Opening a 56-story Chicago office building during COVID-19

The new Bank of America office building, 816 feet tall and 56-stories along the Chicago River, is ready for business. But, COVID-19 is around…

From film at https://110northwacker.com/

The lead tenant, Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America, expected to have more than 2,600 people working on its 17 floors of the 56-story tower. But fewer than 200 work there now, according to company spokeswoman Diane Wagner…

By drastically reducing the number of columns that come to the ground, this structural tour de force allows the tower’s caissons to reach bedrock without hitting the remaining caissons of the old Morton Salt building. It also opens up the riverwalk, which would have felt constricted had it been hidden behind a row of columns.

To some, the arrangement may appear unstable. But new section of riverwalk, with its long, curving benches and still-to-be-planted greenery, is among the strongest contributions the tower makes to the public realm. It will not become a windblown cavern, the architects assure…

With COVID-19 still a significant threat, the developers have put several safeguards in place, including walk-through temperature scanning in the lobby, antimicrobial cladding on the building’s entry doors and upgraded air filtration systems. Tenants can swipe their smartphones on high-tech turnstiles that call an elevator. There’s also none of the welcoming seating that animated other downtown office building lobbies before the pandemic struck.

It sounds like the pandemic has effects on two major features of the building:

  1. The interior will not be functioning as it was designed for a while. This building has a lot of office space; will it ever be fully filled after COVID-19 passes and businesses reckon with shifts to working from home? We have not heard much about what it is like to work in such conditions – a relatively empty building – nor do we know how building owners and developers plan to use office space if they cannot attract firms.
  2. The excerpt above describes how the building interacts with the surrounding environment. It sounds good. But, how does it look and/or function when the typical street life of the Loop is not present? Can aesthetics overcome a lack of social interaction? When will the building fully participate in regular urban life?

Since this is not the only large downtown building under construction in Chicago, let alone in large American cities, it will be fascinating to see what comes of these structures. Will they be regarded as the last of the big central office buildings in a decentralized work landscape or will they be brave attempts to do business as normal or do they represent a new wave of exciting buildings that mark a post COVID-19 era?

Utilizing the front porch during COVID-19

With social life changed to COVID-19, front porches offer a unique opportunities for social interaction:

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Thanks to the pandemic, the front porch is enjoying a new golden age. Like their near cousins, stoops, steps, even fire escapes, porches offer a semipublic setting where we can meet friends and neighbors face-to-face—even if those faces are masked. In the words of Claude Stephens, founder of a tongue-in-cheek group called Professional Porch Sitters Union Local 1339, a porch is “the only place where you can feel like you are outside and inside at the same time; out with all of the neighbors and alone reading a book.”…

“The front porch was an escape from the heat of the wood-burning kitchen stove,” explains historian Donald Empson, the author of “The Street Where You Live,” an architectural guide to St. Paul, Minn. “On the porch, in the cool of the evening, the family could gather to discuss the day’s events and exchange the latest news with neighbors strolling by.” Porches offered neighbors a place to exchange gossip, to spin sagas and sing songs, to flirt and court and air political views. The front porch at the turn of the century was Starbucks, flash mob, church social and Facebook rolled into one…

We no longer need front porches to broadcast our political agendas or to keep cool, as our grandparents once did. But we still need them, perhaps now more than ever. Porches give us a physical space to safely host friends, neighbors and passersby for the small talk and deep conversations otherwise difficult to foster in the middle of a pandemic.

If you’re yearning to add a porch, a 300-square-foot version will set you back an average of $21,000. One study shows you can recoup 90% or more of that investment at resale. But you can’t place a dollar value on the intangible elements of a porch—a social lubricant, a casual meeting place, an eye on the world, a place that’s a little bit yours and a little bit theirs.

Architects, urban planners, and others have argued for decades that front porches and the social life associated with them would help improve community. By spending time in a zone connected to the single-family home yet open to people passing by, residents open themselves up to interactions in a way that is not possible with the common holing up inside to watch TV or driving in and out of the garage at the beginning and end of each day.

It would be interesting to see how exactly front porches are being used right now. There is a time period of home construction lasting at least a few decades in the postwar era when front porches were not common. Older homes may have home as might some newer homes, though these newer porches can be fairly small or more cosmetic than usable. Do people in neighborhoods where front porches are more common report higher levels of social interaction during COVID-19?

In addition to the new opportunities for social interaction during COVID, the front porch can also function as a work or social space separate from inside life yet still connected to the home. With many working from home or students going to school remotely, the front porch offers a covered yet open-to-nature space. Just make sure the Wifi works well…

Trying to define the “average American home”

One writer/realtor describes the features of today’s typical American home:

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Homebuyers now realize that although space is important, it’s not necessarily the most important feature to have. To have enough space to be comfortable, today’s average American home measures about 2,400 square feet. This is definitely up from the 1973 average of about 1,500 square feet for a single-family home, but it’s down quite a bit from the 4,000-plus-square-foot McMansion…

People like finished basements, a home office, a large master bedroom, a big (we’re talking the size of a child’s bedroom), customized walk-in closet with organizer features, and a tricked-out ensuite master bathroom — think of one with spa-like amenities, such as a linen closet, a separate shower stall and tub, a double vanity, and a private toilet room…

Even when you adjust for inflation, you’ll find today’s median home price has increased 900% from 1973, but incomes have increased only 600%. Americans have become used to spending more of their paychecks to get the American dream of homeownership…

“Live, work, play” became the motto of the day as people grew weary of being car-dependent. Being able to walk to shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment has become just as important as the home itself to many homebuyers.

This description appears to draw off two sources of data: Census data that regularly provides numbers on square footage, numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms, and prices (among other things) as well as real estate knowledge of recent trends.

Whether this gets us to what “the average American home of 2020 looks like” is a tricky question. At first glance, several things seem to be missing from the description. What does this typical home look like? It is somewhere between more traditional pre-World War II styles, postwar styles like ranches and split-levels, and more recent options like McMansions? How old is this typical home? While newer homes and features receive a lot of attention, many homes are at least a few decades old. And while the factor of the neighborhood is mentioned, where are people buying homes and then what is happening to these homes in terms of renovations and alterations?

Much of this also depends on local context. Given regional architecture plus the variation in housing markets as well as communities, finding the modal American house might just be near impossible. Perhaps there could be a set of typical American homes that could encompass some of the common variation.

Perhaps large houses are not bad if they are designed well or used correctly?

The top concern about McMansions is their size. Yet, a house that is big is not necessarily a problem. See this recent example of resilient housing from New Urbanist architect Andres Duany:

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He then scrolled through building prototypes, developed in partnership with architect Korkut Onaran. For affluent families, Duany proposed a multigenerational alternative to McMansions, resembling the walled courtyard houses found in Latin America, Europe and Asia. These compounds’ walls protect against wind, rain and storm surge. Clusters of eight or so walled compounds would surround a central green that could be used for vegetable farms, exercise facilities or a small schoolhouse. Resilient adaptations such as backup generators, solar panels and water purification facilities would come standard. The goal, Duany said, was to design communities that could be “partially self-sufficient” in the weeks after a disaster.

Here, the large home has several advantages compared to McMansions. First, it is designed by architects. McMansions are often said to be mass-produced by builders who want to maximize profits, not aesthetics (outside of an impressive – though often jumbled – facade). Second, the home can hold a multigenerational household. If a larger family inhabits the larger home, it is not just an empty McMansion that impresses people passing by; the space might actually be used. Third, the large home is part of a community intended to stand strong in the face of the effects of climate change. McMansions are criticized for their poor building construction – possibly limiting their ability to stand up to storms and other issues – and are often in sprawling areas.

An argument could be made that large houses in general should not be promoted. Even if you have the resources, who needs a home larger than 4,000 square feet, let alone the mega mansions of the truly wealthy? For example, the Not So Big House suggests smaller but customized homes would work better for residents. Tiny houses explicitly reject the bigger is better logic.

But, if bigger houses are still going to be built – perhaps some will say they need them for entertaining or large families or for particular uses that take up a lot of room – they could be done in a way that makes them less like McMansions and more like large versions of well-designed, built to last homes. Indeed, McMansions receive a lot of negative attention even as there are plenty of supersized homes – true mansions – that might also be worth rethinking.

The role of religious buildings in combating global sameness in architecture

A look at the spread of the same architecture around the world – “glass-and-steel” – leaves out religious architecture:

Some time ago, I woke up in a hotel room unable to determine where I was in the world. The room was like any other these days, with its neutral bedding, uncomfortable bouclé lounge chair, and wood-veneer accent wall—tasteful, but purgatorial. The eerie uniformity extended well beyond the interior design too: The building itself felt like it could’ve been located in any number of metropolises across the globe. From the window, I saw only the signs of ubiquitous brands, such as Subway, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. I thought about phoning down to reception to get my bearings, but it felt too much like the beginning of an episode of The Twilight Zone. I travel a lot, so it was not the first or the last time that I would wake up in a state of placelessness or the accompanying feeling of déjà vu.

The primary focus of this article appears to be architectural wonders in business districts. These buildings both reflect the primary values of today’s world – capitalism, finance, power – and dominate modern skylines. They promote a particular global order.

In contrast, religious buildings often refer to other values: transcendence, community, beauty or sacredness. They can be part of hegemony or empire or the spread of a global order. But, they can also signal space that resists oppression or injustice. And, religious buildings can both reflect international styles and/or local religious interpretations.

In the book Building Faith Bob Brenneman and I wrote, we tackle some of these issues. There are modernist religious buildings. There are international structures influenced by the architecture of Las Vegas or glitzy cities. But, there are also small congregations building humble structures, others mixing indigenous architecture and common forms of architecture in particular religious traditions, others converting one kind of structure to another, and others worshiping in more secular structures. Many of these buildings are the opposite of these international symbols of affluence and starchitects. At least in form, they present an alternative vision and with the actions of the congregation within, may actively counter hegemonic order.

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/building-faith-9780190883447?cc=us&lang=en&

Some of the issue may be that the stature of religious buildings have diminished in the center of many global cities. Whereas once religious structures sat at the middle of the city, office buildings and structures devoted came to dominate the central spaces. In Chicago, the central churches moved to quieter neighborhoods near residents and where property values were lower as business came to dominate the Loop. Even the tallest religious buildings are no match for the biggest office buildings or residential structures.

No correcting the problems of McMansions with the word “stately”

One long-time copy editor uses the example of a McMansion to suggest adding the adjective “stately” cannot make something good:

Stately You cannot turn some monstrous McMansion’s farrago of discordant architectural elements into Blenheim Palace with an adjective.

This sentence has a lot to consider. First, the writer picks on the McMansion’s lack of architectural integrity. This is one of the key traits of a McMansion: the architectural elements do not go together or they are out of proportion or the quality of the home is not good.

Second, Blenheim Palace is a World Heritage Site. Even though it is really large – another defining feature of McMansions – it is has more architectural integrity being built in the English Baroque style. And it has the benefit of being old, unique, and recognized as important (in contrast to the mass-produced McMansions).

Third, the writer hints that the certain descriptors fit with certain kinds of homes. McMansions cannot be called stately. What would be more accurate descriptors? Garish? Vapid? Incoherent? Striving? The implication of any of these antonyms is that the McMansion is not worth paying attention to and will not last.

After such a description, one wonder what might redeem a McMansion.

Linking storage facilities and McMansions

One billionaire made money on storage facilities and now he hope to profit from McMansions:

abundance blur bundle close up

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In the depths of the last housing crisis, self-storage billionaire B. Wayne Hughes flew to Las Vegas and Phoenix to lay the groundwork for a new bet. His plan: Buy foreclosed homes, spruce them up and rent them out. He tested his ideas on three houses in each market and then dispatched deputies to buy tends of thousands more across the U.S.

Nine years later the land grab is paying off…

And the rest is behind the paywall. But, the possible connection between these two investments is intriguing:

  1. Both self-storage units and McMansions are relatively recent phenomenon in terms of their scale and regular use.
  2. Americans have a lot of stuff. One answer to having a lot of stuff is to put things in storage. Another solution is to buy a bigger house to put everything in.
  3. Both have architectural quirks. As a kid, I remember more single-story, sprawling self-storage facilities. Now, I see more two to three story buildings – I can think of at least three within 10 miles of my house in built-up suburbia – that look a bit nicer (though are still boxy).
  4. With their architectural quirks, are both of these kinds of structures naked ploys for making money? The McMansion tries to impress and offer as much space as possible for a reasonable price. The self-storage unit facility maximizes the number of storage units and space that can be rented.

Providing a fully designed and furnished home

The CEO of Restoration Hardware recently discussed providing customers with homes that are completely designed and furnished:

architect architecture blueprint build

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I would ask everybody in this call, if you get a second tonight, go on Zillow, go on Redfin, go on, pick your website for real estate. Go look at 100 homes tonight in a price range that you think we might play at. And tell me how many have great architecture, tell me how many have great interior design and how many have great landscape architecture. If it’s 1% — if it’s more than 1%, like you must live in a really great area. But even in the great areas, it’s so low. How many friends’ houses do you go to that you say, “Wow, this is beautiful architecture. This is great interior design. This is great landscape architecture”? Almost never. Almost never. It’s like a completed — completely uncharted world.

When you really look at the big homebuilders, they’re kind of stamping out some — it’s not a McMansion anymore. Call it whatever you want. But it’s a stamp out, right? And it’s a nice organized development, but there’s no one providing completely turnkey homes. Like Eri says to me a lot, like they don’t sell you a car without an interior. You don’t go buy a beautiful Mercedes or whatever brand you like, and it comes without an interior and you got to figure it out yourself.

I don’t know how many people on this phone have tried to do their own interior design or furnished their house. It’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare for me, and I do it for a living. I have a house in the Napa Valley that I finished remodeling like 3.5 years ago. It’s not furnished yet. It’s that hard. It’s a pain in the ass. And so we know how hard it is. We know we’re good at it….

And I sit here and I go, well, why can’t we — we’re really good at architecture, really good at interior design, really good at landscape architecture. I know we can design and build things and furnishing that people will like. And I think there’s — if you think about people with money, okay, and you think about just what’s the most valuable asset, time, right? By far, the most valuable asset. Everybody on this phone can figure out — if you lose your money, you can figure out how to make more money. If you lose your time, you just can’t get it back, right? So we think a lot about businesses that deliver time value will become more valuable.

Four things stand out to me here:

  1. It is interesting to consider this in light of the increasing emphasis on staging properties. With staging, the design is more temporary but it gives potential buyers a vision for what the property could be. The option discussed above is more long-term.
  2. Generally, Americans act as though homes should be empty boxes filled in by owners to fit their tastes. When people buy homes, they customize them (within the confines of what is possible with the home) to what they desire and what they can afford. What if it could also work the other way around: a fully designed home shapes the owner as they come to grow into it?
  3. This highlights the mass produced nature of many American homes, whether they are McMansions are not. Particularly after World War Two, larger homebuilders started constructing more homes and buyers purchased them more like factory items. Straddling this gap from mass produced home to more customized home is not easy.
  4. I think he is right that there is a market for such homes. Yet, I imagine the market is fairly small given the price that would be involved. It is one thing to stage a home and then take those items back out; it is another to have a fully immersive design process and keep everything. For a business, I wonder what is the lower price point of homes that this makes sense for businesses (particularly if this is meant of more of a luxury product that is supposed to remain exclusive).

 

Open offices might be pushed out by COVID-19

Open offices have provoked a lot of reactions. One CEO thinks COVID-19 might help them meet their demise:

Carol Bartz, who led the architectural and engineering software maker Autodesk Inc. for a decade before heading up Yahoo Inc. during a turbulent period that began with the last recession, is known for being direct and speaking her mind. In a recent telephone interview with MarketWatch from her home in Silicon Valley, Bartz described the current age of COVID-19 as a “new game,” with “new rules” for everyone, and made a few predictions about how she expects life to change, especially at work.

“I think office space is going to change, [and] we will go back to putting shields between people,” she said, adding that, while she realizes this in the grand scheme amounts to minutiae, this is one of the many kinds of changes that CEOs are going to have to address in the future, in what will be the new life of the CEO. “We have to take the fear away from people,” she said, noting that this will probably be the first time offices will have to be designed around health factors.

Instead of the old office cubicles separating desks, “They probably will be clear, you will not sit there in that big open space. I think people are going to want protection, plexiglass or whatever. There will also be more teleconferencing, absolutely less flying — you will teleconference with customers,” Bartz said. “Tthey don’t want to see you in person, and you don’t want to see them.”

Office spaces change in response to a variety of factors. With health as a concern going forward, it will be interesting to see how companies and leaders discuss the possible changes: how does health interact with wanting to promote collaboration or cutting costs by not having a lot of cubicles and private offices?

More broadly, this goes beyond just personal workspaces. How will employees gather together? The proverbial water cooler (or break room or coffee station) is an important feature of workspace, whether it provides a break or encourages conversation among employees. Is holding meetings in conference rooms also off the table if social distancing is required or helpful?

I would also imagine that whatever changes in physical office space occurs because of COVID-19 might need to be highly adaptable to future changing conditions. Cubicles or plexiglass might be needed for months but what happens after that point when people and organizations are less fearful? Cubicles tend to be modular and can be reconfigured. Just how many shifts can a typical organization go through?

Recommended read: A Field Guide to American Houses

I was sad to read about the recent passing of Virginia Savage McAlester. I highly recommend the book A Field Guide to American Houses that occupied much of her attention.

There are many ways to describe McAlester. She was an author, a preservationist, an architectural historian, an activist, the founder and leader of multiple non-profits, and a loyal and dedicated daughter, sister, and mother. McAlester is perhaps best known for her monumental A Field Guide to American Houses, which, after it first appeared in 1984, did nothing less than anoint McAlester as the “Queen of Historic Preservation.” The book has topped architectural best seller lists for so long that, in 2019, Curbed called her the “most popular architecture writer in America.”…

McAlester’s book appeared at a time when, as architectural historian William Seale told the New York Times, developers charged like “wild bulls” over the city’s old neighborhoods…

McAlester set about creating such a survey. The book that emerged from her efforts is a hefty tome that has been referred to as “The Bible,” by preservationists. The Field Guide is more than a catalog of home styles and types. To write it, McAlester said she had to learn a whole new architectural vocabulary, in part because the common features of so many American homes didn’t rise into the architecture lexicon at Harvard…

For example, in a 2014 update to the Field Guide, she coined two new phrases to describe two emerging architectural styles: “21st century modern” for the sleek, angular, uncluttered structures that dominate the pages of contemporary shelter magazines; and “millennium mansions” for the thrown-up ex-urban behemoths more commonly derided as “McMansions.” For McAlester, it was important to understand the highs and lows of design because both architectural visions shape our experience and conception of American communities.

I have used this book both in scholarly projects and read it for enjoyment. I have it on the shelf in my office and occasionally will pull it down to reference some feature of homes or to look through the numerous examples McAlester provided.

A few additional thoughts on the text:

  1. The book highlights both the broad categories of homes as well as the numerous variations within each type. Based on the distinctive features of each style which the book clearly points out, you can usually easily find the broad category a home fits into. At the same time, you can also revel in the many types within each category.
  2. The numerous photographs in each style are very helpful. McAlester collected photographs from numerous locations throughout the United States. For example, the section on “millennium mansions” includes multiple photographs from Naperville, Illinois.
  3. I also appreciate the sections of the book about particular features of homes, ranging from roofs to windows to how homes are structurally supported. This book is not just about the external appearance; there are things to be learned about houses are put together.