Monday, November 21, 2011

iPhone Ready Housing

Designing houses to work with the technology of the day has always been a challenge.  Its hard to stay current on what's available and difficult to sort out the viable technologies from the flavor-of-the-week.  About three years ago I had the experience of showing a (younger) couple a new house design that included some cabinets that I had designated for holding their CD/DVD collection.  They looked me over with a mixture of curiosity and pity, as though I had shown them a kitchen design that included a coal chute and a delivery box for the milkman.  Then they plucked their iPhones out of their pockets and waived them at me to let me know what century they were living in.

Since then, I've been paying a little more attention to the smartphone and how best to integrate that technology into our designs.  When Howell Lofts hit the drawing board, one of my goals was to be able to market the homes as "iPhone ready".  I focused on three kinds of technologies I wanted to try out.  1)  Digital music; 2) Remote control of the house systems, and; 3) Real-time energy monitoring.  For each of these, I installed a test system in my own home to try them out first.  I

Digital Music:  Sonos.

I thought this would be the biggest challenge of the three.  Setting up a house for the playback of a digital music collection turns out to be the easiest, probably because there's a large marketplace of consumers that wants this feature in their home.  There are many ways of getting this done, but I settled on a system made by Sonos.  Sonos makes a line of products that can plug into an ethernet jack in your wall & talk directly to your computer network.  The Sonos client software installs on your computer, catalogs and sorts your music collection, and can be controlled either by a PC or by an app on your smartphone or tablet.  It was incredibly simple to set up & very easy to use.  The best part about it, from an architects perspective, is that it doesn't require much in the way of wiring inside the wall. The only thing you need to provide is an ethernet connection.  A+

Remote Controls:  Insteon

Low voltage control systems have been available for decades, but up until recently, providing a house with a remote control that could dim the lights, adjust the thermostat, or unlock the door has required a six figure price tag and a team of technicians to pull it off.  Recently, this technology has made it down to the level of consumer electronics.  Now, for about $50 per switch, you can use a system called Insteon to create circuits in your house that can be controlled using your smartphone for the remote control.

For my house (and Howell Lofts) I installed a skeleton system that could be expanded in the future.  I installed a few switched outlets in key locations where we plug in our computer monitors, printers, A/V components, and other electronics that have parasitic power loads.  This allows us to shut down the house for the night at the click of a button.  I also put the entry lights onto a remote control switch that would allow me to switch the lights on as I approached the house or shut the porch lights off at bedtime without going back downstairs.

Mixed reviews on the Insteon so far.  It requires a little perseverance to set up, is a little more complicated to operate than is comfortable for the average user.  One drawback seems to be that the controls on the PC work better than the controls on the smartphone app.  Might need one more generation on the software side to get things working just right.  B-

Energy Monitor:  TED 5000 (The Energy Detective)

TED is an energy monitor that wires directly into your main electrical panel.  It give you real-time data on your energy usage & stores the information for those, like myself, that enjoy a little recreational charting and graphing.  Having an energy monitor has been a real eye opener for us, as I suspect it would be for most homeowners.

Once we got the system up and running, we spent a couple hours watching the monitor & wandering around the house trying to figure out what was using all of the energy & how we could turn things off to lower our usage.  Very quickly we got a sense for what our baseline energy usage is.  Now, when we walk by the monitor and see numbers that are higher than the baseline, we know that we've left something on.  So, it's giving us really valuable feedback that you can't really get any other way.  Also, if you're crafty like us, you can make the whole thing into a game & trick your kids into monitoring it for you.

Another valuable thing that the monitor shows you is the amount of energy that certain activities use.  We have an electric hot water heater.  While I could have told you that hot water uses up a lot of energy, there's nothing like a graph like this to illustrate the point.  The spikes in this graph are caused by the hot water tank kicking on for showers and running the dishwasher.  The smaller spikes throughout the days are from the heater kicking on periodically to maintain the temperature in the tank.  Its one thing to be told that taking a short shower saves energy.  But seeing the sheer magnitude is another thing altogether.  Having this kind of information modifies your behavior.

We started out using a cell-phone app for the display, but we quickly found that this is the kind of tool that works best when the display is always on and always available.  So we paid an extra $50 for a wireless display that sits on the countertop & passes judgement on us 24/7.  A+

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Adding Density to Existing Developments

As I've mentioned before, one of the most important elements of Seattle's new multi-family zoning code is that it removes mandatory requirements for parking within Urban Villages.  One project type that we're starting to see as a result is that apartment buildings owners (and buyers) are asking us to analyze properties looking for opportunities to fit more units on the site.  Under previous codes this would have been impossible, since every extra unit would have required the conjuring of an additional parking space.

This in-place densification creates incentives to preserve existing buildings in lieu of redeveloping the site and produces some extra income for the building owner.  Coincidentally, when you analyze a site looking for the bits of leftover development potential, you rarely discover opportunities to add units in prime locations.  More often, these projects tend to generate units in basements and other secondary locations. The upside?  The new apartments are generally more affordable compared with other units in the building.

Townhouses without Parking?

Howell Lofts is our first new townhouse designed using the new multi-family code. It's a quirky little infill project that packs a lot of ambition onto a very small site. As such its been a great opportunity to prototype some new ideas that I'd been working on during the great recession, waiting for an opportunity to try them out.

Big idea #1 - Alternative Parking:
The new multi-family code removes mandatory parking requirements in Urban Villages and allows developers to provide whatever amount they deem appropriate. In our case, this flexibility allowed us to do some really great things with our planning that improved the project immensely.

First things first - we decided to design the project around a pedestrian oriented facade & provide only as many parking spaces as we could without massing up the streetscape of the project. The result is a project with generous entry courtyards where parking stalls would have been if 1:1 parking was provided.

The project provides two parking spaces for four units. While this makes for a great streetscape, the neighbors weren't exactly delighted to hear that we were under-parking the project, and frankly, the sales team wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea of going to market with units that didn't have dedicated parking. So, we started asking around and discovered that the Union Gospel Mission next door had a parking lot that was under-utilized. So we negotiated a lease with UGM to rent a couple of parking spaces in their lot.

Its a win-win-win scenario where UGM gets income to help with their programs, we get dedicated parking that helps to sell the units and the neighbors get our cars off the street, where parking is already scarce.

We have another townhouse project in the works that provides three parking spaces for five units. While we expect that buyers will pay a bit less for units without parking, they are also cheaper to build and have more usable space.  We're also discovering that projects that are willing to park at a lower ratio than 1:1 are often able to fit in an extra unit or two. On a small infill project this can make huge difference to the bottom line.

Over the next year, were going to see several "no parking" townhouses come to market & we'll be watching carefully to see how these projects sell in comparison to traditional townhouses with 1:1 parking.

Building Again!

The bottom fell out of the Seattle construction market back in 2008. Over the next few months, all of our projects that hadn't yet started construction got put on hold. Five single family homes, a three unit townhouse, two vacation cabins. None of these projects ever saw the the light of day. Over the next couple years I spent most of my time doing paper exercises: feasibility studies, strategic plans, code analysis.

In 2010, work picked up & I began design on a number of new construction projects. Howell Lofts, a townhouse development on Capitol Hill was the first to break ground in the Spring of 2011. This summer, the project framing got far enough along that we were able to walk through the units.  As I walked around, I was struck with a sudden recollection that THIS IS THE FUN PART!. I had spent so much time working on diagrams, spreadsheets & charts that I forgotten how exciting it is to put something new into the world that wasn't there before.

Howell Lofts will be completed by the end of the year. Its a very ambitious project, rated Built Green 5 Star and featuring a number of new energy saving technologies that I'll write more about later.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blog Launch

Since the launch of my practice back in 2010, I have been using the web to communicate with past, present and future clients. From day one, I have maintained a website (now in its third iteration) which I have used primarily as an on-line portfolio. The website gets updated every year or so as new projects get completed and photographed & it remains a valuable repository of images.

A few years ago I launched Umbrella House, a portion of the site dedicated to explaining my design philosophy. The site, and the effort that went into communicating, in laymans terms, why I do what I do, has been an invaluable tool that has helped me explain my work more effectively and to help find potential clients that are a good fit for us.

A couple years ago I launched a Facebook page, with the idea that it would be a looser, more informal format for posting & sharing ideas, showing projects on-the-boards and under construction, and generally allowing for more communication with friends, clients, fellow architects, and the like. Having tried it out, I found that the co-mingling of personal relationships and business marketing efforts inherent in social networking sites always felt a bit icky, and I have let that effort languish.

Which brings me to blogging. Blogs have in large part supplanted newspapers and magazines (except for my my beloved New Yorker) as my daily reading. I suspect the enthusiasm for the medium that animates many of my favorite bloggers has rubbed off on me a bit. Many times over the last year, things that have happened in the practice where I have found myself writing a blog post in my head, with nowhere to post it.

My hope is that the blog will serve as a bit of an experiment. It will serve the function of a newsletter, allowing me to update followers on news of our work. I'd also like to use it to give people a window into some of the things that we grapple with on a day-to-day basis: Working on strategies to balance efficiency, innovation, sustainability, design, and the lessons we learn along the way. Enjoy.