By Jack Stubbs
As new commercial and residential developments come online every day through the city’s design review board, many project teams are doing their utmost to get their developments approved for the next stage of the review process through the traditional channels.
Increasingly, however, technology is being brought to the table as a means to approach and navigate the city’s design review process differently. Architecture firms are looking to wield technology as a means to enhance their design proposals for underway projects, and these newer tools could be set to change the way that city officials and community members engage with conceptual projects.
Seattle-based B+H Architects is looking to bring a more technology-based approach when it comes to envisioning and presenting in-the-works projects. The company’s Advance Strategy group is working on rolling out a new virtual reality technology that allows wearers of a headset to engage with a building and its adjacent streetscape and neighborhood context. The goal of the technology—whereby users wear a headset and control their directional movements through the use of two hand-held remote controls—is to give clients and city officials a more immersive, life-like perspective of the physical space that a building occupies, as well as central architectural impacts like the height, massing, scale and proportionality of buildings as it relates to the neighborhood and well as the more immediate setting.
Specifically, the company piloted the technology along Aurora Avenue North in northwest Seattle, the main transit corridor east of Greenwood and West of Northgate that merges into Washington State Route 99 and connects the neighborhood with downtown Seattle. B+H used the technology at the beginning of the design process to give its clients a sense of the progression of projects as they get more detailed throughout the design process, according to Eva Talbot, senior architect designer, architect and strategist at B+H. “With Aurora Ave., we were using [the technology] for a number of different avenues. The first [goal] was to provide some high-level sketches, to use the technology as a tool to explore what the possibilities [for a site] are, and the second goal is to very quickly give a human experience to an idea and flip instantly to a better condition [along the street].” The intent is to better understand the current conditions of the site—impacted in part by the streets parallel to vehicular arteries and the zoning limitations on a given site—in relation to the potential future uses for a site including pocket parks, community centers and restaurants.
In broader terms, the technology is all about how to give users a more immediate understanding of the physical limitations of a site, such as curb cuts, alleyways, and blocks that have siloed uses. With Aurora, the hope is that users will see the transit as more less as an area that is just occupied by under-utilized asphalt parking lots, dilapidated hotels and big-box retailers—and more as an area with potential for beautiful views, landscaped sidewalks and a streetscape that could be activated with retail or commercial uses.
In terms of an application within the industry, Talbot thinks that the technology would be accessible to a wide range of users. “I think it’s very accessible for a number of different comfort levels, whether you’ve been an architect for 20 years and know how to read plans and interpret the scaled elements…or whether you were just a member of the public that wanted to really feel what the [streetscape] is like,” she said.
From a design standpoint, the intention with the technology is to give users an idea of how a physical space feels rather than just how it looks. And practically, the technology might in future supplant more traditional methods used to present in-the-works projects at the city’s design review meetings—whereby project teams present renderings in project packets along with physical 3D models to the design review board. According to Alexander Thomson, architectural designer and strategy analyst at B+H, the technology hopes to give users greater context around a project site than the current models allow. “The flashy photorealistic renderings can manipulate and distort the field of view and materials of how an existing condition will actually be; with the cropped 2D images and with real estate marketing, you might see a snapshot of a townhome and not realize that it’s right up against a neighboring building,” he said. “The technology is all about how the building fits into the neighborhood context.”
In terms of the workings of the city’s design review process—whereby project teams for commercial and residential developments present preliminary project plans at initial Early Design Guidance (EDG) meetings and then attend subsequent Design Review Recommendation meetings once approved by the board—the intent with the virtual reality tool is to get people thinking about the evolution of projects earlier on in the process, according to Talbot. “We’re seeing a [return] to physical 2D models, especially at the EDG level, where [the board [doesn’t] want to see any details like materiality. But you need to find a way to illustrate these forms in a compelling fashion. This is about really conveying the thought and effort that goes into these projects at an early stage.”
Talbot thinks that changes are ahead for the city’s design review process—an evolution that in some ways maps onto an evolving architectural profession. “I think the board knows that this is coming…it’s about overlaying this with the city’s parameters for design review,” she said. “[The technology] takes away the layer of interpretation that happens with the intrinsic abstractions that occur with sections, plans and elevations, which is [some of] the main vocabulary that we’ve been dealing with since our profession has been around.”
And while from a practical perspective the virtual reality might give board members a more immediate perspective of the physical environment around a building, input from the community, also, will remain central to the implementation of the technology. During the public comment at the design review meetings, B+H plans to create the virtual reality models as a stand-alone file so that community members can scan the information onto their phones.
B+H will soon be able to gauge the board’s reception to the technology, with plans to present it a project to the Northeast review board in summer 2018. “We try to look holistically, but we also want to be very data-driven to not just build off of our own opinions and aesthetic,” Thomson said.
To make the virtual reality a more viable and beneficial tool at the design review meetings—which are constrained by issues like time limits—Talbot thinks that somewhat of a change in mindset might be needed. “Maybe you don’t need 20 minutes of board deliberation if you can put the headset on and know what the building will feel like. I think there are facets of Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections that are really forward-thinking and open to technology.”
At a time when so much growth is occurring throughout the city of Seattle across all property sectors—including office, industrial, residential and mixed-use—and virtual and augmented reality are becoming increasingly core components of company’s business models, one question is how scalable new technology has the potential to be. “I think the scope can be as small or as big as it needs to be. It could apply to a townhouse development or even to Northgate, which is larger than a full city block,” Talbot said.
Housing affordability in particular—and how neighborhoods are zoned—is one of the most pressing issues currently facing the city. Looking ahead, new strategies would have to take into account the City Council’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) initiative occurring neighborhood-by-neighborhood, which requires developers to either include affordable units into their new projects or contribute to a fund for affordable housing. “The technology is pertinent now because of all the rapid growth and change that is happening,” Talbot said. “I think this will fit in with MHA, where you’re given additional height, FAR and density when you comply…We can use the technology as architects and designers and show how height and density can be done poorly or well,” she added.
Attempts to re-envision the city’s design review process and the way that projects are conceptualized from inception to completion could have very real impacts in terms of tackling the greater issues that Seattle is facing, according to Thomson—especially given zoning limitations currently in place in certain areas of the city. “The big questions that are really pertinent now are [around] homelessness and affordable housing. The question comes up of why so much of the land in our city is designated single-family,” he said. If there’s a way that we can [show] homeowners and neighborhood groups who are resistant to up-zoning [that] a 3-4 unit apartment building is about the same scale of some of these bigger custom homes going in that are serving just one family….if that extra height will give you more affordable units and still creates a neighborhood feel, then why not?”