Building a 1,000+ foot skyscraper in a rural town of 7,000 residents

Skyscrapers and cities are tightly linked. Can one be built in a small town in the countryside?

Until a local company announced plans to send a 320-metre skyscraper soaring over the surrounding countryside, most people in Denmark had only the haziest idea where Brande, a town of 7,000 people in rural Jutland, even was.

The Bestseller Tower, designed by star architectural studio Dorte Mandrup, will not only be the tallest building in Denmark, but the tallest in western Europe, besting the Shard in London by a crucial 10.4 metres…

It won’t be the first rural skyscraper. At the height of Japan’s property bubble back in 1991, a 41-story residential tower, Sky Tower 41, was erected among fields.

But in Jutland, the surrounding landscape is so flat that the tower will be visible from 60km away. Visitors to Jelling, the royal seat of Harald Bluetooth, the Viking king who united Denmark, will see its slender form jutting up from the horizon, as will visitors to Legoland 30km away.

While the article suggests it will not be the only rural skyscraper in the world, they are certainly rare. They are rare enough outside of sizable central business districts that numerous tall buildings in the Chicago suburbs – probably in the 20 to 30 stories in height – attract attention as unusual and sticking out in the landscape in a metropolitan region that takes pride in its tall buildings and architecture.

It is certainly possible to build such a structure almost anywhere but I wonder how this will all work out in day-to-day life in this community. Small towns and rural areas have a particular scale that people are used to and that is human scaled or even dominated by nature and landscapes rather than human creations. Constructing a building over a 1,000 square feet disrupts all of this: it will be visible for miles, it will dwarf anything nearby, and it will cast shadows and block the sun from certain angles. It is not slightly out of scale for this community; it is a massive change. It could be beautiful, modern, and efficient and still have negative consequences for the community.

 

The bigger and feature-filled “New American Home”

What the National Association of Home Builders displays as the “New American Home” just keeps getting bigger and bigger:

The first New American Home that N.A.H.B. built, in Houston in 1984, was 1,500 square feet and cost $80,000. By 2006, at the peak of the housing bubble, the N.A.H.B. home – a lakeside McMansion in Florida with a tri-level kitchen island and a waterfall off the master suite – was over 10,000 square feet and listed for $5.3 million in what is today one of the nation’s foreclosure capitals, Orlando.

That 1984 project was the smallest; square footage hasn’t dipped below 2,200 since 1985. The 2018 version, also in Florida, is “Tuscan”-inspired and is close to 11,000 square feet, with eight bathrooms and both an elevator and a car elevator in the garage. The 2019 version, to be unveiled soon, is 8,000 square feet and has an “inner sanctum lounge” and a view of the Vegas strip.

NewAmericanHomeSquareFootage

The N.A.H.B. house may be meant to highlight trends, but they’re not necessarily the trends homeowners want (and certainly not what most people need). Instead, they’re what builders, kitchen and bath manufacturers and real estate agents would like to sell them: Think cathedral ceilings, granite countertops, gift-wrapping rooms and, more recently, “smart” appliances like a refrigerator that can text you when you’re low on milk and eggs.

Many builders will tell you that though these houses are large, they are more efficient – even that they have a small carbon footprint. But this is like bragging about the good gas mileage of an S.U.V. While a 10,000-square-foot house built today uses less energy than a 10,000-square-foot house built a decade ago, a home of this size requires a phenomenal amount of energy to run. (And most likely has an S.U.V. or two in the garage.)

I see enough from the NAHB to guess that they have some influence in the housing industry, particularly among national or larger builders. That their show home put together each year keeps getting bigger on average and with more and more features suggests the emphasis is on new and profits. At the same time, it might be hard to show a direct causal link between these annual productions and what homes are actually built. Builders in the United States have constructed many large homes in recent decades but the median square footage has dropped slightly in the last few years.

I suspect it would also be interesting to analyze the architectural and design choices for the New American Homes. Americans may like big homes but not necessarily modern ones. How many of these homes are modernist, Craftsman, or Mediterranean (and which styles are studiously avoided)? Are they all open concept in the main living areas? Is storage a priority and/or large garages? This sort of project could then be expanded to model homes in different areas or among different builders to think about how what builders present influence buying patterns.

Linking the uniformity in the architecture of new apartment buildings to stick framing

The architectural commonalities among new apartment buildings may be connected to how the edifices are built:

The number of floors and the presence of a podium varies; the key unifying element, it turns out, is under the skin. They’re almost always made of softwood two-by-fours, or “stick,” in construction parlance, that have been nailed together in frames like those in suburban tract houses.

The method traces to 1830s Chicago, a boomtown with vast forests nearby. Nailing together thin, precut wooden boards into a “balloon frame” allowed for the rapid construction of “a simple cage which the builder can surface within and without with any desired material,” the architect Walker Field wrote in 1943. “It exemplifies those twin conditions that underlie all that is American in our building arts: the chronic shortage of skilled labor, and the almost universal use of wood.” The balloon frame and its variants still dominate single-family homebuilding in the U.S. and Canada. It’s also standard in Australia and New Zealand, and pretty big in Japan, but not in the rest of the world.

In the U.S., stick framing appears to have become the default construction method for apartment complexes as well. The big reason is that it costs much less—I heard estimates from 20 percent to 40 percent less—than building with concrete, steel, or masonry. Those industries have sponsored several studies disputing the gap, but most builders clearly think it exists…

The advance of the mid-rise stick building has come with less fanfare, and left local officials and even some in the building industry surprised and unsettled. “It’s a plague, and it happened when no one was watching,” says Steven Zirinsky, building code committee co-chairman for the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects. What caught his attention was a blaze that broke out in January 2015 at the Avalon apartments in Edgewater, N.J., across the Hudson River from his home. “When I could read a book in my apartment by the flame of that fire,” he says, “I knew there was a problem.” Ignited by a maintenance worker’s torch, the fire spread through concealed spaces in the floors and attic of the four-story complex, abetted by a partial sprinkler system that didn’t cover those areas. No one died, but the building was destroyed.

Cutting building costs makes sense. Still: if the costs of construction are reduced, this means there could be more money for interesting architectural or design elements. Enhancing the building in this way could lead to higher rents. (Of course, this assumes Americans are willing to pay a little more for apartment buildings that look good. I could imagine why this may not be the case. See the appeal of ranch homes – though not modernist homes.) Are there some developers out there who see value, aesthetically or monetarily, in helping their “stumpie” complex stand out?

I still marvel at times at this ingenuity in building homes and houses with balloon frames and its descendents: take standardized sizes of mass-produced wood and millions of dwellings are born. The pieces of this supply chain that had to come into place for this to be possible is interesting to consider as is the permanence of such dwellings that are based on frames of two-by-fours.

Showing a McMansion while saying, “I love all the brick. I love all the character.”

In a recent HGTV episode intro, the host is driving through a Chicago suburb. He says, “I love all the brick. I love all the character.” And this is the home we see as he says this:

HGTVMcMansionMidwestCharacter.jpg

This is a McMansion due to at least four features:

1. The two story entryway.

2. The multi-dimensional roofline.

3. The three car garage and large driveway.

4. The lighter brick and other style choices that date the home as roughly a 1990s build.

(For aesthetic purposes, the dangling power lines in the front do not help.)

This home may have plenty of brick but critics of McMansions might argue the brick is deployed poorly. This home may have character – but of the negative kind rather than the charming variety.

A vote against urban McMansions in 2018

One design and architecture writer takes aim at urban McMansions as a tired trend from 2018:

Allison Arieff (columnist, New York Times):

Urban McMansions. I gotta ask these folks—was it always your dream to live in the Apple store? And if you want to live in 10,000 square feet, maybe you should move to the suburbs?”

Arieff draws attention to three traits of McMansions which she sees as negative:

  1. Their large size. She pegs the size at 10,000 square feet though I would argue that once you are at 10,000 square feet and above, this is more of a mansion than a McMansion.
  2. Their poor or low quality architecture. The comparison here is to an Apple store, presumably a structure of a lot of glass and silver metal. This may be appropriate if you are selling trendy phones and tablets but perhaps not so much in a new residence.
  3. A connection to the suburbs. Whereas McMansions are expected to arise from empty fields, plopping a large McMansion in an urban neighborhood, particularly an older one, could be viewed more negatively. How exactly does a big and poorly-designed single-family home contribute to a vibrant and cosmopolitan city scene?

Together, these homes are an inappropriate size, do not look good, and are meant for a different kind of streetscape and lifestyle. For more, refer to my four traits that can define a McMansion.

Would suburban neighbors rather live next to a McMansion or a home made from shipping containers?

A couple in St. Charles, Illinois has built a 3,200 square foot home constructed out of four shipping containers. What did the neighbors think?

“In the beginning, people just didn’t understand it, and no one 100 percent supported it. But as it progressed, a lot of those people who were hesitant about it started to come on board and see it for what it was, and not just an extravagant trash can,” said Stephanie, the mother of two…

“It’s a custom home. These aren’t cookie-cutter homes. So even if we build another one next week, it will not be the same, and no one else has this home. Even though there are people that say, ‘I don’t know if I’d ever live in one,’ they say, ‘I like what you’ve done.’”…

Clark said his wife didn’t want to mask the unique aesthetics of the containers. The city and the Evans went back and forth with suggestions, requests and recommendations until they arrived at the current design…

One hang-up: Not all associations and subdivisions allow container homes, according to Clark. But the couple hopes that the more common alternative housing becomes, the better received container homes will be.

The home as depicted in the Chicago Tribune:

https://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/ct-re-alternative-home-styles-20181129-story.html

The home is certainly unique. The article leads with this idea: “Goodbye cookie-cutter. So long McMansion. Out with formulaic, in with customization.”

Teardown McMansions are often criticized for not fitting in with the architecture of the neighborhood in which they are built. This container home also does not fit with what is visible of the surrounding architecture. Would the typical suburbanite rather live next to an oversized and architecturally dubious teardown McMansion or an architecturally unique home made of shipping containers?

I would guess the McMansion would be more palatable to a number of suburban residents. Even though McMansions may not match the architecture of the styles they are trying to imitate or they may be a mishmash of styles, they are often (not always) built in somewhat traditional styles. The container home goes for a modern look: boxy, clean lines, different colors, a completely different shape than many suburban homes. Some uniqueness in suburban homes might be okay but this is something totally different. I have argued before Americans prefer McMansions to modernist homes. Perhaps the fact that this modernist home is built of recycled shipping containers helps since the home can be considered greener.

I do not think this housing design is one that will spread like wildfire through suburban residential neighborhoods.

Quick Review: “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs”

Critics of the suburbs are plentiful yet few make their argument in the style of James Howard Kunstler. I use his 2004 TED talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” often in class because of its clarity and humor. A quick review:

  1. He has a provocative argument: are the American suburbs placing worth dying for? Kunstler explicitly links the design and experience of suburbs to the armed forces fighting in the Middle East: are they willing to die for their suburban communities? This question helps elevate the conversation from one about personal preferences – some Americans like suburbs, some do not – to a larger question of whether our communities are worth fighting for and living in. With the suburban emphasis on single-family homes, it can be hard to orient suburban conversations around the public good.
  2. The primary critique of the suburbs Kunstler offers involves architecture and urban planning. He shows some great examples of American buildings that offer little to pedestrians and the surrounding areas. He shows what a tree-framed streetscape should look like. He discussed a typical American Main Street and how it provides useful public space. He ends up making a pitch for New Urbanism as it recovers a lost understanding of how to create lively public spaces. It is too bad that he does not have a little more time to show how a typical suburb might be transformed (a retrofitted shopping mall is as far as he gets) because of different planning choices.
  3. There is plenty of humor here. While his own books can be somewhat bombastic, he sprinkles in plenty of funny lines in the TED talk including comparing the design of a civic building to a DVD player and discussion of “nature band-aids.”
  4. As someone who teaches courses about suburbs regularly, it is hard to find succinct and effective video clips to use in class. This talk is relatively short, has some humor, and summarizes an important critique of suburban life. Of course, it does not cover everything: Kunstler has little chance to cover some of his own critiques (such as peak oil and driving – although these came along years later, I would be interested to hear him respond to the possible invention of self-driving cars that could further sprawl) and says nothing about racial and class exclusion. Yet, this is my go-to video to discuss what some see as problems in the suburbs.

TED Talks cannot easily cover the nuance of particular social phenomena. However, if they are engaging presentations, they can provide helpful summaries of an issue that can then serve as a springboard for more in-depth exploration. Kunstler’s talk does just that: it is a worthy entree into a decades-long conversation about the downsides and merits of American suburbs.