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Combatting Urban Densification Issues in Seattle: A New Approach to Building Multi-family Homes

Seattle, Wittman Estes Architecture+Landscape, LOAT Architectural Research and Design, Joshua Welch Structural Engineering, Solarc Energy Group
Rendering courtesy of Wittman Estes

By Jack Stubbs

Seattle is a city on the move, and architects and designers are continually looking for new ways to maximize the efficiency of their projects in the increasingly pressurized built environment.

NODE Modular Dwellings, a prefab tech company co-founded in 2016 by architects Matt Wittman of Wittman Estes Architecture+Landscape and Don Bunnell, is a company that seeks to create prefab, modular dwelling systems that the smallest possible footprints that maximize their context in the natural environment. Wittman Estes designed the NODE system and oversaw the construction of the first two built projects for NODE. The project team also includes FLOAT Architectural Research and Design (sustainable design and research); Joshua Welch Structural Engineering; and Solarc Energy Group (sustainable systems engineer).

One of the core features of the NODE projects is how they look to connect their residents with the surrounding natural environment, according to Matt Wittman of Wittman Estes. “We’re trying to connect people with nature through architecture, and our clients are almost always people who love nature and the outdoors,” he said. NODE is available in two types: The Madrona Series—where buyers can start with an individual Living NODE, which ranges from 165 to 572 square feet, and add additional NODES as budgets allow—and the Trillium Series, which is a singular space that can be installed as an Accessory Dwelling Unit (suburban), on top of an existing building (urban) or more remotely in the natural environment. The first on-site NODE dwelling was completed in West Seattle in early 2018, and the second is currently under construction on Whidbey Island.

The broader premise behind the NODE dwellings—and the flexibility that the prefabricated environments allow—was that their small footprints would enable them to be installed in a wide variety of settings, according to Wittman. “With NODE, we saw a need in the built environment for these small footprint, rapidly-manufactured building elements both in urban-infill within the city, and in remote sites, where people had a beautiful piece of property that was difficult to access or find a builder for [for the project],” he said.

Seattle, Wittman Estes Architecture+Landscape, LOAT Architectural Research and Design, Joshua Welch Structural Engineering, Solarc Energy Group
Rendering courtesy of Wittman Estes

The idea behind NODE dwellings was to streamline the design and construction process by incorporating a system of prefabricated components to ultimately create the final product, rather than beginning the design process from the ground up. “Fundamentally, the project was about being able to productize a building rather than starting from scratch every time. Kind of in the tradition of architects designing for furniture makers like Herman Miller,” Wittman said. “Because you’re building it in a factory, you get a lot of the [positive] environmental impacts, both in terms of quality and production.” The goal with NODE dwellings is to reduce construction waste and also streamline the construction process once the factory-built components are delivered to the project site. Environmentally, the buildings look to minimize toxic chemicals, eliminate all products that rely on Red-list chemicals, and incorporate rainwater capture systems, efficient plumbing and solar energy features into the projects.

In the bigger picture, Wittman thinks that prefabrication systems like NODE are contributing to a changing way that projects are designed and ultimately constructed from start to finish. “I think we’re seeing design happening more holistically, where the components are built in a more contained environment,” he said. “Before, everyone from different trades would show up with their tools and the contractor would coordinate. But as the architects, we wanted to control more of the quality and the outcome, where there’s a more centralized production factory and a single point of contact,” he said.

By streamlining the overall construction process—reducing the amount of time that it takes for these projects to be completed—the hope is that more thought can be given to the actual design of the projects, according to Wittman “It gives the opportunity to build things faster so that they can be deployed faster, and we can focus our design energy on the configuration and how [the components] are arranged and deployed on the site.”

Maximizing the potential of a project’s footprint on a given site is an increasingly important objective, especially given the issues of densification and urban growth that Seattle is experiencing. Wittman Estes also designed Grasshopper Studio, an urban-infill project located in the backyard of a property in West Seattle which the firm—comprised of architect Matt Wittman and landscape designer Jody Estes—designed for themselves and their family. Ultimately, the project encourages a rethinking of how single-family lots in Seattle are adaptively reused and developed given the densification issues that the city is facing.

The goal with Grasshopper Studio (which has a 360 square foot interior and is surrounded by 1,000 square feet of outdoor space) was to maximize the potential of the urban lot, which is occupied by an existing house built in the 1940s. “We wanted to show how we could create a new kind of ‘courtyard urbanism’ where you get more usable space by expanding the functional area into the outdoor space,” Wittman said. Wittman Estes added a multifunctional studio—which can be used for short-term rental space or utility/workshop space, among other uses—along the rear alley of the property, and the resulting interstitial space between the two structures formed a private open-air terrace.

Seattle, Wittman Estes Architecture+Landscape, LOAT Architectural Research and Design, Joshua Welch Structural Engineering, Solarc Energy Group
Image courtesy of Wittman Estes

The objective with Grasshopper Studio was both to maximize the potential of the available space on the site and also effectively incorporate the existing structure into the project, a two-part strategy that Wittman thinks would not necessarily have occurred to everyone looking at the site. “Most people would have just knocked the smaller building down and built a larger structure in the middle of the lot….but the concept was to use the entire footprint of the lot and create what feels like a much larger usable space,” he said.

The project emphasizes an engagement and proximity to the natural environment—through the central terrace, wide covered walkway and a landscaped wall that separates the studio from adjacent properties—a factor especially relevant given the context of the character of Seattle as a city, according to Wittman. “I think a lot of people come to Seattle because they love the outdoors, and they want to be outside as much as they can,” Wittman said.

And while Grasshopper Studio seeks to emphasize the surrounding natural environment, the project also seeks to address more pressing issues around the rapid urban growth and densification that the city is experiencing. Rising rents—and the increasingly low availability of developable land—mean that newer design strategies should be brought to the table. “I think as the city densifies and rents continue to rise, more and more properties are looking at having supplemental rental income. Being able to have multiple dwelling units on a single-family lot is important to carefully design the interface between the dwellings,” Wittman added.

Programmatically, Grasshopper Studio looks to maximize the available footprint on the project site, and Wittman thinks that as available land in the city continues to dwindle, developing a single-family home to occupy an entire lot might not always be a feasible strategy. “The challenge is that historically, Seattle, like many cities, was built at a time when there was a lot of land available. There was kind of this American Dream of having a single-family house in the middle of the lot.”

Wittman hopes that looking forward designers and developers can make strides in more fully maximizing the use on lots of land by pushing the buildings to the edge of the project site. In part, the city and its Design Review Board and the Department of Construction and Inspections can play a role when it comes to fully maximizing the potential of a given property. “We’d like to see city leadership allow buildings to push closer to the alleys and side yards…I’d like to see an easier path from the city and the permitting department and more support for these alternative ways of arranging a lot,” he said.

Grasshopper Studio is based on the premise of ‘courtyard urbanism’—the idea that the urban-infill project takes full advantage of its surrounding space and natural environment. Wittman hopes that, moving forward, the city will support an approach that encourages more landscape features (like rooftop decks and outdoor spaces) and natural light to be incorporated into the plans for projects.

In the larger global context, Seattle is a city on the move, and the idea of maximizing the usable space on a lot is one piece of the puzzle. Wittman thinks that the issues that the city is facing—rising rents and cost of land and continued densification—will only continue to mount if steps are not taken to maximize the land that is available. “If you look at other densifying cities, like Tokyo, New York, Paris, London and Berlin, Seattle could go more in that direction where we’re creating more livable outdoor spaces and get rid of the older model of a larger footprint on a smaller lot,” he said. “I think Seattle needs to embrace the fact that it’s now a global city. We’re growing fast; there’s a lot of population pressure, and the city needs to allow more flexibility with that density with some of these alternative models.”