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RDC 2011: Leading the way to prosperity

As Massachusetts and the country at-large work to find their place in a post-recession world, we can’t forget what precipitated the Great Recession—housing and the uneven residential landscape. The recession’s origins are well known: predatory lending, veiled sub-prime debt bundles, inflated home values and lax regulatory oversight. But what about A/E/C professionals? What roles do we play? RDC 2011 addresses the responsibilities of our industry, emphasizing the problems and opportunities revealed during these often painful past few years.

For the first time, workshops are packaged into three tracks: Energy, Housing and Renovation. They were chosen for their role in leading us back to prosperity, representing vital needs that both public and private clients are fulfilling. After the economic shake-out, these still stand.

A/E/C professionals take great ownership in Energy—its sources, delivery and efficiency in the places we live, work and play. The path to net-zero energy has been blazed for architects and engineers (workshop A3), who know how to accommodate a field of solar panels as well as they know how to design a super tight exterior envelope (A4). We must become better advocates. Regulations increasingly aid this effort, if not flatly requiring that the steps be taken (A1; A6). Technology allows energy tracking in all stages of design, development and occupancy, and offers a clear and tangible communication line with clients and other decision-makers (A8).

Housing is a universally discussed subject in the A/E/C industry. Multifamily and affordable projects have rarely been the path toward critical acclaim, but they are desperately needed. How do we bring good design to projects with tight budgets and a lack of community support (B4)? Government is a critical player, acting as both the state’s largest landlord (B1) and design client (B2), as well as administering the zoning regulations that make projects possible (B3; B7). NIMBY opposition has always been a significant obstacle. RDC 2011shows that architects can create healthy communities meeting and exceeding budgetary and community expectations through good design (B5; B8).

Renovation and alterations to existing building stock is a classic New England challenge. The historic colonials, Victorians and brick warehouses which trademark our landscapes create a distinct sense of place, and A/E/C professionals are their stewards (C7). Designers ply their renovation trade through historic preservation (C3) and rehabilitation, modern retrofits (C1; C8) and residential additions. By blending 21st-century insulation techniques with old brick facades (C2), energy-efficient windows with hand-carved architectural moldings (C5), architects let history live. Design challenges come in all shapes and sizes, and the aging of our buildings is one to be embraced with pride and two hands.

As we in New England emerge from our recessionary slumber, we need to know and embrace the unique challenges we face. Massachusetts didn’t create the speculative, ghostly developments we see in states like Arizona, Florida and Idaho. In fact, Massachusetts has the opposite problem. Housing supply has been lagging demand for decades, if not centuries. Neighborhood and government bottlenecks, aging and dated towns and buildings, and keeping pace with ever-changing technologies are among our challenges. RDC serves up some of the best and brightest our industry has to offer, delivering content to lead the way to prosperity.

Residential Design and Construction is April 28–29 at the Seaport World Trade Center, Boston.

Architecture in the fourth dimension

An international conference embedded in Build Boston, November 15–17, 2011

Shopping centers and office buildings exhibit the characteristics of architecture’s fourth dimension—they offer space for varied and changing occupancies. This is open building. The appearance and evolution of these building types progressed pragmatically, led by real-estate developers and business entities in response to new realities. Architects and contractors learned how to provide the needed services, often producing high-quality work. Product manufacturers began introducing suitable products, fabrication and construction methods. New standards, regulations and financing tools were developed to meet the resulting requirements. These developments are international in scope, crossing economic, political, cultural and technical boundaries. 

Housing is now adopting open-building practices. Today many public and private parties ask for residential projects to be built empty and filled efficiently with varied floor plans. This is evident in Finland, Japan and the Netherlands. In other countries, residential open building is no longer seen as particularly unusual. We see evidence of it in Russia, Switzerland, Germany, China and, to a lesser extent, the United States. New examples of housing designed to be incrementally upgraded in an informal user‐controlled process come to light constantly, whether in Chile, Mexico or South Africa.  In Finland, one of the largest real-estate companies is regularly developing open-building projects for its residential portfolio. In the Netherlands, several companies including product manufacturers, developers and architects are practicing open building by other names. Developers in Germany are asking well-known architects to build “design-ready” (essentially, empty) residential projects of significant architectural quality. San Francisco developers build “bulk” housing that is ready for individualized fit-out. Around the world, old office buildings that retain social and economic value are “gutted” and prepared for customized residential occupancy.

We also see hospitals in many countries such as the United States, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands that are under pressure from a rapidly evolving healthcare sector moving toward open building. Similar developments are undoubtedly happening elsewhere, under the radar. Hospital clients face uncertain future needs, and practices and insurance programs can no longer afford to let the short term drive facilities-procurement methods and investment decisions. They are demanding “change‐ready” facilities, assessed by their accommodation capacity over time. Major architectural firms are responding with high levels of architectural quality. 

Mainstreaming of open building is therefore a pragmatic response to the pressures, conflicts and waste caused by continued adherence to rigid functionalism—that is, designing buildings to fit predefined functions. Open building is also an answer to a state of severe technical entanglement resulting from the incremental addition of new technical systems provided by different trades over the past 50 years, whose cooperation and coordination come at a cost. These pressures are forcing all parties to reconsider procurement and investment practices, accounting methods and regulatory systems. In mass‐consumer societies, attitudes are changing in support of inhabitants controlling the making and transformation of their own dwellings and working environments, which is especially difficult in large projects where individual decision making is the first thing to be rejected. Consideration of long‐term asset value, which is achieved only if buildings are adaptable, is also forcing all parties to rethink their priorities when investing in multi-occupant buildings. This development puts open building very much in the center of the sustainability movement.

These changes in priorities are now supported by law in some instances. The Japanese parliament passed laws in 2008 mandating a 200-year housing perspective that includes accompanying tools for local building officials who have the responsibility of evaluating and approving building projects. Approved projects receive tax benefits; other incentives may be added.

Open building projects have the systemic properties of large infrastructures. They involve many decision‐making bodies and users over long time periods. As such, they present technical, economic, political and cultural questions that go far beyond the dominant architectural discourse that still tends to emphasize the special case, formal gymnastics, and aggrandizement of designer and client. Generally speaking, these developments toward open building are not taking place for their ideological purity but for pragmatic reasons.

The 2011 Open Building conference will immerse participants from the United States and around the world in lectures, seminars, paper sessions and exhibits of student competition winners and exemplary built projects. Shepley Bulfinch, and Cannon Design will host on-site charrettes. Dietmar Eberle (Baumschlager Eberle), Tedd Benson (Bensonwood Homes), Giorgio Macchi (Canton Bern, Switzerland Chief Architect), Phil Neden (ARUP), Stephen Kieran (Kieran Timberlake Architects), William Porter (Emeritus Professor MIT) and others will offer keynote speeches and seminars. 

Stephen Kendall (PhD, MIT ’90) is a registered architect and architectural educator, having authored more than 30 papers, book chapters, technical papers and books. He is joint coordinator of the CIB W104 Open Building Implementation and lectures worldwide on the subject of open building for housing and healthcare facilities.

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