Power to the People: Harnessing Urban Opportunities

Why is anyone interested in being a designer anyway? There are certainly many other well-paying professions to pursue with shorter hours and less anxiety. Speaking for myself and my colleagues in our 55-member architecture firm, we believe that design makes people’s lives better. [bctt tweet=”Design makes peoples lives better #ImprovingTheHumanCondition” username=”brunercott”] We focus on improving the human condition in three ways — shaping the urban environment, making places for lifelong learning, and designing for a sustainable future. Whether transforming an existing structure or designing a new one, our buildings communicate with their unique surroundings, responding to program, place, and time—and our process engages community. In this blog series, we will share our obstacles and triumphs as our firm pursues its overarching goal. First, let’s consider an of-the-moment topic — expanding urban environments.

As cities around the world continue to experience rapid growth, designers have new opportunities to shape them. According to a United Nations report, the global percentage of population living in urban areas is expected to rise from 54 percent in 2014 to 66 percent in 2050. In the United States, urban population will rise from 81 to 87 percent. Our firm has designed thousands of urban living units and we know that embracing smart planning, affordability, sustainability, and resilience are crucial in how thoughtful design can make cities liveable and beautiful. Layering old and new keeps them unique and interesting while homogenization swells. [bctt tweet=”Layering old and new keeps cities interesting #ReinventingThePast” username=”brunercott”]

With new growth, our cities need the design community more than ever. Cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, and Seattle are growing and now have historically low vacancy rates. Our city of Boston needs 60,000 units of housing by 2030 to keep up with current growth, according to officials at City Hall. Developers and Designers need to use this challenge and growth period to improve America’s cities and advance the issues of our time: Smart Planning, Affordability, Sustainability, Resilience, and Beauty. We have the tools and skills to leverage the presence of our existing cities and make people’s lives better — let’s not waste the opportunity!

The Viridian from Boylston Street. Photo: Robert Benson

An excellent example of harnessing an urban opportunity is our recent Viridian apartment building across from Fenway Park. Driven by support from the local community, the 342-unit live-work-play building responds to Boston’s ‘Urban Village Plan’ by replacing a one story strip of automobile and fast-food oriented businesses, with a lively and animated residential tower. It is a sustainably designed ‘urban village’ of mixed-use and mixed-income, giving more people the opportunity to live near Olmstead’s Emerald necklace, walk to work at one of the area hospitals or universities, enjoy the Museum of Fine Arts or Symphony Hall, or catch a baseball game.

View of The Viridian from Fenway Park during a Red Sox game. Photo: Bruner/Cott

One of the primary barriers to living in growing cities is the cost of real estate. When demand is high and supply is short, rents and home prices soar, decreasing the opportunities for city living. Designers must focus on some of these issues — just like getting a phone, camera, music player, and web browser all into the small case of an iPhone — small, well-designed units, not just micro-studios, can pack the same program into less area, costing less to build. While designing kitchens in the Viridian we used high-tech appliances integrated with flexible cabinetry to get the same function as a conventional kitchen in a smaller, more versatile, and less energy-intensive footprint. Technological advances in construction coordination also helped to speed up schedules, reduce total construction costs, and maximize allowable height by threading services through the structure.  These cost and space saving opportunities, along with nearly 40 designated affordable units, allowed the owners to promote lower rental rates and income diversity in a rapidly changing neighborhood.

A typical unit kitchen in The Viridian. Photo: Robert Benson

We also need to leapfrog current practices of sustainable design and respond more deeply to climate change. We have the skills and technology needed to radically lower the energy footprint of residential architecture. The Living Building Challenge has demonstrated that we can build buildings powered only by the sun using materials we know are free of harmful chemicals. Can we design net-zero neighborhoods? With Yale University and McLennan Design, our firm is studying the potential of a 150 unit ‘Living Village’ for the Divinity School. Can we reduce the costs of sprawl by harnessing our existing urban environments? With density and efficiency, a unit in the Viridian uses less than half the energy and 40% of the water consumed by the average household in our state, all while being constructed below market costs.

[bctt tweet=”American cities deserve to be beautiful #ImprovingTheHumanCondition” username=”brunercott”]

American cities deserve to be beautiful. Most of them started that way. If buildings only resolve program and provide function, we’re wasting opportunity.  In a recent speech Boston’s mayor Marty Walsh explained, “Boston is home to the world’s most innovative thinkers — in science and technology, and in business, art, and architecture. Our city’s built environment should reflect this culture of imagination … Our historic buildings reflect our unique past. New buildings should project the values and aspirations of our growing city.” This holds true for all of America’s cities — it is precisely this layering of old and new that makes cities great. But it will only work when the newest layers respond to their surroundings with the relevance, longevity, and delight they need to converse with the historic layers. This is why we do what we do.

The community deck overlooking Fenway Park at The Viridian. Photo: Robert Benson

Our next two posts will explore two important aspects of a sustainable future. First, we will share our thoughts on the billions of square feet of existing building that already exists. We believe in reuse and the power of Preservation through transformation. Following that we will reflect on the transformational experience working with the Living Building Challenge as the construction of our first LBC project wraps up.


This blog series, written by the staff of Bruner/Cott & Associates, a Cambridge, MA, architecture and planning firm, focuses on the practice’s mission to improve the human condition through design by shaping the urban environment, forwarding lifelong learning, and looking toward a sustainable future. Follow Bruner/Cott on Twitter: @BrunerCott.