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Challenging Architecture Requires Creative Solutions

October 2017

Developers are increasingly confronted with irregularly shaped lots and those that must be assembled to complete a single project — this, along with the usual need to comply with environmental restrictions, makes development challenging.

Because conventional strategies are often not versatile enough to address unique site conditions, designers have had to think outside of the box. They must, on a case-by-case basis, determine their needs and develop an efficient and economical strategy. No single strategy template can be assumed to work across all real estate scenarios.

Density = Profitability

As land availability becomes tighter, one key to profitability is maintaining a high resident density. Building heights now routinely hit the four- and five-story barrier, which has in turn led to exploration of other construction types to build higher.

Whereas builders once used steel and concrete, they now look to new wood composite technologies to achieve the desired heights while keeping construction costs in check. These innovative products, which originated in Canada, have made their way to the Pacific Northwest and are pushing the definitions of the building code on wood material. While the engineering works, remoteness creates cost factors in the Central and Eastern regions of the United States that have made incorporating them less feasible in terms of the project budget overall. There also is the hurdle of getting building officials onboard with the technology. That may change in the near future as manufacturers venture into the Midwest.

Developers must balance the economics of multiple small buildings against putting up a few large buildings. The former can be more cost-effective, but it’s not always a direct comparison. Many factors are at play. Smaller buildings (three stories or fewer) can be walk-ups, use less expensive structural systems and need less skin on the building. They are less costly to build overall and have no need for cost-intensive structured parking, but such plans often must cede larger pieces of land for parking. Green space should be concentrated in chunks large enough to be useful as recreation areas for residents. Developers want to put as many units on a property as they can to enhance their ROI, but each property is unique in terms of zoning requirements, topography and location. All these factor into the decision of what to build.

Ideally, developers will come with an idea of what they went—a wrap or podium style building, for instance, but want to look at both options. Designers make suggestions based on the project parameters and how the client wants the development to function in their portfolio, for example, whether they will sell it immediately or keep it for several years.

With unusual topographies, such as hilly sites or those with a lot of fall across them, 90 percent of the effort is figuring out how best to synthesize clients’ needs to the site. But designers must be flexible enough to adapt to unforeseen conditions, such as undocumented wetlands, utilities on the site, easements or landfills that pose environmental issues. Obviously, it is best if these are discovered before the drawing process is complete.

Complex Combination of Variables = Zoning, Density, Parking

Landmark on Lovers, Dallas
A property on Lovers Lane had already been developed as garden-style apartments. When the client’s equity partner bought the entire block, the partner negotiated a portion of that block for the new building. It was constructed on a podium with street-level parking on one story and a single-parking basement below.

Zoning required the building to face the main street and to appear to be no more than three stories tall. The strategy along Lovers Lane was to build two-story townhome-style units (one on top of the other). The first level had a stoop for a public connection on Lovers Lane. It looks across the street onto a large development with young professors and college students who often jog or bike in the neighborhood.

Therefore, the planned four-story building was given a mansard roof with gables, which allowed the fourth floor to “hide” in the roof line, giving the appearance of a three-story building. The homes under the roof had quirky, interesting walls. At street level, a passerby would observe three levels, but on other streets he would see four. Homes were at street level along all public faces of the building. This design maintained resident density and gained adequate parking that was not visible from the street, all assembled within in an agreement that worked for the developer.

Zoning would not allow the parking structure to be visible from the street. Therefore, the team built the parking inside the building, behind the four levels of homes facing the streets. Four levels of units looking out to the central courtyard were placed on top of the parking garage. A sectional viewpoint would show the homes shifted down toward the street, with the courtyard homes being one story higher. The basement garage extends the full width of the building, making it larger than the garage above it.

The design placed transformers and switch gear as close as possible to the main service coming in, so that the primaries would not be too long. They cited entrances for utilities into building to minimize distance and eliminate crossing the utilities.

As these project examples have shown, each time project challenges emerged, designers and owners had to think in new ways that generated an optimal equation to balance density with zoning restrictions, parking space and unusual site conditions. Surprisingly, it turns out that zoning and topography are often complementary.

Connection to Street + Density

4000 Hulen, Fort Worth
The Hulen project required both access to the existing street and a set of significant setback and height restrictions stipulated by the zoning board. Architecture Demarest satisfied these conditions by encircling the entire project with a fire lane. This also helped to maximize parking space, with approximately 1.6 spaces allocated to each unit.

There are five levels in construction, with Type I having the greatest number of restrictions and Type V being the least restrictive. Wood construction is popular in the apartment world, but there are restrictions on how many floors a wood structure can include. Typically, that is three or four if there are other materials mixed in. After assessing the height restrictions, the design team at Hulen opted to use both Type V and Type III construction. Type V construction allows for a maximum of four stories, and Type III can be use on buildings as tall as five stories. While both can be built with wood, Type III requires special considerations, such as fire-retardant wood at the perimeter walls and special detailing to accommodate the increased differential movement in the structure vs. other elements.

Based on height restriction, the nearness to the residential zone and access to the site, the entire site was dropped significantly. Dropping the site in this way required 20-foot retaining walls on some sides. That extra excavation cost was necessary to make the project feasible. At the base of the hill was a major street, which was desirable as the main access point, providing easier access to the site and better visibility from the street. Lowering the building reduced the negative impacts to the residences at the top of the hill.

The cost to lower the property was fairly significant, which contributed to the final decision to create a wrap-style building. Typically shorter and less expensive than podium buildings. The team proved the wrap solution as they went through the schematics of the design process and considered the excavation cost, visibility and site considerations to arrive at a solution that fit everyone’s needs.

Scott Roberson is Partner, Studio Director with ARCHITECTURE DEMAREST.