ARCHITECTURE ISSUE 2018: As with every single other thing about Seattle, there’ve been some developments in residential design since 2008.
NOTICE ANYTHING DIFFERENT these days about the place you call home?
Other than EVERYthing?
Mary Johnston notices the big-city big picture, and the subtler, smaller, neighborhood-level pixels that shape it. But then, she’s an architect — she and her husband, Ray Johnston, founded Johnston Architects in 1991 — and plugged-in visionaries have a way of noticing things.
“Architects tend to be canaries in the coal mine,” she says. “We start to see trends in real estate before a lot of other people feel those impacts because we work with a lot of builders, developers and financers who are looking ahead. We were particularly susceptible in 2008 to people who had plans to build things and thought: ‘We don’t think we’re going to be able to do that.’ We tend to feel those trends a little bit before.”
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Someone didn’t build something? Yes. That was different, too.
“So much has changed,” says Johnston. “Right now, it feels different because we have projections for continued strong growth in the area. It’s such an important question in residential architecture: How are we going to house all these people? All these people are here and not leaving anytime soon; that’s something we’re going to face for the foreseeable future — in architecture, at least.”
Here are five opportunities, in the form of developments in residential architecture over the past 10 years as identified — and expressed — by some plugged-in visionaries.
1. Multifamily Housing Moves Thoughtfully into Single-Family Neighborhoods
OUR FIRST DEVELOPMENT is an actual development: Bryant Heights, an entire 4.3-acre city block of thoughtfully transitioned, gracefully scaled single-family homes, townhouses, condominiums, live/work urban lofts and commercial space, all purposefully centered on towering old trees, welcoming public pathways and — most important — the fundamental mission of blending in to its Ravenna-Bryant neighborhood.
Among its neighbors: Mary and Ray Johnston, the architects behind (and really close to) Bryant Heights.
“We’ve lived in this neighborhood 35 years, so it’s a big responsibility,” says Mary Johnston. “It’s a quintessential Seattle single-family neighborhood. When Ray and I got out of architecture school in the early 1980s, the work we had was remodeling houses in this neighborhood: 10 in our block. We’ve made many one-story houses into two [stories], including our own. We’ve always considered what would fit in without being referential.”
Instead, Bryant Heights fits in by being respectful — to its neighbors, and to its neighborhood.
“The property had belonged to the Children’s Home Society of Washington,” Johnston says. “The neighborhood used it as a park. There were buildings from the 1960s and lots of big, mature trees. One of the big challenges was to keep the big trees. It was hard to do. … I like that challenge. Some restrictions make for interesting solutions.”
Here, the staggered solution starts with low-rise live/work units topped by two-story condominiums along the more-dense, commercial side of Bryant Heights (Northeast 65th Street) and builds up the block. Next: three-level townhouses, with private entrances off the streets and the central courtyard, followed by more-traditional single-family homes.
“There are pretty big backyards, topography changes and steps,” Johnston says. “That breaks up the scale; nothing’s exactly the same. Stepping in and out is part presentation of the trees, to keep it from being a wall of houses. The green space is much-needed and -appreciated. Keeping places to walk, and trees, is much more healthy. The trees really help the across-the-street neighbors. It feels much older with the mature landscape.”
Architecturally, Bryant Heights’ design and materials echo, but don’t mimic, the gabled brick homes along 32nd Avenue Northeast.
“The texture of this neighborhood is really nice: Tudor, stucco, Craftsman; we didn’t feel like we had to re-create one style of architecture,” Johnston says. “ ‘Respectful’ can be interpreted different ways. Just to copy an older style of architecture isn’t respectful in and of itself — there’ve been some terrible fake Craftsman things. I believe in a progress of design. I think of materials, scale, color — if you get those right, with bricks and natural wood, the details are the difference between old and modern.”
Here, architectural design, respect and purpose propel creation rather than re-creation: of a sense of community, of cohesion — and of acceptance.
“At the first public meeting, feedback was positive; we rarely have had a more pleasant design review process,” Johnston says. “We said very early: ‘Listen to the neighborhood.’ The lots are small here; it’s a very dense neighborhood. The streets are narrow, and the garages are old. The neighborhood was really concerned about new cars, so we have a parking structure.”
Contemporary and considerate, Bryant Heights serves as a city-block shape of one potential residential future.
“As the city is upzoning and meeting resistance, [density] is necessary,” Johnston says. “This was never upzoning. It happens more and more as the edges of single-family neighborhoods get upzoned: People understand how to do that. You can grade higher-density without big buildings next to little cottages. We were lucky to have a whole block. Leaving a bunch of trees, opening it up and inviting neighbors to walk around and enjoy it — that shows how you can integrate multifamily into a mostly single-family neighborhood, and have a successful project that people like.”
2. The Potential of the Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit
ROBERT HUTCHISON SPENDS maybe 60 hours a week working in his backyard. For a while there, his work included a project for his neighbors’ backyard, too.
In 2006, Hutchison (the namesake architect of Robert Hutchison Architecture) designed and built a detached accessory structure — his own art and architecture studio — behind his Fremont home.
While it’s not designed as a detached accessory dwelling unit (DADU), the studio “provided a way to investigate design ideas for a small and efficient building,” he says, directly influencing the neighbors’ lived-in DADU next door — and setting Hutchison up for designing even more of them.
That’s been the case in dozens of other backyards (and other architectural studios) since the City of Seattle approved DADUs (also known as backyard cottages) for all single-family zones in 2010. That’s not to imply that everyone who could have a DADU does have a DADU. Here, the development is not so much, “Invasion of the DADUs” as much as, “Seems like a lot more DADU discussion lately.” (Next likely talking point: the city’s release of a final Environmental Impact Statement analyzing ways to make it easier for homeowners to create attached and detached accessory dwelling units.)
Still, says Hutchison, “We are definitely seeing much more interest in them as a building and are starting to do more of them. We just finished the one right next door and have looked at schematics for past clients. Right now, we’re starting another in the Green Lake area. There does seem like there’s more interest paid to it as an idea, which the city has been pushing for.”
Hutchison sees the DADU as a viable, livable option for urban housing, in terms of density, affordability — and maybe even a welcome cultural shift.
“For the clients next door, he and his wife moved into the DADU and are renting the [main] house,” he says. “For a retired couple, a young couple or a young couple with a young child, it’s actually a really cool opportunity to downsize and think about how you can live in 800 square feet. The one we just designed [at 799 square feet, one under the maximum allowed floor area] feels very roomy, super-comfortable, very efficient. Part of it is having the American public getting used to living in a smaller house, which I think is happening. That’s why we’re starting to see people be more interested in it.”
Hutchison says he understands why some people are not interested in the DADU typology — he lost his own view of Lake Union and Mount Rainier to the two-level DADU next-door, for one thing — but he also sees the forest, as well as some purposefully preserved trees.
“I think it actually contributes in an amazing way,” he says. “Looking at the DADU 10 feet away, the way we set up the two buildings, it’s thoughtful that they’re living there and I’m working here. I never owned that view. The space in between our buildings has opportunities to share spaces: You could share a stairway to an alley, activate alleys as well as the street, start thinking of alleyways as pedestrian walkways. The important thing is to maintain trees and vegetation — you can do that and still allow backyard urban conditions for more density.”
Economics is another DADU driver, he says — especially for those looking for a first home, and especially in this market.
“For the DADU, if you already have a property, it’s a way for you to stay in the neighborhood,” he says. “The greater question: Would it allow a younger couple to be able to purchase a house? A single-family home is ridiculously expensive.”
The DADU’s smaller size helps, of course, but, Hutchison says, “A house is a house, even though it covers less than 800 square feet. The challenge becomes how to do it affordably. You’re still bringing out the same trades and paying. You can save money on materials, and some on time, but you still have a drywaller, a metal sider. From the general-contracting point of view, the trades are still there.
“It’s not an impossible design challenge — it’s a fun one — to do it economically is what I want to figure out how to do. That’s why I’m very interested in investigating the possibilities of prefabrication as a way to help keep costs down.”
(Cue the next development.)
3. Modern Modular Housing
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX is so two decades ago. Today, architecture students at the University of Washington are thinking about the box — as a place to live, and as a creative, cubic housing solution.
Last winter, architects and UW associate professors Rick Mohler and Elizabeth Golden paired with Yasaman Esmaili, an architectural designer with Seattle startup Blokable, to present a graduate-level studio on modular housing, in the broader context of housing and land-use policy, and “the missing middle” between single-family and multifamily residences, Mohler says. It’s not a required studio, he says, but its topics are increasingly critical, and especially relevant.
“We have a global housing crisis, and it is really hitting home here in Seattle,” he says. “What are some things we can do? A big part of this studio is to expose students to the current dialogue and debate. They are very much affected — they all rent; they’re all newcomers.”
The concept of modular housing is not new, and not unfamiliar to Seattle — in 2015, Mohler’s firm, Mohler + Ghillino Architects, designed a 1,650-square-foot, three-bedroom prefabricated modular home east of University Village with Method Homes, and Bushnaq Studio’s cool and colorful 49-unit ‘N’ Habit: Belltown has defied “ugly box” preconceptions for four years now — but Mohler says our modern era could be modular’s time.
“It’s never really taken off, but we’re seeing evidence that it has a better chance of really taking hold this time around than in the past, probably because more companies are investing more money into this technology,” he says. (Paul Allen is one notable backer of Blokable.)
“The reason it has become more popular in the last 10 years or so is because technology allows us to do a lot more, and allows us to work with interdisciplinary collaboration — not just to solve prefab as architects, but to work with engineers and urban planners together to solve the issue,” says Esmaili. “The risk management is much easier and better now. You can control the risk, and have high quality. And there’s much better control with waste, where the material is coming from and the life cycle of materials.”
Adds Mohler: “One benefit that’s not talked about enough: It dramatically reduces the amount of time constructing on-site. Part of the pushback we receive from neighborhoods in terms of increased density is inconvenience and disruption. Reducing 12 to 14 months to three months; that’s a pretty big benefit.”
Mohler and Golden presented the concept, and the results, of their all-about-the-box studio at an AIA Seattle event in May.
“We found shared exterior space is as important as interior space — a strong relationship between inside and outside,” Golden says. “If you’re in a small space and feel like you’re connected with the outside, it doesn’t feel so small anymore. Students were working with that quite a bit.”
“Students needed to explore different ways of breaking out of the tyranny of the module,” Mohler says. “If you have this box, how do you put them together to not feel like you’re living in a box? Until they took the studio, they didn’t have a clear understanding of the market forces, as well as the design forces.”
4. High-End Design in High-Rise Apartments
NOT EVERYONE WHO checks out West Edge, the striking new 39-story tower at Second Avenue and Pike Street, is a potential renter. Some are just appreciative aficionados of skyscraper-high-level architecture.
“I have people come by and say, ‘Olson Kundig designed it? I just wanted to see it!’ ” says Taylor Trant, who works in the West Edge leasing office.
Can’t blame them. Design principal Tom Kundig was indeed responsible for the building’s exterior architecture (interior architecture is by Ankrom Moisan Architecture), and that distinctive Olson Kundig touch impresses straight away: touchable textures; expansive glass; dark metal detailing; a bold, red entry door; and one single Japanese maple growing in a soaring atrium just off the luxurious concierge area, right above the garage and intentionally visible from almost every West Edge direction.
It’s an especially artful, expressive building that’s deliberately conscious of the environment, and the established environs it shares with its neighbors.
“The design is a direct response to this particular context, with the building divided into two distinct parts,” Kundig says. “The lower seven-story section is darker and grittier — it responds to the cone of perception that we have when we’re in a vehicle or on foot, where our experience of the city street and the urban condition is essentially those first seven stories. It also relates to the history of early urban buildings in Seattle, which hovered around the seven-story height. Then, beyond that, the next 32 stories take on another character. Playing off the design of nearby Seattle Tower, which progresses from darker- to lighter-colored brick ascending the structure, the exterior metal panels and spandrel glass transition from gray to white on the upper levels. The tower’s silvery color palette offers a subtle nod to the character of our Pacific Northwest skies.”
This is architecturally elevated, high-elevation apartment living, perhaps one of the most resonant residential booms in our bulging boomtown by the bay. Certainly the tallest.
Towering 440 feet, West Edge will house ground-level retail; a yet-to-open public Sky Bar restaurant on the eighth level, with four more-awesome-than-scary glass-floored pop-out “observation cubes”; and 340 upscale apartments. Rents range from $2,125 a month for an “open one-bedroom” (studio) to a $19,000-a-month penthouse.
For residents, there’s a top-floor gym, with treadmills facing forever beyond giant window walls; a way-up-high wraparound deck; a yoga/barre studio; a soundproof library; and a supercool lounge that welcomes pets (as does the handy outdoor Potty Patch).
You can see why folks might want to peek inside.
“Prospects are looking a lot more at design and architecture,” Trant says. “On one tour, someone said, ‘This building is so grown-up compared to others.’ ”
That goes for its high-end amenities, as well as its core concept.
“This building is intended to be an urban, forward-thinking, dense, exciting place with active public spaces that engage the city streets and Seattle’s downtown culture,” says Kundig. “Our hope is that the tower will bring a diverse collection of people and activities to Second Avenue and Pike Street and to the larger downtown core, adding to the wider culture of Seattle as a city.”
5. Greener is the New Green
EVIDENCE THAT SEATTLE is growing greener, split into several relevant shades of perspective:
Statistically, says Leah Missik, program manager for Built Green, a nonprofit residential building program of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, since the recession:
• There’s been “about a three-times increase” in the number of projects certified as Built Green — even as certification and checklists toughened.
• “We have seen a shift from most projects certifying at the lowest level of Built Green (3-Star) to the vast majority going for the next tier (4-Star),” she says (the City of Seattle now offers incentives that require at least 4-Star).
• In 2014, Built Green certified 33 percent of newly permitted single-family homes. In 2017: 65 percent.
• Built Green’s year-to-date certification numbers (through Aug. 22) are already higher than those for the entire year of 2015.
Philosophically, says Sam Lai, co-founder of Green Canopy Homes (which now is setting its own trend by building exclusively net-zero-energy and net-zero-energy-ready homes):
• “Homebuyers began to expect that new construction should be more sustainable in a progressive city such as Seattle … Similar to changes in the auto industry mandating a third brake light, air bags or even MPG targets, industry changes may start with a few innovators, [and] when the market sees the benefit, and more industry and political momentum is built up, code and policy can then hasten the change.”
• “The market has evolved in its awareness of the ‘why’ behind what products are offered to them. Millennials are far more interested (than prior generations) in purchasing products and services from organizations aligned with their values rather than just getting the best price to consume the most.”
• “Certification of companies, not just their product, is a new trend to help consumers have a more transparent view of their purchasing options.”
Practically, they’ve noticed:
• Advancements in HVAC and water-heating systems. “Ten years ago, ductless heat-pumps were rare,” says Lai. “At that time, we were developing deep-green remodels, and buyers would ask, ‘What is that thing hanging on the wall? It’s so ugly!’ ” Now, Missik says, she’s seeing more and more ductless minisplits — blessedly streamlined in efficiency and appearance.
• More induction cooktops (“faster and better temperature control than gas,” and better for indoor air quality, Lai says) and fewer gas fireplaces.
• “There are more homes where you can control a huge variety of things remotely from your phone,” says Missik. “Even more impressive is when a home has systems that speak to each other and can optimize comfort and efficiency through an algorithm, so the home knows when it should turn on/off different HVAC systems, when it should tilt or raise blinds and so on.”
(There is nothing scary at all about that last development. Some of those systems might be plugged in, but they are not visionary. Yet.)