Recently BUILD attended a meeting at the American Institute of Architects intended to improve the neighborhoods of Seattle. A group of knowledgeable, experienced architects is currently leading the charge and the discussion is aimed directly at the recent wave of developer townhomes (also referred to as 4-packs because of their identical cookie-cutter designs plunked down all over town). The group of architects is proposing several building code changes to the City Council which would encourage things like front doors that face the street, better facades, and more landscaping around parking areas. Some of these proposed code changes would also discourage the interior parking courts often associated with these townhomes.
And that’s great. Kudos to the hard working professionals who are taking action on what we all know to be a monumental urban problem. But here’s the BUILD take: no matter how carefully the building code is constructed, the schlock developers will figure out a way to boil down the townhouse to its most lucrative and expeditious form – at the cost of aesthetics and good urban design.
On the flip side of the coin – no matter how ridiculous the building codes, good architects will figure out a way to create beautiful, cost effective dwellings. The building code in-and-of itself will not determine the quality of our built environment. We are foolish to think that we can correct the current urban blight by adjusting the building codes and ignoring the larger issues of how we, as a society, behave and think.
Ultimately, all good architects are interested in urban development and commitment to sustainable design. And we’re no different; however we’ve got some different recommendations to turn this ship around:
1. Raise the level of public awareness and acceptance. Why do we, as a society, put up with these garbage townhouse models? In places like Scandinavia the 4-pack townhouse model simply wouldn’t fly – not because they don’t meet the building code but because the public wouldn’t tolerate them as a solution to housing. It is our job as architects to be communicating to, sharing with, and educating the public so that the cross section of our culture sets a higher standard of housing. We’re starting today with our “Raising the Bar” series which you’ll see in our category list on the left. We’ll do our best to update it with relevant issues and get it out there.
2. The Building Department needs to work with architects as problem solvers. The planners and reviewers at the building department are team members on any project just like the structural engineer and the electrician. Unfortunately when it comes to reviewing a project, the 4-pack townhouse model is actually rewarded because it is a familiar formula. The review is simpler and takes less time than a similar project of more innovation and architectural quality. Doing good architecture is often penalized at the building department simply because it is unfamiliar. If we are to improve our built environment it is imperative for individuals at the building department to be team players.
3. Vet out the developers and architects doing this sort of cookie-cutter 4-pack work. What is the point of having an architectural licensing process if licensure cannot be scrutinized or even revoked for doing work that is harmful to our built environment?
Accept, decline or counter-offer… but don’t be shy with the comments button.