Why do all new apartment buildings look the same?

The bland, boxy apartment boom is a design issue, and a housing
policy problem

A wave of sameness has washed over new residential architecture.
U.S. cities are filled with apartment buildings sporting boxy
designs and somewhat bland facades, often made with colored panels
and flat windows.

Due to an
Amazon-fueled apartment construction boom
over the last decade,
Seattle has been an epicenter of this new school of structural
simulacra. But Seattle is not alone. Nearly every city, from

Charlotte
to
Minneapolis
, has seen a proliferation of homogenous apartments
as construction has increased again in the wake of the financial
recession. A Twitter
query seeking to name this ubiquitous style
was a goldmine.
Some suggestions seemed inspired by the uniformity of design in
computer programs and games: Simcityism, SketchUp contemporary,
Minecraftsman, or Revittecture. Some took potshots at the way these
buildings looked value-engineered to maximize profit: Developer
modern, McUrbanism, or
fast-casual architecture
. Then there are the aesthetic
judgement calls: contemporary contempt, blandmarks, LoMo (low
modern), and Spongebuild Squareparts.

“Part of what people are responding to isn’t the building
themselves, it’s that there are so many of them going up so
quickly, all in the same places in the city,” says Richard
Mohler, an associate professor of architecture at the University of
Washington.


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Many of the replies to the Twitter call simply pointed out that
these buildings are housing, and much-needed housing at that.
Though they can be defined or classified by aesthetics, this wave
of new apartments is perhaps best described as a symbol of
today’s housing problems: a lack of developable land;
rising land, material, and labor costs
; and an acute need to
find more affordable places for people to live.

“At the end of the day, if you line up multifamily apartments
from Boston, San Francisco, and Miami, that have been built in the
last decade, you’re going to see a very strong pattern,” says
Scott Black, senior vice president of Bristol Development, a
Nashville-based firm that develops apartments across the
southeast.

Good architecture should always respond to the local context. In
the case of these buildings, the local economic context just
happens to be the same in just about every major U.S. city.

“Critics don’t understand what we’re working with, the
parameters and the financial constraints,” says Bristol’s
Black. “It’s like any other business, if you’re selling autos
or selling widgets, there are certain costs, and a certain profit
you need to make to do business in the future.”


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It boils down to code, costs, and craft

Perhaps the biggest constraint in the urban U.S. apartment
market, a
$61 billion annual industry
, is the amount of available space.
Many cities zone with an overwhelming preference for detached,
single-family homes, with small corridors in downtowns or dense
areas set aside for large, multi-story towers. In Seattle, for
instance, roughly three-quarters of residential land is zoned for
single-family homes. That means new apartments are forced to
cluster in small areas of the city, amplifying the impact of a rash
of new, similar buildings.

The buildings themselves are an effort to fit within the small
niches made available by local building and zoning codes. According
to Mohler, due to height limits and safety/fire requirements, most
of these structures are what’s known as “5 over 1” or
“one-plus-five”: five stories of wood-framed construction,
which contain apartments, over a concrete base, which usually
contains retail or commercial space, or parking structures. Some
codes also mandate a modulated facade, or varying exteriors across
adjacent buildings to avoid repetition.

Cities’ design review boards can add to the pressures caused
by zoning. Ideally, these groups work with architects and
developers to improve upcoming buildings and make them more
compatible with the neighborhood context. Mohler says that’s not
always the case; in some cities, there’s a tendency to rubber
stamp structures that have already proven themselves, leading to a
formulaic feel.

Code constraints, which allow construction on restricted areas,
help create the second major restraint, cost. The reason our cities
are filled with so much of the same kind of building is because
it’s the default cheapest way to build an apartment. In this
case, that’s light-frame wood construction, which often uses flat
window that are easy to install, a process called rainscreen
cladding to create the skin of the building, as well as Hardie
panels, a facade covering made from fiber cement.

The need to cut costs limits facade options. Hardie Panels run
about $16 a square foot, roughly the same cost as brick. The next
upgrade, metal siding, costs nearly $50 a square foot, more than
triple the cost.

“Since we’re facing a housing affordability crisis, it makes
a certain amount of sense to build a building as affordably as we
can,” says Mohler.

According to Black, variation is costly. Many units get made to
a standard size, say 12-foot-wide bedrooms. Repeat that a few times
per floor, maximized to create rentable space, and you start a
domino effect towards generic architecture, because the floor
plates end up very similar. Once the interior is laid out, there
are ways to make the exterior look more interesting using setbacks,
materials, and massing. But giving up space for units and creating
more complicated construction plans cuts into profitability.

“The bigger issue is construction costs have escalated pretty
significantly over the last two years,” says Black. “We need to
deliver a product within a price point. People don’t always
understand the margins we work with. We really do want to build
something that’ll sparkle and shine and look great from the
outside. At the end of the day, we feel like we’re able to do
that.”

Some critics dismiss the cost issue as a small piece of a larger
problem. Michael Paglia, a writer for Westworld in Denver, penned a
popular piece about his city’s rash of bad design,
“Denver is Drowning in Awful Architecture.”
He feels
architects aren’t just cost-constrained, but are being left out
of the equation. Computer-aided design has lead to a degradation of
the role of architect, Paglia argued, replacing a noble craft with
a series of equations that wring every last bit of value out of a
site, aesthetics be damned. Formulaic floorplans are cost
effective, while good design is considered an
unaffordable luxury
, concentrated like so much else among the 1
percent.

“I don’t think you can call the designers of these buildings
designers or architects,” he told Curbed. “I think accountants
are designing these buildings.”

The art of design has become a science, he says, and that’s
created another important, but less tangible, constraint on new
construction–the loss of construction craft. Paglia feels that
construction standards, and the expectations renters have of new
buildings, have diminished.

“Many of the renters living in those buildings don’t even
know they’re terrible,” he says. “And as far as cost
constraints go, talk to someone in Florence, Italy, where there are
numerous constraints on development. Nothing is an excuse for bad
design.”

Mohler agrees that there are tangible difference between the
apartments of today and yesteryear. Older apartment buildings have
something that the Hardie-clad structures lack, a certain texture
and materiality.

“Today’s flat window may be a great product, easy to install
and cost-effective,” he says. “But the depth of facade on older
buildings offers a whole new level of detail and scale.”


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History judges architecture on a curve

Since the constraints creating the conditions for this generic
apartment architecture show little sign of abating, cities may be
stuck with buildings like these for the foreseeable future. New
construction slowed this year after peaking in 2017, but that still
means
283,000 new apartments
are expected to be finished by the end
of the year, many in this generic style. What happens to them
further down the road, decades and generations from now?

“I don’t think these buildings will be around in 40 years,
they’ll collapse and be maintenance problems,” says Paglia.
“We’ll remember the small sliver of good architecture being
built today.”

Mohler, though, thinks time will play a trick on detractors of
today’s bland, boxy buildings. He points to neighborhoods of
identical bungalows, celebrated and often enshrined as historic
districts. At the time they were built, in the early half of the
20th century, they weren’t the product of forward-thinking
architects seeking to create character-filled dwellings for
today’s homeowners to drool over. They were factoring in cost,
code, and craft, and creating their own equations to maximize
profit and product. Placing them above today’s housing, meant to
meet contemporary needs for affordable housing, can be, as
McMansion Hell’s Kate Wagner wrote, a form of “aesthetic
moralism.

“Many of these houses were the same, and many were completely
identical to each other because they were being built by
developers,” Mohler says of past urban developments. “At the
time, it was criticized for wasting land and all looking the same.
Looking identical today means neighborhood character. If it’s old
and looks the same, it’s good, but if it’s new and all looks
the same, it’s bad.”

Even Mohler doesn’t say these boxy builds will be celebrated
in coming decades. But, arising from an era with an acute housing
shortage, perhaps they’ll be appreciated for what they represent:
a part of the solution to today’s housing crisis.

“I’m optimistic that people’s opinions of these buildings
will change over time,” he says. “Will they be celebrated? Not
likely. But will they be more accepted? Probably.”

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
Why do all new apartment buildings look the same?