Thursday, December 31, 2015

Olympic View Townhomes - Courtyard Meets Panorama

Marion Green, our previous courtyard townhouse project with Paar Development, won a PSRC Vision 2040 award and was featured in the 2015 Green Building Slam. Our next project, Olympic View Townhouses, takes one more step forward, refining the courtyard townhouse concept and adapting the idea to a stunning hillside view lot on the south slope of Queen Anne Hill.

Olympic View features twelve (12) new townhouses, ranging in size from 800 sf one bedroom units to 2100 sf three bedroom units.  The shared central courtyard is the most spacious that we have ever designed and covers a parking level that accommodates 14 cars.  What makes Olympic View unique among our projects is the way we have adapted the courtyard townhouse concept to a sloping site, stepping the project down the hillside.  The terraced cross section allows each unit to see over the top of unit below, providing panoramic views of the Space Needle, downtown, and Puget Sound from the upper living levels and the rooftop decks

Like its predecessors at Marion Green and Beacon Green, the common courtyard creates an elegant way in and out of the homes, hides the parking area, provides generous open spaces and establishes a setting where neighbors have the regular contact with one another that helps to build familiarity and community.

The project will be built in two sections of six units each, with a common pedestrian entry walkway connecting the two halves.  The project will be certified 4 star built-green construction, which requires improved energy efficiency, low voc interior finish materials, green stormwater management, low water use, and a host of other sustainable features.

See Olympic View Project Site at:

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Forget reinventing...How about re-legalizing Microhousing?

Casey Jaywork from the Seattle Weekly wrote a great article last week describing how Seattle has all but banned the production of congregate micro-housing and has refused to take up the HALA committee recommendation to revisit this policy. The article features a discussion of our Yobi Apartments project and how last year's micro-housing legislation has made it all but impossible to develop more projects like the Yobi.

The article used data from a DPD housing report that captured production through May of 2015.  I took that report and updated it to the current day, filling in some missing projects and adding in all of the 2015 pipeline. Here's what I found:

Annual Totals

One surprise: Virtually all of the new congregate housing projects are coming out of our office.  This has nothing to do with us capturing market share; our workflow on congregate housing projects has been fairly stable. Rather, it is a reflection of the rest of the market being driven away from congregate micro-housing and shifting their efforts over to SEDU production.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ryther Campus Renewal Phase I

For the past several years, we have been helping Ryther with a generational renewal of their campus. Our work included a new master plan for the campus, renovation of their Support Services and Clinical Services Buildings, and a top-to-bottom reworking of the public areas of the campus (see previous blog post). In addition to updating the facilities to take care of Ryther's functional and programmatic needs, we returned time and again to the theme that the updated campus needed to manifest and express Ryther's mission to be a welcoming and healing environment for children and their families. Renovation of both buildings and the landscape is nearly complete.

The core of the new campus design began with a re-design of the entry to the campus. The original design located the entry in an alcove of the Outpatient Services Building that was difficult to find and poorly lit.  We relocated the entry to the other side of the building, a large courtyard with a specimen tree, visible as soon as you enter the campus.  

While the 1960s era building exteriors featured handsome brick elements, the grey paint color felt cold and unwelcoming. Each major building on campus now has brighter, kid-friendly colors that compliment the brick. A new colorful entry canopy now provides way-finding and sets the tone for the campus, which express the child-centered nature of the institution using a mixture of gestural elements, cheerful colors, and playful shapes.  

The renovated Ryther Commons features way-finding monuments, such as a kiosk and canopy, to clearly mark the new entry to the Outpatient Services Building. Old side entry before renovation, inset.

Outpatient Services Building custom entry canopy. Special blue door is designed just for kids. 

The double door entry to the clinical services building features a small and brightly-colored door, made specially for children. Portholes in the kids' door add to the spirit of whimsy and discovery. 

The original entry alcove has been re-purposed into a borrowed landscape that provides a soothing backdrop for the lobby. 

Dubbed the "Zen Garden," the original entry (inset) as now viewed from the renovated lobby.

We worked with the clinical staff and interior design firm, PCI, to ensure colors and patterns would be appropriate for the client population. The renovated lobby has been refinished with new materials and furnishings in a calming blue and brown palette. Before the renovation, the room lacked natural light and felt claustrophobic. New ceiling coves with solar tubes bring natural light into the space, while other coves feature colorful hand-blown glass lights.

The renovated lobby with new finishes and furnishings. Ceiling coves feature solar light and blown glass fixtures. 

The lobby also features a unique children's corner. The wood enclosure wall is extra thick and feature a number of openings, each with it own special purpose: one for sitting; one for crawling through; one for storing toys, one for storing books, one for peeping through. 

The floor of the children's corner is made of macerated rubber and sloped to encourage floor-time play. Sparkle-lighting creates unique star-shaped patterns on the ceiling. The walls feature a gradient mural, reminiscent of waves or mountains. 

Children's corner with interactive wood wall, sea-to-sky mural and sloped rubber floor.

We wanted to make sure that the new campus experience started at the street. Previously, the monument signage at the street was dark and difficult to see. Updated signage matches Ryther's current brand and is also more visible. 

New street monument signage is much more visible.
The Support Services Building also received a face lift. Exterior cladding is freshened up with a brighter color. Landscape design, courtesy of Johnson Southerland, opens up the once overgrown entry. Windows on both buildings have been upgraded for energy performance.

Renovated Support Services Building with friendlier color palette and open landscape.
Before the renovation, interior spaces of the Support Services Building were cluttered and broken up by a number of different alterations. We opened up the main vaulted space to house waiting and meeting rooms. 

Support Services Building now features a vaulted waiting room and conference space.
Hallways to clinical and support staff offices once felt dark and daunting. New lighting, paint and carpet, along with ceiling tiles to conceal the ductwork make the corridors feel welcoming and professional. 

Bright and professional hallways lead support staff to their offices. 
Offices across campus were in need of an update, with aging wall panels, old carpet and dim light fixtures. Updated offices received new wall board, finishes, window treatments and lights. 

Updated support staff offices with clean walls, indirect lighting, and new finishes. Previous condition, inset.
Through this renovation process, the campus has come to life and now reflects what Ryther truly is at hearta place of healing for children and families.

Thank you to Ryther and the entire project team for their support in making this vision for the campus a reality:

Architect: Neiman Taber Architects.  David Neiman, Liz Pisciotta, Erin Feeney
Structural Engineer: Harriott Valentine Engineers.  Josh Welch, Doug Clair
Landscape Architect: Johnson Southerland.  Margaret Johnson, Benjamin Barrett 
Interiors and Furniture: PCI.  Paige Otero, Sheryl Guyon
General Contractor:  Abbott.  Andy Powers, Ed Santander, Sidney Morris

Project Managment:  VOKA.  Vlad Oustimovitch and Kathryn Armstrong

Saturday, September 12, 2015

HALA R.4 Renew and Expand the Multifamily Tax Exemption Program

The MFTE program is a vitally important tool that leverages market rate development participation in the effort to increase the supply of affordable housing units in Seattle.  Over the last couple years, the city has struggled to incorporate small unit development into the program.  City policy has been at turns overly permissive and punitive, with the result that the current legislation effectively prohibits participation by small unit development.  Given the inherent ability of small units to reach deeper levels of affordability, we must change the MFTE program to incorporate SEDU and congregate housing while ensuring fair public benefit is returned.

Currently we are working on three congregate housing projects with a total of over 200 units of housing.   Each of these projects wants to participate in the MFTE program, but under current rules this is not possible.  Below are our suggestions for improving the MFTE program:

1)  Create and publish an explicit methodology for how the MFTE rent is calculated. 
The calculation is not difficult, and relies on only a few variables, all of which are readily available through public records and published data sets.  The variables are:
  • Value of the property tax relief as a percentage of the building rental income.  This number is available through Dupre & Scott as part of their standard reporting.
  •  Percentage of units that you want to discount.  Policymakers get to choose the number, for example 20% or 25%.
  • Typical market rent for new construction. Again, this number is available through Dupre & Scott.

Once the proper data is collected, calculating the appropriate discount is quite simple:

Step 1: Calculate the appropriate discount
Property tax as % of the building income.
Obtain from Dupre and Scott
% of units subject to MFTE participation
Policy choice
Appropriate discount (C=A÷B)
Calculated value

Step 2:  Calculate MFTE Rent

Typical Market rent
Obtain from Dupre and Scott
MFTE Discount (E=D*C)
Calculated value
MFTE rent
Calculated value

In the above example, all of the data needed can be obtained from market surveys that are widely available and easily verified.   The math is explicit, clear, and unassailable in terms of representing a fair value for value exchange.  Publishing a formula like this would both explain to the public how the program works and provide a clear way forward for future council members to steward the program in a way that is objective, responsible, and fair. 

2) Use the official methodology to calculate an appropriate MFTE rent for a given type of unit.
The recent adjustment of MFTE rents for SEDUs is an example where the appropriate rent and percentage of units required to participate does not stand up to an objective study of market rents and the value of the property tax relief.  The current MFTE proposal from the Mayor’s office for congregate units appears to be closer to the mark, but the rents proposed for SEDU’s remain strangely disconnected from reality.  Based on the current system of classifying units by type and bedroom count, the following values are roughly in line with market rents, using either 20% or 25% participation.

Housing type
Avg. Market Rent*
MFTE Unit %
Value of tax waiver
Fair MFTE Rent
Current Law

Housing type
Avg. Market Rent*
MFTE Unit %
Value of tax waiver
Current Law

3) Change the way unit types are classified to remove incentives to game the system. 
The current system of classifying units by the number of bedrooms creates an incentive to provide the smallest possible unit within a given category in order to give the least possible discount in exchange for MFTE participation.  This formula encourages developers to game the system, creates odd unit designs, and diminishes the value returned to the public.  The example below shows three units from one of our current projects.  These units are not significantly different from one another, but due to the coarse steps inherent in the current classification system, they behave very differently under the MFTE program.

One Br Apartment
Size (sf)
Market Rent
MFTE rent
Studio  Apartment
Size (sf)
Market Rent
MFTE rent
SEDU Apartment

Size (sf)
Market Rent
MFTE rent

Another factor to be considered is that as units get smaller, relatively minor differences in the size of units have a big effect on price as a percentage of the rent.  A review of market data for micro-housing shows that the variation in size between a small congregate unit and a large congregate unit is over 50%.  Treating all size units the same has the effect that the projects with larger and more livable units are the least likely to participate, while the projects with smallest units are the most likely.

These perverse incentives can be solved by using a simple table similar to the ones that every American uses to calculate their income tax.  The table has a few gradations of unit size and rent per square foot.  Each value would be created using market data.  Calculation of the appropriate market rent for a given unit and the corresponding MFTE rent is a simple process, as illustrated below:

Market Rent Calculation Table
Unit Size

Example:  Calculate market rent for a 230sf unit
Market rent and MFTE rent calculated based on market data and individual actual unit sizes cannot be gamed.
Market rent = 200 * $5.00 + 30 * $4.50 =

Example:  Calculate MFTE rent for a 230sf unit
MFTE rent = $1135 -33% discount2 =
1   The rents listed in the above table are rough estimates of today's housing market.  They are not derived from a formal market study.
2   The 33% discount is taken from the formula we developed in recommendation #1.

4) The MFTE is a voluntary program.  The family size unit “incentive” will not work.
One of the defining features of the MFTE program is that participation is voluntary.  Because of this feature, a fair value for value exchange must be offered in order to encourage participation.  If policy makers ask for more in rent concessions than is warranted by the value of the property tax exemption, developers simply choose not to participate.  Attempts to “extract” more value from developers than the tax exemption is worth makes for a great applause line, but doesn’t actually work in practice.  To the contrary, it simply drives potential participants away from the program, resulting in fewer affordable units.

The recent proposal to incentivize family size units by mandating a higher percentage of affordable units unless developers provide at least 4 two bedroom units in their projects is an example of a misguided extraction attempt.  The result of this policy will be:
  • Larger projects, where provision of a few larger units is customary, will get a benefit in exchange for doing nothing more than what they were planning to do in the first place.
  • Smaller projects where provision of a few large units is difficult will find that MFTE is bad deal & simply will not participate.
The section intended to encourage two-bedroom units should be removed from the legislation. Family sized housing is an important issue, but cannot be effectively incentivized using a voluntary program like the MFTE.  Attempting to do so is counter-productive and makes it harder to responsibly administer and steward the MFTE program in a way that maximizes participation and public benefit.

*Thanks to Dylan Simon and Jerrid Anderson of Colliers International for providing the market data on rents for SEDU and congregate housing