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How to design a big, mixed-use building that Capitol Hill likes

You like the Agnes Lofts (Photo: Justin Carder)

A couple weeks back we had a post about the mixed-use building planned for the SE corner of Thomas and Broadway. The post generated some serious comments, 44 to date, most of which derided the design of the building and the negative impact it would have on the already deteriorating Broadway commercial strip. Here is a quick sampling of some of those comments:

“too monolith, facade too boring, the new Broadway is looking pretty bad” – Mike with Curls

“Blah. You have a chance to do something different, to push boundries [sic], and to design for a neighborhood that would embrace something a bit different. Why bother paying your architect to come up with the same thing the chaps down the block came up with, when you can just copy it”. – emartin

“Typical, boring, out-of-scale, designed and planned for construction and developer efficiency and profit maximization and future slums.” – designeronthehill

“Whatever charm and character Broadway once possessed is rapidly being flattened and replaced with the above. Nightmarish, really. Soon we’ll have plenty of places for people to live on Broadway, but little reason left to live *there*.” – seymourbutts

And even those who didn’t hate it, didn’t love it:

“Agreed that it is not very exciting but if you want density this is what cost effective design looks like.” – mikewithgirls

Well, here on CHS we like to keep things positive, so rather than just identify what it is you don’t want built in our neighborhood, we thought it would be worthwhile to explore what it is people like when it comes to building design.

A good place to start is the CHS Community Design Preference Survey. The survey, which I encourage everyone to check out, has over 100 pictures of buildings on Capitol Hill and allows members to rate them. Most of the top buildings are older, but a few new ones did make it into the top ten. Weinstein A|U-designed Agnes Lofts, at the corner of 12th and Pike is currently #7, and Pb Elemental’s John Residence further North on 12th is #6. 1310 E. Union Lofts, designed by Miller|Hull Partnership, used to top the charts before falling back to #2.

Earlier I spoke with David Miller of Miller|Hull about the success of 1310 E. Union Lofts. His comments about good design sum up why I think all of the above buildings are appreciated by the neighborhood.

I think there needs to be more of a focus on buildings that are simple and elegant. Some of the new multifamily buildings in Seattle are too complicated with so many different setbacks and materials. I think new buildings need to focus on rationality and simplicity.

These buildings are much clearer architecturally than projects like 230 Broadway or Joule with their mish-mash of colors, setbacks, and materials. Of course, it’s also noteworthy that all of these buildings are much smaller in size and footprint as well.

Of the three modern buildings that top the CHS Design Preference Survey, two were developed by Liz Dunn’s Dunn+Hobbes. Dunn is a long time supporter of the Capitol Hill neighborhood and has been one of the most vocal activists in the fight to preserve Pike/Pine’s character.

Also joining the fight, neighborhood design firm Schemata Workshop has embarked on an in-depth study of Capitol Hill architecture, attempting to codify and catalog good design principles. They hope to put out a full report in the next few months but they sent this collective summary of some important aspects of good design.

Good buildings should have:

  • Durable and high quality materials at the pedestrian level …nothing that someone could damage with a swift kick (e.g., cement board or stucco).
  • Overhead protection for pedestrians to protected from rain as they move from shop to shop. And also for customers to be sheltered from sun/rain as they sit out while they enjoy their coffee, pastry, meal.
  • Been sited appropriately to maximize southern solar access and prevailing winds.
  • Four building facades that respond to their particular climatic conditions – solar orientation, shade from adjacent buildings or trees.  A building should not have four sides that look the same.
  • Authentic materials – no fake brick/stone.
  • Demonstrate restraint in the number of materials and colors – this doesn’t mean that a skilled architect can’t create a great building with 10 materials or colors, but we have yet to see this succeed on Capitol Hill.
  • Restraint in concept – along the same lines as above.  The design team should to pick one strong idea and execute it well.  There are too many buildings performing architectural gymnastics that lead to complicated/fussy buildings.  Great, historic buildings have a substantial presence of volume, where scale is addressed through removing part(s) of the building mass and will more likely result in an elegant building with a timeless beauty even 100 years from now.

    “Long life, loose fit, low energy”.  Integrate flexibility and adaptability to future unknown uses; provide long span, high-load capacity structure.  Think of the old warehouse lofts that have gone through 150 years of change of use.  This is why Elliot Bay Bookstore and Odd Fellows are beautiful, loved buildings after all these years.

The EBBC and Odd Fellows buildings aren’t the only old structures loved by Hillites, and this comparison of historic vs. new construction is the final aspect I want to explore. Whenever I ask people about their favorite architecture on Capitol Hill, I consistently hear praise for the many pre-war brick apartment buildings that dot the neighborhood. Some have argued, myself included, that much of the reason for our infatuation with old apartment buildings is that, simply, they are old. Time allows buildings to mature into their context and while they may have been big and out of place when they were built, today they are a integral part of our understanding of the neighborhood. I predict that with age, the jarring out-of-placeness of some of the newer buildings will soften.

That said, there are certainly some real differences between older buildings and today’s buildings. One aspect is the size of buildings. Many of the pre-war apartment buildings are small, with less than 20 units and only around four stories. This is in stark contrast to some of the over 200-unit apartment/condo buildings we see today, that create long, solid walls along our streetscapes.

Yet, there are a number of massive old apartment buildings, and even these seem to have more character than the new construction. A lot of this has to do with the human-scaled decoration on older buildings. Take, for example, the below comparison of two buildings off Olive Way.

The newer building has barely any differentiation along its tall wall. In fact, the only ornamentation is the odd sun-inspired arch on the very top. The older building on the other hand is full of decoration. The mission-style parapet, the terra-cotta detailing throughout the facade. Not only do these decorations break up the mass of the building and add a bit of unique character, but they help us understand the size of the building. The building is very aware of its massive size, and the small detailing up at the top informs us of this. Newer buildings lack this human-scaled detailing, making the structures seem detached from the human sphere.

A couple recent projects in Ballard and Fremont have some of this human-scaled ornamentation. Admittedly, I still can’t say these look as good as many of our older buildings, but I think with time these buildings will meld well into their neighborhoods and if nothing else, they are memorable, something very important in this age of mass production.

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9 thoughts on “How to design a big, mixed-use building that Capitol Hill likes

  1. Architecturally I appreciate honest buildings. I like buildings that don’t pretend to be something that they aren’t. The last two buildings are perfect examples. The Belmont build just looks fake and cheap, especially next to the Roygate.

    If you look at most of the new buildings that people like they are extremely modern and honest about that. In other words they don’t pretend to be something old. They embrace the fact that they can never replicate the material and detail of old building, rather exploiting modern materials and aesthetics that they can pull off well.

  2. Liz’s Agnes building is great, but it sure isn’t big. One of the reasons this building, and the others you list, work so well is because they are actually quite small, allowing for a smaller floor plate and less facade (i.e. not a block long like the Joule). This was exactly the argument had between Mike Malone and Grace Kim at the CHH annual meeting – Should the sites on top of Light Rail be big sites developed by one of two developers or should they be broken up into many little parcels to encourage more Liz Dunn projects on Cap Hill?

  3. I really agree with your point about differences in the scale of new and old buildings. In my opinion, the main reason Pike-Pine redevelopment is coming out better than Broadway redevelopment is that there are less projects that dominate whole blocks (at least below 15th Ave). If the featured building here was on the scale of the Joule on Broadway it would look really bad too.

  4. First, I’d like to thank the folks who are doing this project. It has been fascinating to read and think about.

    One of the things I have long enjoyed about Capitol Hill architecture is the variety — variety in styles, heights, distance from the street edge, landscaping, materials. While the additional height and bulk now allowed on Broadway and other places is probably needed, when the new buildings tend to all be the same in some way, I believe we all lose something.

    I’ve recently been studying the Arctic Building downtown, and it finally came to me that many people love this building not just because of the walruses, but because they can see the walruses. I’m not sure what caused the playful architect to put those walruses on the third story instead of the top (where most other buildings downtown put their terra cotta decorations), but it works. A Seattle lesson from the past.

    I often look at a building and try to guess what it is like inside — what would it be like to live there or to do business there. Light is a big issue for me. The Victorians had this clear in designing buildings with atria and relights (glass windows inside as well as outside, sometimes in the doors; the use of mirrors to bounce the light around, etc.) My sense is that the newer structures tend to minimize light. By putting a glass skin on one side and leaving the rest of the interior spaces dark, all you really get is a lot of glare when it is bright and a lot of gloom when it isn’t. In addition, the living spaces are very small — perhaps small spaces stacked on top of each other are what people like these days but neither my knees or my sense of space is comfortable in them. I’m also not enjoying grocery shopping in the basements, although the Madison Market is not too bad, the Safeway on 23rd and Madison is really uncomfortable. Perhaps a look at architecture from the inside out could develop some different perspectives on architecture? (I’m still curious about the Braeburn which I haven’t seen from the inside.)

    I agree that time will help, in large part because landscaping is critical. Notice the way the new Capitol Hill library grew in quickly, so quickly that we often forget it is new.

    I’m fascinated to know what happened to awnings? In all the pictures of older commercial structures in Seattle one sees awnings — the kind that extended from each window, all up and down the buildings. These were great for cutting glare and even better for protecting pedestrians, and they were colorful and humanizing to look at. For some reason they disappeared with “modern” architecture, at least I think they did, although many residences used them (and still do). Maybe we should re-examine awnings?

    Thanks, again. I look forward to the next steps.

  5. These are two great reads that don’t get too wonky with regard to design or the technical side of things.

    The Library & Elliot Bay Books both have this one:
    How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built,,9780140139

    Might be harder to find, but we have it in our studio and could loan it out:
    On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time

    mike mariano
    schemata workshop

  6. I agree that buildings sometimes grow into their surroundings, etc. Case in point might be the Space Needle (surely jarring when it was built) or the “new” public library that many people hated, but tourists flock to marvel.

    However, so many of our newer buildings are built on the cheap and with no humanizing aspect other than how to maximize profit. Look how many buildings from the 90s are already needing new exteriors, etc. It’s a travesty.

    I love old architecture, I admit that, and it’s why I bought in an Anhalt rather than a modern box. Sure, I have single pane windows that let in cold air in the winter, but my building will still be around in 100 more years—and I’m not sure that many of these box buildings can say the same.

    Thanks for the in-depth review!

  7. I agree in that sometimes I wonder about building longevity re: new materials being used. I think that one thing to think about is how different buildings (typical new construction) are financed today versus one hundred years ago. New market rate multi-family buildings today are rarely built by one family or person for a long hold (+10 years). More often (in cities like Seattle) we find that large investment funds (insurance companies, trusts, pools of high wealth investors) are building these buildings with the expressed purpose of a short term hold (less than 10 or 20 years) so as to reap a profit either through cash flow from higher rents or from appreciation in value over a set number of years.

    The reason I highlight this is because it is usually at that future set selling point that a building will undergo a series of “capital improvements” including new windows, siding etc. So, building materials are often chosen commensurate with the shorter hold period – which means that they are cheaper materials. Unless you are talking about high rise or high-end condo construction, you are rarely going to see a full masonry facade as a result. It simply costs too much money up front, especially when the owners want to exit a deal after a relatively short period of time.

    I know this is a little technical and wonky, but I think it has a lot to do with why we see such uninspiring material choices and owner behavior in the market. Liz Dunn also stands apart from this, as I believe she is the sole owner/developer of her buildings and doesn’t represent an investment trust of some kind. She exercises more control over her design choices and has a real long-term commitment to the fabric of the neighborhood. That being said, I know some people will never like hardy board siding (like on the Agnes) as they think it looks cheap. The truth is that it is a relatively long lasting green product since it is made of wood composite material. Not the most high end choice, but I think it matched the scale of the building and the aesthetic look she was trying to achieve here (simple and modern).

  8. The new buildings are lacking retail space for small businesses. In the last 3 years Capital Hill has lost over 300 art related businesses to development (see CODAC). Gaining a corporate art supply store such as Dick Blick does not make up for the loss of 300 businesses. I myself am an artist with an art related small business that has been pushed out of Capital Hill after 7 years residing there. Capital Hill is being gentrified and losing it’s cultural spaces simultaneously. Development money speaks louder than culture apparently.

  9. I think the neighborhood is improving with lots of new (both big and small) businesses investing here. Not sure how much of you getting pushed out has to do with your business and how you ran and marketed it.