

Take the sand used in concrete.  Unless you’re on a beach, you don’t even think about it.  In 2016, the New York Times reported about coming shortages. You see, desert sand isn’t suitable as its grains are too small and round.  Only coarser river and ocean sand are the correct shape and size to hold concrete together. We’re running out. To put usage in perspective, China used more sand from 2011 to 2013 than the United States did in the whole 20th Century.  And sand is just one component. Perhaps it’s one reason wood is pricking architects’ imaginations.

It’s easy to foresee a future where these disposable buildings won’t be as easily disposed of. Materials will have to be reused or recycled rather than landfilled. Demolition will become a more costly proposition. In that eventuality, a great many of these disposable buildings will have to be repaired and repurposed.

BIG’s multi-functional residential-commercial project under construction in Los Angeles

Build The Right Stuff

I want to urge developers to start looking at their blueprints — really looking — and start asking tough questions.  How can this building be repurposed?  Residential structures will likely remain residential, but how will people live?  We have no way of knowing, so elasticity should be built into the plan.

For example, let’s assume that like the past, some of these apartment buildings will convert to condo.  In a condo scenario, are the units the right size?  If they’re not, place columns, support walls and plumbing in places that enable for a graceful combination or separation of units. For example, plumbing stacks located along unit perimeters rather then driven through the middle of a unit.

By no means exhaustive, I looked at the rates of unit combination in two buildings approximately 50 years old.  Both began as apartments and converted to condos later.  One has units averaging 1,700 square feet while the other averages 750 square feet. Over time, the building with the larger units has seen about 7 percent of its units reconfigured by combining all or part of neighboring units.  In the building with the smaller units it’s closer to 20 percent and only full unit combinations – with three or four units sometimes combining.

When I “awarded” 3525 Turtle Creek for its floor plans, I did it because of how elastic they are.  Elastic means that items that can’t be moved are as out of the way as possible. In 1957, architect Howard Meyer couldn’t see into the future of open concept living. Yet, each floor plan places structural columns and some utilities as far out of the way as possible, silently encouraging an open concept future.

Aside from the future, there’s a present-day reason for crafting buildings that allow for change.  Oversize (the only size these days) apartment buildings slotting into owner-occupied areas are met with disdain.  Renters are more transitory and take less care, confusing a security deposit with a “get out of jail free” card. Management companies can make matters worse by being unresponsive.

But what would happen if developers met with neighbors and presented not only their project’s proposed use today, but also showed how the building could change with shifting market priorities? Would neighbors be less anti-apartment if they viewed it as a possible stepping stone to an owner-occupied future?  How about if there were plans for unit combinations that would change resident make-up from college dorm to family home?

I realize for most people (myself included) pie in the sky future options would be far less important than where the rubber hits the road today.  But all things being equal (small apartments), would there be a slight tilt towards a design that spoke to repurpose and renewal?  I have to think that anyone who has driven around and seen slapped-up buildings falling into disrepair, an inkling of hope is better than none.

For developers, shrewd planning may make their building more salable in the future.  Regardless of a desire to refresh a building for changing needs or if demolition and construction become significantly more expensive, is a building capable of reconfiguration more valuable?

I leave you with another Bjarke Ingels quote:

“If you design for the lowest common denominator or design for the fear of not having resale value or not fitting in with the majority, then you will most likely end up with buildings that will most likely be torn down in a short while because there is no reason to preserve them.

When you design something that comes to the world with a very clear character and with some strong decisions, some strong choices, then that building will be a beautiful experiment in one way of doing things, and therefore it will lend itself to being refurbished and accommodate change over time.”

 

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement.  If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com.

3 Comment

  • I love the old saying, “Good design doesn’t cost. It pays.”

  • I’ve been begging apartment developers for several years to build larger units that could be converted to condos in the future. I specialize in luxury high rise condo sales, and as a consequence, I find myself leasing luxury units as well. It is difficult to find more generous sized luxury rentals to accommodate the ever-growing baby boomer population wanting to “try” urban high rise living. Park District by Trammel Crow overlooking Klyde Warren Park comes closest to filling this bill. The glut of apartment buildings that top out at 1400 sq ft units has overrun the intown area and seem destined to obsolescence. Developers, are you listening?