"Why was it built this way?"

Edifice's picture
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Just listened to the Oct 7, 2019 episode of the Leading Voices podcast, where they interviewed Peter Linneman. It's a great little history of how he, through completely revamping Wharton's RE program (he called it "a disaster" multiple times), shaped institutional real estate everywhere.

The interview ends with two bits of advice from Linneman (52:52 timestamp):

  1. Read. Read. Read.
  2. "Look at property and ask 'why?' Why was that building built that way when it was built. Would you build that building that way today if you were starting from scratch."

He gives an example of housing that used to be built in the shape of a capital E (when viewed from above). At the time it was the best way for developers to provide adequate ventilation.

My question to the jungle:

Anyone have examples of a time they wondered why something was built the way it was, and the answer wasn't necessarily intuitive?

Podcast available here: https://leadingvoicespodcast.com/peter-linneman/
edit: cleaned up an awkward autocorrect

Comments (22)

Feb 12, 2020

Why anyone in the 60's and 70's thought that it was a good long-term idea to build office buildings with 8' ceilings and minimal exterior glass is a mystery to me. I understand that was an effort to design a building that could be heated/cooled more efficiently, but it came entirely at the expense of the occupants' experience.

The movement in the 50's and 60's to tear down buildings in Downtown Atlanta (and I'm sure elsewhere), only to replace them with parking decks, is also maddening in retrospect. At the time, the vision of the future was every single working adult driving in from the suburbs in their own family station wagon.

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Feb 12, 2020

Great examples.

I wonder if current passive house architecture will be considered as cringeworthy as it is ground-breaking in the future. Especially something like the Cornell's tech campus on Roosevelt Island in NYC. https://handelarchitects.com/project/the-house-at-...

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Feb 12, 2020

So when it comes to building a sustainable building, it would seem that there are gains to be made from how you build the building itself and then gains to be made from the mechanical systems that you choose to employ. In that light, I feel like our systems are going to continue to advance in such a way that sacrificing architecture in the near term to focus on making the structure as environmentally efficient as possible somewhat misses the mark. Installing more efficient systems down the road isn't cheap, but it's much cheaper than making massive structural renovations or demolishing a building because the slab to slab heights suck or because the lack of natural light and openness makes being inside the building an oppressive experience.

That's not to say that we shouldn't focus on making our buildings themselves more efficient, just that we shouldn't throw good architecture out the window to make marginal gains.

The particular building you shared has the look of a building that will win (and has won) lots of awards and make headlines for the next few years, but in 15 or 20 years it will be another drab midrise building that gets forgotten among other more architecturally intriguing projects. Those projects could even be more efficient as we make efficiency gains in our construction materials and mechanical systems.

Just my $0.02, could be way off.

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Feb 12, 2020
Dry Dropper:

Why anyone in the 60's and 70's thought that it was a good long-term idea to build office buildings with 8' ceilings and minimal exterior glass is a mystery to me. I understand that was an effort to design a building that could be heated/cooled more efficiently, but it came entirely at the expense of the occupants' experience.

I don't know, so I ask these in all seriousness. What was the quality of building materials, and what did they cost? Plenty of ugly buildings get built today because of economics. Windows might have been very expensive. Are there zoning restrictions? Perhaps building 8' ceilings was an attempt to cram more floors into an equally tall building. Perhaps it was cheaper to install plumbing and electric and then drop a ceiling.

Most Helpful
Feb 12, 2020

All good points. Glass typically does come at a premium to hard wall materials like masonry, so installing smaller/fewer windows does reduce construction costs. Height restrictions may have also been a factor, and I suppose there may have also been marginal cost savings by reducing the materials needed to distribute mechanical services throughout the building on a $/SF basis. They would be incurring more costs though by needing additional restroom fixtures, additional electrical panels, etc. Essentially they're adding more square footage, but they face the law of diminishing returns as each square foot added becomes less and less valuable and reduces the value of every square foot previously built.

That being said, I'd argue that a developer is shooting themselves in the foot by cutting costs in that manner, particularly if they minimize the slab to slab distances. With exterior glass there's more of a trade-off. They're killing their rent upside and making an undesirable product, at least in today's market. It's somewhat more understandable with 60's and 70's era product, when things like natural light and open workspaces were not as sought-after.

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Feb 12, 2020

Every time I'm in a Macy's I wonder "why so big".

In all seriousness, I used to be so perplexed as to why every building in/around the Mall in DC was brutalist. I love brutalism, but you don't see a collection like that anywhere else. Used to think government employees liked that cold/uninviting shit (on account of they probably would) but turns out it was cold war paranoia - spy planes can't view into them

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Funniest
Feb 12, 2020
logisdics:

I love brutalism

That certainly isn't something you see every day

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Feb 12, 2020

Show me something natural!

Feb 12, 2020

Oh wow, I've wondered the same thing. That makes so much sense through the Cold War lens.

Feb 12, 2020

Makes total sense, and is super contrasted by the IM Pei stuff on L'enfant which I find cool.

Dope topic btw.

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Feb 12, 2020

Great topic, and I really enjoyed the episode by Linneman as well.

One thing that's really interesting to me now is the aggressive push for taller and more complex stick-built buildings, especially in the multifamily and hospitality scene.

I understand that there are a ton of big brains that are far more understanding of the engineering behind the decision making, and there are huge benefits to timber construction from a cost and schedule perspective. Timber buildings are also significantly greener as a product type and can be prefab'd significantly easier that concrete/light gauge framing.

I'm very interested in the level of rollback and whether there will be significant safety issues with high-density, high-rise timber build-outs. The benefits are obviously there, but I anecdotally feel nervous when building with organic materials. Structural hazards, deterioration, fire hazards, are all increased risks that are involved with timber build-outs. Alexandria, VA just had a project burn down, decimating years of progress. I'm sure our ability to treat and quantify wood strength is significantly better than it was in the past, but only time will tell if the rollbacks come with prohibitively higher risks that require significant retrofit costs.

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Feb 12, 2020

I hear you, but the US is way behind the international curve on Heavy Timber construction. Hines has been going full steam ahead with it, but there are still height restrictions in the US that only allow these buildings to reach half as tall as in Canada and Europe.

Edit: Relevant. "The 280-foot-tall Mjostarnet tower became the world's tallest timber building when it opened last year. The 18-story structure contains apartments, office space and the aptly-named Wood Hotel."

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Feb 12, 2020

re: height restrictions, is that due to American regulators being overly cautious, or is it an unintended consequence of an upstream political decision?

Feb 12, 2020

I feel like this trend plays out most obviously in office, couple examples:

  1. Especially in DC, full block/square buildings with central atriums. Tenant desire for access to natural light for all employees is a pretty recent trend. Users used to like being as efficient as possible on one floor. Now, the numbers of floors doesn't matter and can be a good way to create sex appeal (internal stairs) or split up divisions. Big atrium buildings are very, very difficult to lease now.
  2. Open TI buildouts--TI programs with exposed ceilings/floors and open floor plan concepts with bullpens. This is proving itself out in real time. 5-7 years ago, open floor plans were the sexiest thing on earth and you were a considered a boomer moron if you didn't do it in your new office. A lot of recent research is showing people actually hate open office environments and that they are a drag on productivity.
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Feb 13, 2020
Ricky Rosay:

A lot of recent research is showing people actually hate open office environments and that they are a drag on productivity.

Just think of the double dipping tenant reps will get through that entire phenomenon. Workplace 360 convinced a massive % of tenants to meet that trend, which reps went and found. Same reps now publishing data to the contrary, as these tenants begin to roll and look back to traditional layouts. It's comical the emphasis they put on LL savings throughout, a total farce.

Feb 13, 2020

A few "real" reasons why things are the way they are:

  • Fire Department Ladder Heights - Cities to this day restrict building heights per the max ladder height the fire department owns.
  • Sewer Capacity - Cities literally have too much poop to manage leading to a freeze on permits
  • Wetlands - you need the Army Corp to approve impacts to swamps or 5 SQFT of mud.
  • Buffers/Overlays - A NIMBY Council will kill a site with 100ft buffers and impervious surface overlays leading to some poor land use
  • Regan's Accelerated Depreciation - This led to a bunch of rich guys/doctors investing in affordable housing in the 80's. Now, a bunch of affordable housing is still owned by these guys today and the tax basis is negative in the millions. Tons of affordable housing properties are trapped in poor ownership until in these guys die and the step-up basis allows the estate to get out of these things.

"Capitalism: God's way of determining who is smart and who is poor." Ron Swanson

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Feb 13, 2020
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