Integrated Form-Making: Crafting Buildings and Places with the Client and Community

By John Rufo

Whether in the adaptive reuse of an existing structure or ground-up development, built form often draws from its immediate context for initial design cues. The neighborhood that a project is designed for need not dictate style, material, or even scale, but ultimately the building and place it creates are always in dialogue with their surroundings. The process of design is not simply a straight line from context analysis to the realization of built form. Rather, it tends to be an exploration that pulls in many voices, influences and opinions. The process therefore needs to be crafted to weigh and integrate many ideas about space, form, place, materiality, function, time, etc… and the definition of “the design team” needs to include architects, developers, community stakeholders and proponents of the public realm. In the end all aspects of building design, from conceptual site planning to architectural detailing should reinforce a building’s form and help it become an integral part of its neighborhood.

1.      Reading the Neighborhood: Context as Precedent and Context as Place

What defines a neighborhood? Ask 100 people, you’ll get 100 answers. Is it a historic ethnicity? The combination of residential and commercial streets? A system of open spaces? The fabulous café on the corner that everybody knows? The scale of the buildings? The quality of the sidewalks? Yes… it’s everything. The neighborhood is always the place of the project, but should it be the precedent for form making? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. A project might have a very similar scale to adjacent buildings. Then again, it may be much larger or much smaller than nearby buildings. The design team can address this type of issue with massing elements that respond by breaking down the larger forms or accentuating the smaller ones. Similarly, the design team might feel the materials of a building need to be quite similar to the surrounding facades. Or they might decide it’s important to use a distinctly different palette of materials and a different overall style. The questions are many, and while the answers may not be directly drawn from the context, they certainly will impact the reading of place.

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2.      Reading the Client: Instincts and Goals

As long as we have been in this business (+/- 30 years), it is still impressive to realize just how well our clients understand the context of the project and how much they’ve thought about just the right response to it. Because of this the owner of a project often exerts as much will on the form making as the architect. And, while most clients don’t read the context as trained designers, they sense the life of the neighborhood, they always know where they stand in the marketplace, and they’ve begun an internal intuitive response to it that is, in most instances, laser focused. Most of our projects, whether commercial or residential, typically feature some amount of retail / commercial space at the ground floor. Our clients tend to identify creating good sight lines to merchandise and creating flexibility of commercial leases as one of the important design goals. This immediately begins to influence initial ideas of form, transparency, solidity and visibility. Our clients, having read the context, understand through instinct and study what the most important view corridors are and how they’d like the building to present itself in those corridors.

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3.      Synthesizing Goals into Form: A Balancing Act

Our job as designers is to read this analysis, balance it with our own instincts and explore the architectural impact of the resulting forms as the design process advances. For instance, if our client defines visibility as the most important issue, then should all ground floor facades be simple glass curtain walls that maximize transparency? Or in a certain context is it also important to integrate an architectural language of more traditional forms, such as masonry piers that frame storefronts in order to bring a variety of scales and material palettes to the immediate public realm? This might also create a certain kind of curb appeal, which may have a less measurable but still important impact on the quality of place, encouraging more people to stay longer, adding again to the sense of vitality and interest in the neighborhood. In this way a balanced dialogue within the design team might be the best tool for creating rich and diverse forms as well as inspired places.

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4.      The Devil is in the Details… and the Teamwork

So how does that teamwork thing really work? Well… a project of any significant scale probably has a roster of team members that includes the client, architect, civil engineer, landscape architect, MEP engineer, structural engineer, lighting designer, etc. That’s a lot of opinions to weigh and take feedback from. Form-making in the conceptual phase may be mostly aspirational but is informed by a knowledge base of various design and performance requirements. As the project goes into documents and “becomes real” the performance criteria for aspects of the building such as the exterior wall systems, insulation values, light emittance, and others shape how the building is detailed. The interior has the same kinds of issue to wrestle with as structural systems, HVAC systems, life safety features and the quality of the architectural environment are coordinated to support the design vision and create a “code worthy” building. In the end, team synthesis is critical in the coordination of building systems that ultimately create the final built form.

The Visioning Process: Collaboration is Crucial to Success

By John Rufo

As a core tenet of our design practice we step back on a regular basis to assess the processes we employ to plan and design projects for our clients. From the outset, on any project, it is critical to create a vision that guides the project through its various design stages. What the public typically sees coming from the architects is an illustrated vision in the form of a master plan and renderings, but each project gets to that point through an integrated process that we’ve come to call Collaborative Visioning. In this process one can identify 4 key steps that take our clients and us through an open exploration - from goals to vision.

1.      Establishing a Foundation

Establishing the foundational underpinnings of any project is a twofold process that allows us to both understand our client’s goals and to gain an understanding of the project context. By the time our clients contact us about a potential new project, they’ve usually studied it exhaustively, so our first job is empathetic listening and careful documentation of goals and aspirations for the project. Sometimes ideas are very concrete and other times they can be quite amorphous in nature. On a parallel track to this task is the gathering of site data and impressions of the project context that will drive aspects of site development, as well as ideas about the experiential goals of the project.

2.      Translation of Program

Most clients come to us with a proposed set of uses for the project. It’s our job to work with the client to inventory these program pieces and sponsor an inquiry aimed at heightening the potential relationships between these uses. For instance, why is one kind of tenant a logical co-tenant with another? Sometimes the most critical synergies are not contained wholly within the building program. Sometimes they are the activities that are catalyzed on site by the interaction of various parts of the project and the context that it is set in. In fact this is the hallmark of the most successful development projects and something we relish at Form + Place. So, one of the most important questions we reach for is how the interaction between uses and site propel the simple statement of program to become a framework for developing an authentic experience of place.

3.      Diagramming

Diagramming is the first step in intuiting a reasoned response to the goal of creating an authentic experience of place. While the diagram itself, often a few squiggly lines and notes with a “fat marker” on trace, may seem to be very removed from an actual experience of place, it articulates the bones of potential form- and place-making strategies that inform the very real development of plan and massing. We tend to go back to the diagram again and again in the course of the visioning process to see if the evolution of the idea is living up to the energy and richness latent in the original sketch. We look for things like porosity, transparency, hierarchy and connectivity in the diagram that hint at how specific areas of the plan might develop into great public space or where to site the more iconic architectural elements of the design.

4.      Visioning

Ultimately the goal is always to define a project that can be understood spatially as well as aspirationally. The initial massing gestures need to transform into true architectural form-making, and the void spaces in the diagram need to take on real aspects of authentic place-making. The challenge is that creating a vision is an early step in the entire development process and often little is known about the building systems or the engineering behind the open spaces and landscape features. Therefore, the vision as illustrated is making certain leaps between what can be and what should be.

Six-Unit Renovation Provides Appropriately Priced Housing Options in Cambridge

By Meaghan Markiewicz

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In Cambridge, MA the median 1-bedroom rent price was $2,470 in 2017 – placing it as the most expensive city in Massachusetts,* double the nation’s average according to apartments list.com.** In a city such as Cambridge, with local amenities, public transportation, walkable streets and many other things desired by urban dwellers, it comes as no surprise the housing market is climbing through the roof. Renters often will need to search exhaustively and are still forced to sacrifice some standard of living unless they are willing and able to pay top dollar for new, renovated top of the line housing. As designers, we are often caught in the middle between high end projects and those subject to significant value engineering efforts. At Form + Place, we have found that proactive problem solving techniques and the collaboration of the design team can drastically change the outcome of a development. One of our recently completed projects on Clary Street in Cambridge represents how a relatively small project in the tight Cambridge housing market can do its part to provide high quality housing options at manageable rents.

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Clary Street is a 6-unit full interior residential renovation project located just outside Inman Square. Each of the 3-bedroom unit layouts was reconfigured, increasing the overall efficiency of the interior spaces. In addition, all new appliances and fixtures were provided in the kitchens and baths as well as laundry in every unit. New technology such as Navien tankless water heaters, Nest thermostats and Latch door hardware provide tenants with innovative systems which increase energy efficiency and allow for convenient access through smart devices. To complete the units, finishes throughout were upgraded, providing a clean and open atmosphere for the tenants. These market rate units are significantly lower than the average rents in this market – setting this development apart from other projects.

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In order to deliver units that have the look, feel and amenities of a higher-end project but on a limited construction budget, it took a collaborative team approach to design and execute. The developer, Capstone Communities LLC, has experience with and is focused on providing high quality projects throughout all their developments which include market rate, mixed-income and affordable housing. Reflecting on the project, Jason from Capstone Communities stated, “I am proud that we have put together a team that can provide high quality housing at a price point that is appropriate and desirable for those in the Cambridge area.” One Way Development, the minority-owned and operated construction contractor on the job managed a tight budget and aggressive schedule while maintaining high standards for craftsmanship and detailing.  With open communication between the design team which included the structural engineer, Siegel Associates – issues were addressed and problems were solved efficiently to produce quality living spaces. Form + Place, Capstone Communities LLC and One Way Development will continue to look to replicate the Clary street model for delivering market rate housing at reasonable prices, especially as the shortage of housing options multiplies every year.    

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*     Boston Metro Report: March 2019, Crystal Chen, 2019-03-06, https://www.zumper.com/blog/2019/03/boston-metro-report-march-2019/

**      Apartment List National Rent Report, Chris Salviati, 2019-07-01, https://www.apartmentlist.com/rentonomics/national-rent-data/

Mindful City Building through Creative Placemaking

By Michael A. Wang

I recently participated in an Urban Land Institute [ULI] forum in Chicago on Implementing Creative Placemaking [CPM]. CPM is an innovative approach to placemaking that strives to integrate art and culture, along with great design, into real estate development projects early in the process. This two-day forum, which brought together developers, architects, planners and others from across the United States, took place on the South Side of Chicago and included an enlightening tour of the Grand Crossing neighborhood where Theaster Gates, an artist and professor at the University of Chicago, has been leading a unique community rebuilding effort.

 
Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank, Grand Crossing Neighborhood, Chicago, IL

Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank, Grand Crossing Neighborhood, Chicago, IL

 

Gates’ revitalization projects are the essence of Creative Placemaking, as his approach focuses on a process and values that are best described as mindful city building. This process actively engages members of the community to make conscientious interventions that find beauty through the repurposing of existing physical, cultural and social assets that are latent.

Forum participants were asked to contemplate how Creative Placemaking as a tool could become more accessible to the traditional development community, which is often more driven by return on investment. Among the barriers discussed were those that could be categorized as related to “time”, “language” and “trust”. With respect to time, Gates’ approach argues that one might “slow down to go fast”, thereby engaging in a more collaborative process that results in empowerment and mentoring. Traditional development tends to assume that “time is money” and, therefore, has an aversion to unknowns, including unpredictable approvals processes and zoning challenges, that can impact tangible returns.

 
Theaster Gates sharing his Dorchester Avenue projects in the Grand Crossing neighborhood

Theaster Gates sharing his Dorchester Avenue projects in the Grand Crossing neighborhood

 

“Language” can be a barrier as well, with the development community likely hesitant to incorporate Creative Placemaking tenets that they do not fully understand. Similarly, it can be challenging for artists and aspirational members of the community to fully comprehend the language of development and what is involved in navigating typically complex approvals processes.

“Trust” is perhaps the largest hurdle. Developers are often demonized and not given credit for the risks they are taking. Achieving community buy-in can often be challenged by NIMBYism and the fear that one’s neighborhood will be gentrified – physically and culturally – leading to displacement. Figuring out a mechanism to not only empower members of the community but to provide them with a means to realize some of the gain from revitalization efforts should be a continued focus.

 
Repurposing found resources and creating cultural gathering places

Repurposing found resources and creating cultural gathering places

 

Creative Placemaking holds tremendous potential to “lift all boats” when done thoughtfully. Digging deep to uncover a community’s essence and finding a way to incorporate cultural, social, historical aspects – through providing venues for performing arts, visual arts, gathering, etc. – can also have notably positive impacts on the traditional development bottom line. How can this be achieved? This is not solely a matter of educating the development community regarding the processes and benefits of integrating Creative Placemaking, it requires communities to be proactive in establishing reasonable approvals processes that offer incentives. This can take the form of expedited permitting or tax incentives or zoning relief such as density bonuses, to name a few.

When done well, Creative Placemaking holds tremendous potential to truly revitalize the full spectrum of communities – even those that are significantly disenfranchised – because it is founded on utilizing the existing resources of a place, including its human capital. Just as cities continue to evolve over time, mindful development can be a platform for ensuring the longevity and authenticity of place.

 

 Reference:          Theaster Gates, Ethical Redevelopment: Arts + Culture Build Cities

Four Tenets of Engagement: Collaborating with Developers and Communities to Make Great Places

By John Rufo

At Form + Place we recently went through a brainstorming exercise as part of our brand evolution to confirm for ourselves why we work, how we work and how this should serve our clients and the communities we design in.  As a result, we identified four tenets of engagement that we believe each design effort should embrace as part of the process.  We refer to them as 1) Collaborative Visioning 2) Community Building 3) Integrated Form-making and 4) Experiential Place-making.

In a daily way we approach the complexities of design by staying true to the belief that great places are made through a collaborative process that builds community connections, integrates multiple points of view and results in authentic experiences of place. The “complexities of design” can include almost anything from challenging site constraints to detailing sophisticated façade systems to negotiating a public vetting process to fitting a design within a tight budget without losing the impactful details of the project.

Our work is primarily driven by the development world as we design mixed-use commercial projects in contexts that range from urban to rural and everything in between.  Regardless of the physical context and project program, we believe the four main tenets of engagement are critical to the project’s ability to situate itself in the community and take part in the ongoing conversation of civic development. More than that, we believe the developers and communities that are our clients will always benefit from embracing these tenets and integrating them into the development and entitlement process in any community.

Collaborative Visioning

Whether form-making or place-making, good design stems from listening to our client’s goals and collaborating with them to articulate a vision. People expect architects to design, developers to develop and builders to build, but community stakeholders don’t always expect the development team to listen deeply to their goals and concerns. As we enter the community review process the same deep listening and creative visioning applies. Whether executing a complex mixed-use building on a key urban infill site or re-imagining the future of an 80-acre rural campus, working directly with all stakeholders to catalyze an engaging design is important for successful project fruition. 

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Community Building 

At Form + Place we thrive on what we call “the seam” between the private development world and communities that are continually seeking to reshape their vision for the future. Whether contemplating a new master plan for a Center Business District or helping to frame design guidelines for a large-scale mixed-use development, an approach to community building should emphasize creatively engaging all voices in an effort to find the optimal balance between certainty and flexibility. Stitching “the seam” together to achieve a shared vision can be a long process but it will ultimately build community trust and engagement as the project is realized.

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On both sides of the seam, certainty that the entitlement process will yield the desired results, and flexibility for the project to evolve with changing economic trends are critical to a process that builds community trust. The more the development team and community stakeholders are engaged in open dialogue about the realities of development and its impact, the more likely it is for a project to fit into its context. Once the project is executed it furthers the community building process through its programming and design, providing venues for retailing, working, living and hosting daily civic life.

Integrated Form-Making 

Whether in the adaptive reuse of an existing structure or ground-up development, designing and constructing a building is a complex undertaking that requires an integrated approach from initial vision to final execution. Once the design direction is established, owner, architect and builder all have roles to play in continuing to shape the project. In any context a new or renovated project should look to its immediate surroundings for initial programming and design cues. All aspects of building design, from conceptual site design to architectural detailing to the integration of complex building systems should synthesize to reinforce a building’s form and help it become an integral part of its neighborhood.

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Experiential Place-making

When done well, place-making can define the essence of a community, integrating its historical context and cultural identity to reinforce its current identity and future aspirations. Great places often facilitate a wide range of social activities including gathering, contemplation and recreation. Thoughtfully designed places are integrally defined by the buildings that frame them and draw on influences from the natural environment, but it is the experiential piece of the equation, including purposeful programming, that brings them to life.

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Engagement in public civic life means something different to everyone. For one person it might be regularly attending community planning or zoning meetings, for another it might mean making sure to get out for a walk, check in on a neighbor or attend a public concert. The places that we occupy as participants in public life have equal variety; some are intimate and quiet, some expansive, some are centered in the community while some might be out at the edges. Understanding the many levels that people engage in public life is the first step in creating the potential for experiences that fulfill the role of our public spaces as places that meet the needs of people in the communities where they work, live and play.

KidsBuild! 2019: Reflections on Our Passion for Shaping Cities

By Gillan H. Wang

Form + Place was pleased to participate in KidsBuild! - a family program that is organized and run by the Boston Society of Architects (BSA).  The two-day event is designed to bring awareness to children and their families about the steps involved in realizing new buildings. It also aspires to promote active community discourse in the planning and development of our cities.  This event highlighted numerous aspects of our work that we particularly relish – engaging with the community, a collaborative process, creative problem solving, bringing ideas to fruition, and ultimately enhancing our built environment and public spaces. 

 
KidsBuild! City Grid in the BSA Lobby

KidsBuild! City Grid in the BSA Lobby

 

KidsBuild! Structure

An imaginary city grid is laid out in the lobby of the BSA, with empty parcels mapped out. Families select a building type and site and then must obtain a building permit for their structure.  They are required to consider zoning rules (primarily building height) and then design and select materials for their building.  They then proceed to the Construction Zone where volunteers assist as needed in the assembly of their structure. When their building is complete it is placed on their site in the city grid where it is reviewed for inspection, rewarded for the integration of sustainable design features, and granted a Certificate of Occupancy. It was impressive to see how many families made “green” choices, for which they were awarded a green seal, in addition to a C of O.

KidsBuild! Site Selection, Construction Zone and Finished Product

KidsBuild! Site Selection, Construction Zone and Finished Product

Engaging with the Community (Site Selection)

The earnestness with which the children considered not only their options for sites and building types, but also the context in which their structures would sit was endearing.  Our office group volunteered on a Sunday, so a number of sites had already been claimed and built. It was striking to see how keenly aware the children were of the buildings adjacent to their sites.  Their ability to imagine this city as a real entity with endless possibilities was refreshing.

 
Empty Sites Adjacent to Built Structures

Empty Sites Adjacent to Built Structures

 

At Form + Place we enjoy the process of working with developers and communities to determine the appropriateness of development proposals for specific contexts.  Listening and sharing ideas and experiences to optimize the maximum potential of each site never gets old. In working as the Peer Reviewer for the City of Newton on the Northland development, we continue to track changes to the initial proposal, many shaped by community input.  While the original mixed-use concept included more dwelling units and retail space, it was decided that a reduction in overall square footage would be preferable.  The scaling back, particularly of retail, will result in less traffic, especially when combined with alternative transportation modes that are being promoted.

 

A Collaborative Process (Zoning)

Rules give structure and prevent chaos.  The need for this was readily apparent at KidsBuild! where children might have been tempted by the endless assortment of donated materials and an inclination to build the biggest and most impressive building.  Zoning gives a measure of calculated control, which factors in the needs of the larger community. Children consulted building height measuring charts to determine the maximum height for their structure, according to the building type and zone (Industrial, Public, Residential, Commercial), and seemed to readily accept adhering to a prescribed limitation for the greater good.

Materials Yard

Materials Yard

Norms and standards are extremely helpful, and occasionally rules need to be adjusted and updated to reflect change. In our recent work with the City of Newton, we have helped refine the Zoning Redesign initiative by facilitating input from other design professionals and the general public. Much of Newton’s built environment predates its zoning and therefore a high percentage of parcels in both village and residential districts are non-conforming. Modifying zoning can help strengthen communities by facilitating appropriate economic development, creating a more holistic and vibrant public realm by promoting contextual design.

Newton Zoning Redesign Process Boards

Newton Zoning Redesign Process Boards

Creative Problem Solving (Design)

“Let’s go draw.  We need an idea.” This statement was heard throughout the day at KidsBuild! and it caught our attention because it speaks directly to what we enjoy doing as architects.  It describes how we think, problem solve, and how we collaboratively engage in conversation with our clients.  

Form + Place’s master planning work in Winthrop over the past four years has helped to create a “vision” for what the future of this community could look like.  Diagrams that have analyzed urban connections and placemaking opportunities, combined with renderings and feasibility studies exploring the redevelopment of key sites in the core, have helped uncover the potential for an exciting new public realm that Winthrop is beginning to implement.

 
Winthrop Vision Studies

Winthrop Vision Studies

 

Realizing Ideas (Construction)

“We need grass!” This was the mantra that echoed through the Materials Yard.  Anything that could represent grass (fabric, felt, green rubber material, bits of AstroTurf) was quickly snatched up.  While many of the children were focused on details that they thought were of paramount importance (making sure they had something to represent the books in their library, the right string for the swing in their backyard, and baked goods for the bakery), ultimately they were faced with the challenge of constructing a building that would stand erect and hold together using glue sticks and packing tape. The enthusiasm of the children was a delightful reminder of the excitement of the creative impulse.  Sometimes architectural detailing can seem tedious, but to craft thoughtful solutions to technical problems requires a commitment to creative problem solving.

Details of Goodwill Industries at The Shops at Riverwood in Hyde Park

Details of Goodwill Industries at The Shops at Riverwood in Hyde Park

Enhancing our Built Environment and Public Spaces (Completion)

The moment of realization is what we all look forward to, and ultimately it is the reason we undertake design problems. At KidsBuild! it was thrilling to see family teams carry their finished project to their sites and seek approval from an Inspector. This generally involved the children describing their buildings and the decisions that they made in creating their structures. The finished KidsBuild! city was a spectacular manifestation of collaborative effort, chock-full of well thought out structures and spaces.

Seeing the MGM Springfield project open in 2018 was similarly thrilling.  Beyond the celebratory opening, however, it is especially exciting that the project realized a vision to reinvigorate the downtown of a historic city that has “great bones”.  The combination of historic preservation, a revitalized public realm and a catalyzing combination of uses make this mixed-use entertainment facility a key economic engine for the future of Springfield. 

MGM Springfield and the Revitalization of Main Street

MGM Springfield and the Revitalization of Main Street

Our passion for shaping cities drives our commitment to the collaborative process, and it was fun to be surrounded by collaboration at the KidsBuild! event.  We believe that it takes a village to produce well thought out buildings and places that work for all. The BSA’s emphasis on community building at their wonderful family program resonated with our team as it underscores an important part of our firm’s mission.

Building Community + The Role of The Designer

By Meaghan Markiewicz and Aidan Coleman

We attended a recent presentation and discussion on ‘Designing Boston: Building Community’ conducted by the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) about what it means to practice public interest design. In this conversation, public interest design is used to describe a participatory design practice focused on social, ecological and economic sustainability for communities through addressing societal issues. A range of perspectives were voiced during the talk, from large architectural firms providing pro-bono work to design-build studio classes.

 Public interest design can take many forms but often it will address large scale societal problems such as homelessness, affordable housing and sustainability. This type of work requires more than the typical design team and how they are engaged can have a dramatic influence on the outcome of a project. For example, Gail M. Sullivan spoke about Studio G’s Y2Y Harvard Square project for homeless youth. Following a participatory process, the firm sat down and listened to the needs of these individuals. The design challenge was to create spaces that are gender neutral and yet are also safe for those who identify as female. The resulting design includes individualized sleeping and bathroom areas designed for all end user’s needs. While this architectural design alone cannot solve homelessness, it is an example of using architecture as a platform to facilitate the support efforts of organizations that address societal issues. How much should this mindset be incorporated into the daily practice of architects and designers? Can it be used to implement a more democratic design process in typical projects? What are the implications of this process?

 
Photo from Studio G Website

Photo from Studio G Website

 

When architectural designs are vetted through a public process, a large number of voices influencing the design parameters can increase the difficulty of consensus building. In these instances the architect often takes on the role of mediator, weighing and balancing the concerns of the public and the local government with the needs of the project proponent. On one side, the public may be viewing the developer as an outsider that does not understand all the intricacies of a certain community. This perspective can lead to pushback, but as Sam Batchelor from DesignLab noted in the discussion, it is a necessary and healthy type of tension and challenge. It requires the architect to design a compromise that promotes a developer’s vision but in return respects the public’s concerns about their changing neighborhood. Between these competing visions lie the creative efforts and explorations that lead to solutions that can benefit all parties. But how might we implement a process of design and compromise that leads to positive outcomes?

 
Form + Place and City of Newton Zoning Ordinance Redesign

Form + Place and City of Newton Zoning Ordinance Redesign

 

In approaching a design process within an engaged community, there are some key factors to bear in mind. To create trust and address community needs, the design team must be present with the public, listening and employing creative problem solving at important stages of the process. Engaging in this manner allows the public to feel heard and to know that their concerns will be addressed. Architecture alone cannot address all the larger social issues surrounding a project but integrating a democratic process through public interest design gives designers insight they would not otherwise have as community outsiders.  

 In our experience at Form + Place we know that finding a delicate balance between community engagement and a development’s vision requires many voices at the table, but of course, this adds to the challenge of addressing multiple concerns. The BSA discussion seemed to conclude that it takes a great amount of listening, respect and creativity to garner the trust from the public that we, as architects and developers, will design a context-driven project that will benefit the community. At Form + Place we concur with this approach, as evidenced by our work on the Wayland Town Center Master Plan. The process included many public meetings to create a new Mixed-Use Overlay District complete with design guidelines and development regulations. As a result, a 375,000 SF mixed-use project was permitted to be realized in a historic New England community. For the community, however, the size, style and the overall scale of the development were a concern. It is typical in these processes to need a certain amount of education on all sides. In this case, the developer and architect needed to understand that the town wanted to maintain a traditional New England village style in terms of buildings, forms and placemaking. Similarly, the community needed to be assured that the impacts on the town – such as the traffic, infrastructure, services and schools – would not be too onerous. Despite these challenges and years of negotiating zoning regulations, the result was a Mixed-use Overlay District [MUOD] Master Plan and Design Guidelines which was sensitive to the surrounding context and incorporated numerous public amenities, including a new town green and a site dedicated to a civic building. Ultimately, the design resulted in a successful compromise between the community, city and developer.

Wayland Town Center Master Plan

Wayland Town Center Master Plan

In the end, an architectural project belongs not only to the owner and building occupants, but also the community. While community design may require more effort, time and resources, it has the potential to impact not only those involved in a single project but also larger social structures as well. It can create new transit infrastructure, produce a gathering space or create a public service for entire neighborhoods. These larger systems influence community members’ feelings of belonging and safety in their own neighborhoods. The reality of the design practice is that there are "invisible lines that architecture can't solve for" as Patricia Nobre, Senior Design Strategist at Gensler stated during the panel discussion. It seems evident from our experience here at Form + Place and considering the ideas discussed in this conversation, that public interest design can highlight those lines and fill the gap where the built environment cannot. As we continue the conversation forward, we ask ourselves how to ensure that developers and design professionals make this an integral part of their process. Taking on the responsibility of implementing democratic design processes will provide additional challenges but will allow the design team to reveal and address often disregarded societal issues that affect the overall success of a development.

A Look Into Needham’s Future Through Three Proposed Zoning Initiatives

By John Rufo, Principal at Form + Place and Needham Resident

Through a number of newly proposed zoning amendments, Needham can shape its future to create the possibility of more diverse housing options, more beginning and end of life care options, commercial thoroughfares that are less strip than street, and town gateways that are more than just exit ramps to traffic arteries. How does zoning do all this? Well, zoning doesn’t do all this directly, but it does create a framework through which developers and the community can propose ideas that put forward more density or more clever ways of using real estate and the existing building stock. Democracy is wonderfully and frustratingly messy. Changing a zoning ordinance through an open public process challenges us to listen, speak and understand the possibilities that purposeful zoning can set into motion.

Currently on the town’s docket of issues to deliberate are three very different zoning amendment proposals that, from very different angles, stand to shape a newly diverse range of residential types and placemaking strategies. At an open public hearing on the evening of January 29th each of the three proposals was summarized by the planning board and commented on by members of the public. The comment and discussion period was spirited to say the least. Input ranged in equal measure from firmly against to excitedly in favor with plenty of cautious optimism and critical skepticism in between.

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The first proposal to amend the town zoning by-law would permit Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in single family homes. The additional dwelling unit as currently proposed would be for occupancy by family members related to the owner or care givers of family members. The details of the proposal are geared to insure against ADU’s morphing into straight up two-family residences and as such they include definitions and time tables for re-permitting the ADU on a regular basis.

 While the details will be debated and sorted out, imagine if you will the kind of future this could represent for Needham residents. Today in Needham, two-parent households often include both parents working full time to afford to live there, save for their children’s college education, and save a little something for retirement. Nanny / au pair solutions can be critical to creating a workable situation and if the care for a young child were to involve a grandparent or other family member, intergenerational living in two households under one roof could help reinforce family bonds and long-term community connectivity. At the other end of the spectrum, planning for end of life care could be enhanced by the ability to have an elderly or sick loved one living in a separate self-contained dwelling unit that is connected internally to the principal dwelling residence. This seemingly logical concept illustrates some of the challenges of broad stroke zoning ordinances. Traditional approaches to zoning differentiate the needs and priorities for residential and commercial properties, for example, which can restrict the implementation of common sense solutions that take into account the way we live. Today’s trend in zoning ordinances toward creating Mixed-use and Transit Oriented Development Districts belies an understanding that in certain cases there needs to be transitional districts between Commercial and Residential.

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The second proposal discussed was to create a Transit Oriented Development sub-District (TODD) on the current Hartney Greymont site at 433 Chestnut Street. The proposal would allow for a multi-family housing development of up to 148 residential units. Bounded by railroad tracks and an electrical sub-station, it’s an odd site to say the least. As a designer of commercial developments, I can tell you it would be a challenge to accommodate many program types on this site, including new retail, condos or expanded commercial/office uses.

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A developer is proposing a five to six-story apartment building on this site made up of one and two-bedroom units and 12.5% affordable units. While the proposal might seem out of place, given it’s height and density, it is important that we plan for other housing options in Needham. Creating TOD districts around Commuter Rail stations is a logical and smart strategy to manage the inevitable growth of the town. Creating more options for empty nesters, lower income residents, and those needing and wanting to downsize while staying in a familiar community, is a critical issue for the town to address.

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The third zoning amendment being debated by the town is a proposal to create a new Highway Commercial 1 Zoning District in the area often identified as the “Muzi Ford” site, which in fact covers a larger footprint than just the Muzi Ford business (see plan above). The purpose of this proposal is to maximize the economic value of redevelopment to the Town and subject certain uses to proper vetting through a special permit process. This proposal seeks to accomplish the goal of maximizing economic potential through increased commercial density and increased allowable building heights both by right and by special permit.

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The benefits to increased economic impact are obvious in that the creation of a larger commercial tax base will help offset the need for continued residential tax levies as our schools and other public buildings are updated, added to and maintained over time. The aspirational goals and benefits to the Town are a little harder to quantify, however. While as an architect and urban designer I could make an easy argument that this kind of dense commercial district is best sited at a gateway and transit interchange like this, I would also make the argument that a finer grained vision that goes beyond build-out analysis and traffic reports needs to be brought to the community through a well-defined visioning process that includes community and business stakeholders as well as members of the development community. I am sympathetic to the neighbors concerns about what they might ultimately be looking at if the neon Muzi sign goes away…

In the end, it is valid to ask, “Will this development be better?”, and while it seems that some of the massing diagrams presented by one community member were somewhat unrealistic, real steps can be taken in a master plan process to provide flexibility and certainty for both the community and potential developers alike. The thing to keep in mind is that what good zoning does is both act as a catalyst as well as set a framework for the possibility of thoughtful future development. Zoning changes are generally more successful when they are thought of holistically and formed by a community visioning and master planning process. If a town like Needham can articulate a community vision and put in place a process for review, comment, revision and approval, then the messy democracy that is our reality might just be able to survive and sponsor a way forward.

“Form Follows Place” – Public and Private Roles in Visioning East Milton Square

By Michael A. Wang

I recently had the opportunity to co-chair a day-long Urban Land Institute Technical Assistance Panel [TAP] that contemplated the future of East Milton Square. This neighborhood center is one of only three business districts in a community where commercial uses contribute a mere 3.8% of the Town’s tax revenue. While East Milton Square has very passionate and engaged neighborhood stakeholders, it remains a village center that is characterized by physical barriers – most notably, it is bisected by I-93 – that present challenges to its walkability and overall cohesiveness.

 
Aerial of East Milton Square & Proposed Manning Park Redesign

Aerial of East Milton Square & Proposed Manning Park Redesign

 

The 2015 Milton Master Plan championed the introduction of mixed-use development into the Town’s commercial cores to expand the diversity of housing types and, in turn, to stimulate the integration of more commercial and civic amenities. Creating a “Vision Plan” for each of these districts through a process that effectively engages residents and local business owners would certainly be an excellent first step.

 In recent years, a great deal of focus has been directed towards renovating the Manning Community Park, which sits atop a depressed southeast expressway. While a thoughtful redesign of this significant open space, including more pedestrian-friendly connections across the busy surface roads of Granite Avenue and Bryant Avenue, will make this park more usable, it may never become the “center of gravity” for the district given its perch above the highway. In fact, one of the ULI panel’s primary conclusions was that the Town might want to consider expanding its Business District to the east of the highway along the Adams Street corridor as it reaches out towards the Quincy line.

 
Rethinking East Milton Square’s Business District

Rethinking East Milton Square’s Business District

 

One key question for any community contemplating the revitalization of a commercial core is how to be proactive in promoting the kind of development that is compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. When thinking about the critical role of public-private partnerships in this equation, community leaders should not only look at what incentives would attract private investment but, also, what improvements the public sector could make to enhance placemaking potential.

 The Town of Winthrop is doing just this, as they take concrete steps to implement their 2017 Center Business District [CBD] Master Plan. This plan, authored by Form + Place in conjunction with MassDevelopment and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council [MAPC], identified a long list of action items for the Town to address, including improvements to infrastructure, the rethinking of the “connective” role of public open spaces and changes to zoning regulations that would stimulate appropriate mixed-use development.

 
Revitalizing Winthrop’s public realm

Revitalizing Winthrop’s public realm

 

Regardless of which community, ensuring that there is an understandable and reasonable approvals process in place is essential for attracting quality private development. But, as evidenced by recent resistance to proposed mixed-use development in East Milton Square, having a community vision in place that local stakeholders have already bought into is equally important. Embracing local developers who share in the vision and have a first-hand understanding of the community is often likely to yield more contextually-sensitive proposals. Larger national developers, however, are often the ones who may have the resources to withstand lengthy approvals processes and this may result in more formulaic development solutions.

 A well-conceived “Vision Plan” can create a road map for public investment in a key mixed-use commercial district. Identifying placemaking goals that promote a safe, walkable center is a logical starting point for any community. Whether integrating the tenets of Complete Streets, identifying new public open space for a range of active and passive uses or incorporating design guidelines that shape how buildings interface with the ground plane, there is so much that communities can do to shape the character of their commercial centers. Proactive community investment in the public realm and infrastructure, more often than not, will serve as a huge catalyst for the influx of private development dollars.

*Use this link http://milton.vod.castus.tv/vod/?video=80ee396d-5f0f-467e-b6ac-a246ff666808 to see the full Milton TAP presentation starting at minute 10.

Synergy and Context – Examity Completes the Placemaking Picture at Newton Nexus

By John Rufo

When one thinks of a great second floor office lease to complete the picture of a vibrant retail center, you couldn’t really ask for better than the Examity space at Newton Nexus. The existing second floor shell, recently retrofitted by Form + Place and Construction Coordinators Inc (CCI), spans the entire second level of the endcap building above Boston Ballet and Boston Ski & Tennis and now serves as a catalyst of visual interest and light to and from Newton Nexus. The space itself is long and very narrow in plan and the strip windows perched above the retail center show it off from the ground as well as provide a panoramic view of Nexus and ample natural light for Examity employees.

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The long proportions and potential for significant natural lighting of the space informed the character and design resolution of the project.  In some places, however, the existing shell posed challenges that required team decision making on the fly.  Some days we were literally designing as we stood in the space with Examity, CCI and Crosspoint Associates - the landlord and developer of Newton Nexus. It was quite a collaborative effort!

From the start Examity conveyed that they wanted a very open environment with a central focus on food offerings throughout the day for employees. Michael London, CEO of Examity asked for a “great café feel” when you enter the space; something welcoming with a hospitality focus. This presented the opportunity to create real synergy with Newton Nexus as the feel of wide open and inviting experience continues up and into the Examity space.

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A critical piece to creating an airy and dynamic environment was to design an open ceiling in as much of the space as possible. The existing hung ceiling was 8’-5” above the floor and made for a pretty oppressive environment, but demolishing the ceiling wasn’t possible until the lease was completed, and by the time it was finally executed, the schedule was tight in order to be open for Examity’s busy season. Once the ceiling was opened, the design changed radically to accommodate the existing HVAC and cable trays, gain more headroom and highlight other “latent features” such as the unique grid of concrete beams supporting the roof. Despite the tight timeline, Examity asked us to continue to explore the potential in exposing more and more of the ceiling, which in the end, makes for an edgy and fun space to be in.

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Another existing condition that turned into an opportunity was a hidden structural wall with a long window opening that was tucked into the middle of the space. When the first addition was added to the building several decades ago, this piece of exterior wall was simply framed over and left concealed in drywall partitions. Since we couldn’t just remove it without causing structural issues, the project team decided to keep the wall, open the old window, and capitalize on the condition by creating a bar area for gathering and socializing. Examity celebrated this idea further by displaying vintage liquor and wine bottles at the sides of the bar to increase the sense of placemaking and respite from the work day.

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As previously stated, the parti for the plan solution is mostly driven by the existing building context. Because of the high clerestory-like windows on the “back side” of the space overlooking the Boston Ballet roof, the logical space planning diagram was to gang offices, conference rooms and other enclosed spaces primarily along the back edge and allow the larger windows overlooking Nexus to flood the open office areas with light. The larger context of the retail center and activity of Needham Street, seen from these strip windows, further sets the mood of a vibrant and active setting for Examity. Mixed-use synergy across the continuum of placemaking is a great plus for any working environment, be it office or retail. Not too long ago these kinds of stories did not exist along Needham Street and the N-Squared Innovation District, but now, with thoughtful panning and programming, we are beginning to see a variety of placemaking efforts and a synergistic mix of uses that make this regional node a desirable place to live, work and play.

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