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.