ULI panel examines design and costs

One of the Urban Land Institute’s panels on Day One of the Housing Opportunity conference was called “Lower Cost through Design: Myths and Realities”, which sounded promissing. Moderated by Susan Nguyen of the City of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, the panelists were Susan Connelly of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, Tim Love of the architecture and planning firm Utile and Sunshine Mathon of Austin-based affordable housing developer Foundation Communities.

Love said that design was limited by the International Building Code, with the result that the ideal building is 69 feet high, between 9,000 and 14,000 square feet and has a single hallway on each floor, one elevator core and is wrapped in cladding that he said gets cheaper and uglier each day. This allows the building to be built with the simplest and least expensive construction techniques and materials and with the simplest regulations.

Anything higher than 69 feet and the level of regulations becomes more complex and developers have to use more complex and expensive materials. He did say, however, that there are still ways to be creative — in some buildings Utile has designed they’ve been able to get a fourth story without an elevator by using duplexes, which are apartments on two floors with an interior stair case.

Mathon’s experiences weren’t really applicable outside of Austin. But Connelly’s talk was very interesting. She talked about applying a concept called “lean design” which ultimately came out of Toyota. Essentially it works by getting people on the same page at the beginning.

She said that normally a contractor wouldn’t be brought in until after the building had been designed, but with the Lean method they work with the contractor from the beginning. They then design based on a budget estimate and for constructability, saving money and time.

Connelly said that the technique was first used last year with the MassArt building. She said that because of the unrelenting winter of 2014-15, it was running overbudget and was five weeks behind schedule, but they applied the new techniques and ended up finishing six weeks early and underbudget. She said that the main advantage of the Lean principles was that it provided transparency and predictability.

“We could solve the affordability crisis with two words: predictability and transparency,” Connelly said.

However, the panelists did not address the effects of zoning and parking minima on design and costs. For example, it seems that a zoning code that mandates certain minimum setbacks and onsite parking will impact the construction costs and financial equations of construction — in fact, it is certain that parking does directly impact costs — but empirical data is better than naked deduction.

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