Thursday, November 15, 2012

Umbrella House Meets Puget Sound

Along West Seattle's Beach Drive, about halfway between Alki and the ferry dock, we have a unique pair of houses going up side-by-side.  The project began as a new house for a couple who had lived in their home on Beach Drive for decades.  We helped the take their land and short plat it into two lots so that they could sell off half the land & use the proceeds to build a new home on the remaining parcel.  We designed and permitted their new home, but before beginning construction, the owners wanted to get the other lot sold off so that they could firm up their construction budget.

City Closers, the listing broker, asked us to produce a quick prototype design (some conceptual plan drawings & a web video) to help illustrate what could be done with the empty lot.  The day after it was put on the market, we got a call from an interested buyer who was very taken with the project and decided to buy the land and hire us to build the house we designed, all in one fell swoop.  Within 72 hours, the lot was under contract, and we were designing two waterfront houses side-by-side.

The project has been a great opportunity for us to further explore our Umbrella House concept.  The houses are only 30-40 feet away from Puget Sound, so our general emphasis on technical detailing for a challenging climate has been further sharpened by the wind driven weather and salt corrosion issues that come along with the marine environment.  The backyards facing Puget Sound are one of most beautiful and ever-changing patches of land we've ever worked on.  A site of this quality really reinforces the need to create floor plans, decks, and grading that are well  integrated & help to stitch together the interior and exterior living spaces.

Along the way we've been constantly using our 3D modeling software to study the views from various rooms of the house and check privacy relationships between the adjacent homes.  We've also had a chance to learn a lot more about a range of issues, from corrosion resistance & low maintenance finishes, to universal access design, and the latest developments of many energy efficiency technologies.  I'll share more detail in upcoming posts.

The first house, for Carl & Carol Binder, is currently under construction and will be completed Summer 2013.  The second house, for Zach Mosner and Patty Friedman, is currently under design.  Construction should begin in Spring 2013 with completion in early 2014.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Architect turns Architect/Developer

Big News.  David Neiman Architects has just purchased on a property near 14th & Marion that will be the site for our first townhouse project with us acting as the developer.

Marion Green will be a five unit townhouse project.  Like it's predecessor Beacon Green, it will be designed with all of its units clustered around a central community courtyard.  More than that, can't really say for now.  We're working on preliminary plans & will have something more definitive ready for public design review & community meetings in a few weeks.

I'm delighted that we've found a great piece of land that I think will allow us to pull off exactly the kind of model development that I've been wanting to do for a long time.  Look forward to sharing more soon.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Beacon Green Courtyard Townhomes

We just got the building permit approved for Beacon Green Courtyard Townhomes.  Beacon Green is an entirely new townhouse archetype that addresses two of the most difficult issues to resolve successfully in small scale multi-family housing:

1)  How to reasonably accommodate automobile parking while mitigating impacts on open space, livability, and overall project aesthetics?

2)  How to create housing that encourages community & provides a place for neighbors to meet, gather, and strengthen social ties?

The typical Seattle townhouse is designed around a central parking court that consumes the majority of the site area for automobile maneuvering and is devoid of human activity.  We used the flexibility of Seattle's new multi-family code and streamlined design review program to push the buildings to the perimeter of the site, put our parking in garages between the buildings, and then cover the parking areas with a courtyard lid.

It took a couple hundred hours of extra work to get through various bureaucratic roadblocks that come along with doing a first-of-its-kind project.  Once this goes to market and gets seen seen by the community at large, we believe that other developers will want to emulate it, and the city will make the necessarily accommodations to allow projects like this to proceed as smoothly as any other townhouse project.

Project features include:

  • The courtyard brings natural light into the center of the project, provides a large commons for all of the residents, and provides a gracious means of accessing the units in the rear of the site.
  • The visual impact of the automobile is greatly reduced, and the amount of open space is more than doubled compared to a conventional townhouse.
  • The project fits six units onto what is typically a 4 unit site, providing smaller, more affordable units than a conventional townhouse project.
  • Some garage levels are flexibly configured to allow the alternative of a full size garage, a Smart car garage with one bedroom, or no garage and two bedrooms.  The sales offering will market these units with a Smart car included.

Monday, September 24, 2012

David Neiman Architect(s) - New Partner

I am proud to announce that David Neiman Architects is becoming a partnership. I have recruited my good friend David Taber to move his family from bone-chilling Saratoga Springs to rain soaked Seattle. We'll follow up shortly with a series of blog posts to show off Taber's portfolio of work and to talk some more about how the practice is branching out into new areas of work. For now, a quick teaser of Taber's greatest hits:

    Park Avenue Apartment. Steel plate helical stair.

    Noguchi Sculpture Garden Pavilion

    PS 192 Elementary School Library

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Houzz article featuring one of our designs:

Create an information hub. "This small office is what we call the information center in the house," says architect David Neiman. "As computers have become an indispensable part of our lives, incorporating an info center into the main floor of the house has become standard."

He adds, "The info center is a place where you leave the computers on, set up a plug-in station for your phones, put your printer in the pedestal. It's where your kids do their homework, where the parents do their bills, where you hop over to look up a recipe or answer a question that comes up over dinner. And the room has sliding doors so you can close it off when you need some privacy, or you don't want your guests to look at the stack of mail on the desktop."

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Building a Better Townhouse - The Central Court

Over the past few years I've made a series of attempts to get a new townhouse archetype built in Seattle, a scheme I call the Central Court.  My first attempt began in 2006 with the Clawson-Allan Residence, a 3-unit project designed for a custom home client. They approached me with the idea of building a townhouse project where they would live in one of the units & keep the other two for rental properties. At our first meeting, I floated a scheme that was not unlike a typical Seattle 4-pack townhouse, with units in the front, units in the back, and a drive court in-between. My innovation was to lid over the driveway with a deck that would turn the center of the site into a courtyard that would provide a community open space for all of the units. It was a simple idea, but it violated at least a half dozen key development standards in the land use code. In order to get the project permitted, we had to volunteer for design review, a lengthy and costly process that added a solid year to the project timeline. The novelty of the project configuration also triggered a series of objections from the building code enforcement team, which derailed the project further still. By the time the building permits were ready, it was mid-2008, the economy was in free fall, and construction financing was nowhere to be found. The project was mothballed, never to return.

Central Court #1 - Clawson Allan Residence - 2006 to 2008.  Unbuilt
The next three years I spent doing public advocacy for an update of the multifamily code, working with DPD and the city council to develop a more flexible, open land use code that could open the way for a number of new housing types.  As drafts of the new code were sent around for comment, I kept the Central Court scheme in the back of my mind, checking the specific language to see if there was enough wiggle room inside of the code to let something like this happen.  

It was difficult to get much traction with the city planners and code authors.  After all, no project of this type had ever gotten built.  How do you get someone to prioritize enabling a housing type that exists only on my hard drive?  One event that helped a little was the presentation of White Hat Black Hat to the city council.  The Central Court was one of the featured schemes in my presentation.  It got a little bit of press on local blogs, the Daily Journal of Commerce, and ended up on the Sally Clark's website (Sally was the chair of the land use committee at the time).  It helped to drive home that I wasn't the only person that found this to be an appealing idea.

Central Court rendering from Black Hat White Hat - presentation to Seattle City Council 

I eventually managed to get some language worked into a draft of the code that created some allowance for garages with open space on top, but the enabling language was always written very narrowly. I wanted the door thrown wide open, the code authors intended to crack it open just a hair.  When the final code was published in early 2011, it appeared to me that some flaws in the code language left the door shut tight.

In Spring 2011, I brought my first new townhouse project designed under the new land use code in for a preliminary review.  The new code would not permit Central Court scheme outright, but I assumed that I would be able to reprise (and learn from) the Clawson Allan Residence, using design review to skirt around the inflexible portions of the code.  To my chagrin, I discovered that the unworkable code language was in a chapter that is not eligible for departures through design review.  So, for the purpose of the Central Court at least, the new code had taken me backwards a step.

Central Court #2 - 110 N 39th Street - 2011.   New code would not allow.  Scheme abandoned.
The silver lining was that having a concrete example of a real-world project getting stymied by a flaw in the code gave me a platform to re-lobby the DPD planners to tweak the language one more time.  They have agreed to include a re-write of this code section in their next clean-up legislation (probably later this year).

So, what to do in the meantime?  Early in 2012, a developer approached me with a plot of land that had some unusual site dimensions.  Having beaten my head against the same wall enough times, I recognized that the proportion of this site might afford me an opportunity to do a variation of the Central Court that would skirt the code provisions that had flummoxed me in my previous attempt.  A couple days of careful planning confirmed that, while it would require a slightly odd massing (purely to game the land use standards), it was possible to pull it off.  Fireworks.  Victory Dance.  Client was thrilled.  End of story?  Almost, not quite.

Central Court #3 - Beacon Townhomes - Currently on the boards
Turns out that, while the land use planners at DPD are on board with the idea of trying out some new housing types, nobody really sent that memo to the fire department or the building code reviewers.  For reasons that make perfect sense from a code enforcement perspective and almost none from a common sense point-of-view, they were less than thrilled with my proposal.  For a while it appeared that the project would get crushed under the cumulative weight of all of the special construction and sprinkler/alarm/monitoring features required to get the project through the life-safety review.

Thankfully, a helpful supervisor at DPD was willing to put in some time to help me negotiate a compromise that appears workable. The project will get hit with some significant extra costs - enough to bruise the bottom line, but not enough to make it bleed out.  It's enough of a problem that I'll need to continue to lobby DPD to find a way to get this project type done within a reliable, low-friction process.  

But that is a fight for another day.  For now, I'm just thrilled to be able to say that I'm green-lighted on my first Center Court project.  Keep an eye on this one.  It could be great.

Beacon Townhomes - Courtyard View
Beacon Townhomes - Street View

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Using 3d visualization

We do all of our design work using Revit, a program that models the project in 3d & extracts views of the model to make the drawings.  It's a difficult program to learn, but it pays off huge dividends when it come to helping clients to visualize the project.

We just completed a design development package for this house, which is the stage in which we start to get more detailed about designing the interior finishes, cabinetry, fixtures, & the like.  Up to this point we've mostly been looking at floor plans & exterior views of the project.  Suddenly, the amount of information that the client needs to take in increases exponentially - the drawing set is now filled with schedules, lighting diagrams, interior elevations & the like.

For many clients it is difficult to assimilate all of the information in these drawings, and more challenging still to visualize the implications of what we are proposing.  So, in addition to providing the usual drawings, we use our 3d models to supplement the drawings with walk-through videos & perspective views.  See below for a new video of a house on the boards on the West Seattle Waterfront.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Howell Lofts Sets sales/sf record

A little brag video from Seattle Land Broker, the sales agent for Howell Lofts.  The project set a record for highest sales per/sf for Seattle.  So its my brag too now.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Houzz Design Award

We won a design award from Houzz for "best entry".  Not exactly the Pritzker, but I'll take it

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Howell Lofts Open House - 1826 E Howell St

Howell Lofts goes to market this week. The first public open house will be Sunday, January 29th from 1- 4pm.  Howell Lofts looms large for us for a number of reasons. Notably, it is the first new housing project that we’ve completed since the bottom fell out of the market three years ago. It is our first project to use some of the new parking flexibility of the new multi-family codes, which helped provide a more pedestrian friendly street presence for the project.  It is also our first project designed for Built Green 5-star, the highest level of certification available through that program, and one of only ten homes in King County built to this level of performance in 2011. Howell Lofts will be a significant test for how well the current home sales market will reward an ambitious green project and how it will respond to our unconventional parking solution.

Howell Lofts is built on a little sliver of land, 23’ wide by 138’ long. A 100 year old house sits on the corner with a long strip of backyard that faced Howell street. We short platted the land into 4 small lots, remodeled the old house and then developed the three remaining lots into townhomes. Parking, as always, is a significant issue with small infill development. In our case, our goal was to create buildings that were welcoming and that contributed to the pedestrian environment. Given the site configuration, we were forced to choose between a streetscape dominated by garage doors, or less parking than is typical for new housing. Reducing our parking count allowed us to create small courtyard entries for the units that would otherwise be filled with parking. Avoiding curb cuts also allowed us to preserve two large specimen trees in the right of way.

The neighbors, however, were not thrilled to hear of our plans for providing less than 1 parking stall for each unit, as this would put pressure on the already over-subscribed street parking in the area. To resolve the issue, we approached the Union Gospel Mission next door and made a deal to lease some surplus spaces in their parking lot. In the end, we got the building design that we wanted, the neighbors got our cars off the street, and UGM gets income to help with their mission.

The project is laid out with the units facing south onto Howell street. Large windows are grouped along this south fa├žade to capture natural light and passive solar gains in the winter. The large trees we preserved provide shading in the summer. The homes have about twice the amount of glazing as a typical home, and most of the windows are operable in order to provide good ventilation in the summer. In addition, the stairways are designed with open risers to facilitate vertical airflow & allow for convection currents to pull out hot air in the daytime & push down cool air for nighttime flushing.

The limited space on the site required layouts with a very compact (20’x20’) footprint. We designed the units with a split level entry and a switchback stair so that minimal space was given over to hallways and entry circulation. While the footprints are relatively small, the zoning allowed us one more story than a typical townhouse project, so in the end we got units that are quite generous. Each unit has 3br/2.5ba and a rooftop deck.

The developer, Jonathan Mckee, sensed that the lull in the construction market was a great opportunity to try something ambitious, and he set us a goal to certify the building to the highest green standard. The project team had regular weekly meetings throughout the design process to continually optimize the building and to grapple with the simultaneous challenges of digesting the Built-Green requirements as well as those of a brand new energy, stormwater, and land use codes. 

One of the biggest challenges that we faced is that 5 star projects have to meet an energy performance 30% better than what is required by code. Moreover, since the energy code baseline is based on an assumption that the project has significantly less glazing than we were using, we had a lot catching up to do. We used very high performance windows and a premium insulation package, which got us part of the way there. Air leakage, it turns out, is actually the biggest source of energy loss, and it can be hard to eliminate because the sources of leakage are so manifold and dispersed. To help tighten up the envelope we used Knauf Ecoseal, a form of sprayed caulking that gets applied to every joint in the framing and seam of the plywood. A blower door test at the end of framing helped us find little cracks before the building cavities got closed up.

Window U Value = 0.18.  The blue color is the Knauf Ecoseal

Tight building envelopes make for great energy performance but also create a couple new challenges. Leakage is bad from an energy standpoint, but air exchange is necessary for healthy interior environments, so we needed to provide a supplemental mechanical ventilation system. Each unit is outfitted with a heat recovery unit that brings in a constant supply of fresh air. Exhaust air is run through a heat exchanger that transfers the outgoing heat to the incoming air, retaining about 80% of the heat energy. 

Rainscreen battens ventilate behind the siding
Another challenge is that conventional residential siding systems aren’t particularly watertight. Over time a fair amount of water gets behind the siding. In a conventional building that moisture often gets dried out by all of the heat leaking out of the building. Energy efficient buildings don’t lose as much heat, so they can’t depend on interior heat loss to make up for deficiencies in the building envelope. With this issue in mind, we design all of our new projects with a rainscreen siding system. Rainscreens create a cavity between the siding and the building paper. Openings are provided at the top & bottom of the wall to ventilate the cavity and dry out any moisture that gets behind the siding.

Tadashi Shiga, our energy consultant, had organized an informal co-op to connect builders with suppliers of the products needed for efficient green buildings. Through this network we were able to source high performance window, mechanical, and insulation packages at significant discounts.

Project Team:
Developer:  Jonathan Mckee
General Contractor:  Roger Penner, Pluma Homes LLC
Project Superintendent:  Lorne Gunther
Architect:  David Neiman Architects in collaboration with Thomas Isarankura of Baan Design
Structural Engineer:  Todd Valentine, HSV Engineers
Civil Engineer:  Brian Darrow, Blueline Group
Built Green / Energy Consultant:  Tadashi Shiga, Evergreen Certified
Real Estate & Marketing:  Ron Rubin, Seattle Land Broker

Five Star Built Green Features

Energy savers:
  • Triple Glazed Windows, oriented for passive solar gain in the winter, shaded by trees in the summer, have a U-Value of 0.2, about twice as efficient as a typical window.
  • BIB insulation package provides complete fill of cavities providing much higher performance than conventional batt insulation.
  • Airtight construction methods including sprayed sealants at the framing level and airtight drywall reduce air infiltration to about 20% of what is seen in a typical project.  Project has been blower door tested to confirm energy performance.
  • Fresh air intake and exhaust provided by a Heat Recovery Ventilator, which strips the exhaust air of its heat and transfers energy to the incoming fresh air. The HRV system retains about 80% of the heat that would otherwise be exhausted to the outdoors.
  • Super-high efficiency on-demand boiler and domestic hot water supply heat on an as-needed basis, preventing energy losses from storage tanks.
  • TED 5000C Energy monitor allows real time monitoring of energy use and tracks use over time.
  • Overall energy performance is modeled at 30% better than energy code (rated HERS 70).
Indoor air quality and comfort:
  • Low VOC paints, floor finishes, cabinet finishes, insulation, sealants.
  • No formaldehyde in interior millwork including cabinets, trim, plywood.
  • Heat recovery ventilator provides a constant supply of fresh air.
  • No carpet. Flooring is entirely tile and concrete.
  • Radiant floor hydronic heating system. Ahh.
  • Stairwells with open risers and operable windows create a stack effect to increase natural ventilation in warm weather.
Durable exterior:
  • A rainscreen cladding system provides a ventilated cavity between the siding and the building paper to increase the longevity of the exterior finishes and protect the structural framing against long term moisture intrusion.
  • Commercial grade TPO membrane roof with standing seam sheet metal parapet caps.
  • Exterior fiberglass entry doors with integral sill pans.
Resource efficiency:
  • Recycled countertops, tile, pavers, fencing, drywall, steel, concrete.
  • Open space is entirely pervious pavers and drought tolerant landscaping.
  • Rain barrels provide for rainwater capture.
  • Low flow faucets and showers reduce consumption by 30%.
Urban design solutions:
  • The existing house on the site was saved and remodeled.
  • An existing garage on the site was deconstructed & substantially recycled.
  • Two large specimen trees were preserved and made into project features. The tree canopies provide summer shading for the south facing windows and the rooftop decks.
  • Parking for the project was provided partly by leasing spaces from the Union Gospel Mission next door, freeing up the open land for pedestrian courtyards instead of parking stalls.
  • All units feature rooftops decks, providing much needed private open space with expansive views of Lake Washington.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Howell Lofts goes to Market

Howell Lofts (19th & Howell) goes to market today.  Word just came in that one of the units already has a full price offer.  First Public Open house is scheduled for this Sunday.  Howell Lofts is a bit of a test case for what kind of premium people will pay for a 5 Star Built-Green project, and how buyers will respond to purchasing units without dedicated parking (two of the units have parking spaces that are leased from the church next door).

See video of the project below from Seattle Land Broker