These entries present ideas about how buildings, cities, and landscapes can be made into better places for humans. Humane Design is published by Jeremy Fretts, and is committed to "improving the human habitat." Jeremy Fretts is a designer and project architect at Niles Bolton Associates, and a member of the Congress for New Urbanism.    RSS/XML

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Anti-family group seeks to exclude children from communities

There is an underground movement to restrict the number of families with children that can live in your neighborhood. This movement urges preferential treatment of singles, unmarried cohabitants, gays, age-restricted communities, and other non-traditional families. This organization is extremely powerful, and includes high ranking officials. They have tremendous power over the economic and physical conditions of your life.

Do you think I’m referring to gays? No—gay people are actually trying to create families through marriages and adoptions. Is it some jihadist organization seeking to undermine the foundations of American society? Nope.

It’s your local town council or plan commission. And, in fact, they are responding to the passionate opinion of American citizens in opposition to funding schools. The enemy is “us.”

In much of the United States, property taxes are used to pay for education. Further, in many areas, that funding mechanism is ultra-local: the school district itself, or perhaps the town, or county is the taxing district. The result: in order to keep property taxes low in the immediate area, officials use the tools at their disposal to discourage development of “family” housing, especially the affordable kind.

Apartment housing for families concentrates the most children on the least area. The common wisdom, then, is that the people paying the least taxes are requiring the most services. No public official seeking re-election would espouse the virtue of having children in the community. At least in the context of taxation and development, children are seen as an expensive burden to society.

The result is that, despite our capitalist leanings, the shape of our towns and the location of populations is driven not by the free market, but by which local government has the best planners and attorneys to manipulate housing. Wealthy suburbs manage family housing carefully, and balance it against revenue-generating businesses. Thus, they have good schools and little affordable housing. Poorer or larger families end up in the more egalitarian city, or the less regulated rural exurb. (Sidebar: this encourages longer commutes for everyone.)

In a recent memo regarding a new apartment development, the city planner asked my client “to determine the worst and best case in terms of number of children generated.” Number of children generated. The shape of our cities, the availability of affordable housing, the availability of appropriate housing: they are all driven by this fear of growing school systems and increasing taxes.

Across the pond in “socialist,” and “irreligious” Europe, birth rates are low, and an influx of immigrants are altering the historic cultural landscape. Further, forward-looking demographers realize that they need future workers and taxpayers. The response: families with children are paid subsidies to offset the financial challenges of family. In some cases, women are literally paid a “pro-natal” bonus, or a monthly paycheck to be a stay-at-home mom. They are treated as a valued national resource. France, in particular, has taken extreme measures to encourage childbirth and make family life easier.

Americans worship the “family,” even though nuclear families make up less than 25% of our current population. We pay lip service to public education, and espouse its importance in a democratic society. In reality, though, we don’t like children because they’re expensive. Unless they’re our own.

v1.0, Copyright 2009 Jeremy Fretts

Jeremy Fretts is an architect at Niles Bolton Associates, where he designs multi-family housing.

Further reading:

Moms in Europe


Apartments and condos for the long haul

Private courtyard behind rowhouse, Denver.

With the American Dream of  homeownership further and further out of reach, apartment and condominium developers should start looking more carefully and the needs of long-term, mature residents.  

While a standard issue apartment is fine for a short time of getting started or transitioning, what might larger families, older couples, long-term tenants like better?

My thoughts on the subject, subject to further development:

  • Near-vehicle storage.  Developers treat storage as an amenity to be rented, and thus locate it in random places with no specific relationship to a home or parking space.   Storage located near, and assigned to, each designated parking spot allow residents to store sports equipment, automotive care, and other items typical found in the garage of a private residence.  Easy access to the auto saves lugging such items up and down through secure doors, stairs, elevators.
  • A place for everything.  Laundry, linen, and cleaning closets need to be more than afterthoughts.  Does the apartment have a place to store brooms?  Vacuum cleaners? Where does the DIRTY laundry go?
  • Enormous walk-in closets.  These are the hallmark of suburban homebuilders.  As "home" becomes an apartment, the closets need to grow.
  • Private outdoor space. More than a tiny deck.  A place to host dinner parties and grow tomatoes, even if it is on the fourth floor.Private terrace at Seven Fountains, Hollywood, CA 
  • Customizable space. Watching HGTV, yearning for a custom home and adventures in home improvement, the apartment dweller needs a creative outlet.  The apartment developer that discovers a way to provide customization options wins.





Brutalism: inhumane design

Example of architectural brutalism at the offices of HUD in Washington, DCBruce Bawer, whose writings on theology I've recently enjoyed, recently discovered "brutalist" architecture.  In his blog, he writes,

" As soon as I saw the word I thought immediately of my alma mater, Stony Brook, where several structures, including dormitories I lived in, were ugly concrete monstrosities that seemed to scream out: "Life sucks!  Beauty is a lie!"  Living, eating, studying, and attending classes in these bunkers – which, it turns out, are indeed products of brutalism (the aptest name ever) – one felt one was being given a big, undeserved daily "fuck you" by some architect who'd designed these things, cashed the check, and then gone off to live in pleasanter surroundings." (emphasis added)


The Other Washington DC

I liked Washington DC when I was 15 years old.  At 20, a sophomore in Architecture School, I decided it was one of the best places in the US.  At 34, now well traveled domestically and abroad, and a nearby resident for 16 months, I am thoroughly convinced that  Washington DC is one of the most marvelous places in the United States.

However, it is not just the monumental core with acres of parkland and free museums. The residential neighborhoods and small commercial centers, the majestic small bridges, the true parkways -- these are off the beaten tourist path, but they resound with a vitality and beauty found far too rarely in American cities.

Rowhouses near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC


To be sure, there are parts of the city and neighboring suburbs that are not at all praiseworthy.  But tonight, I spent the evening walking around quiet but vibrant neighborhoods with magnificent architecture, busy restaurants, stores open late.  And you could still hear the crickets chirping.

Notably, the regulations which helped to shape this now-wonderful city were met with skepticism and complaint over the centuries.  George Washington may have been the first to create "architectural standards" for a neigborhood in the US. 

 "Long, rectangular lots were platted specifically to promote contiguously fronted buildings, but individual rowhouses initially outnumbered continuous rows built by developers. Both groups were governed by the city's building regulations, first enunciated by President Washington's proclamation of 17 October 1791 and amended frequently over the next two centuries.
The original eight articles stipulated building materials (brick and stone for party walls), access by city officials to regulate common areas, and two design criteria. The heights of houses were limited to forty feet with those built on the avenues to be at least 35 feet tall. All buildings were to be parallel to the streets, but set backs could be determined by the "improvers." (Pamela Scott. see link below for this text in it's original article)

For vastly more detail on Washington's oft-ignored residential splendor, visit this page from the Library of Congress.


The bigger they are, the harder they fall?

One of the great challenges of  city-building is city RE-building.  Often, redevelopment is not economically feasible until an existing property has become delapidated and devalued, which is of course bad for the health of the city.

This problem is compounded with larger buildings and developments.  If a high-rise building is owned by hundreds of condominium owners, acquisition for demolition or renovation becomes infinitely more complicated and expensive. 

Thus, the impact of bad urban design, bad architecture, overly complicated ownership structures should give any architect, developer, or planner pause.  We must design with an eye to the long term use, desirability, and adaptability of our work.

For a first hand example, see this week's article on a H.D. Woodson high school which failed thus.  Fortunately, with a single owner, redevelopment will occur sooner rather than later, but the damage to students and the neighborhood has been noteworthy.




Building to create community: the market is ripe

A recent article in Multifamily Trends reflects the predictions I made 11 years ago in my collegiate thesis project: in an era of hyperconnectivity, people increasingly yearn for places to live that will foster a sense of community. Further, success of certain current developments validate the notion that the built environment can play a role in fostering that social community.  Baby-boomers "really want to connect with their neighbors.  They want to find a community that facilitates that," according to Nanette Overly or Epcon Communities.  Living in a place which fosters social community, and has other desirable amenities has become more important than the traditional "more is better" equation.  "The sheer amount of square footage is not as important as the ability to live well while they're there." (1)


Rockford Falls in Wilmington, Delaware, offers access to a walking trail, state park, waterfront, and swimming pool.  Taking their inspiration (and materials) from the historic mill buildings on this and other nearby sites, the buildings create a strong sense of place.  c. 2008 Niles Bolton Associates

In her article, "Living with Style," (Multifamily Trends, 10:6, November/December 2007)  Kim Fernandez explains that communities with "lifestyle amenities" have weathered recent financial storms well.   Other key points from her article:

  • The homebuyer's focus was once on "price of the home, the location, the school system and the square footage," says Nanette Overly.  Rather than return-on-investment, boomers now look at "return-on-experience"
  • Condo and apartment developers are adding amenities which create opportunities for social interaction, in addition to lifestyle-specific elements.
  • Walking paths are the top requested amenities
  • Residents want wonderful kitchens -- nicely appointed, not necessarily large

In my thesis, I studied what programmatic functions and built amenities might contribute to creating those "opportunities for social interaction."  Essentially, my conclusion was that the goal should be for residents to "cross paths" as much as possible, and that the amenities should be arranged in a way that encouraged this.  Some of the facilities which might be co-located include:

  • Post office, or mailbox room
  • Day care facilities or playgrounds
  • Business center
  • Fitness center
  • Library
  • Internet access center
  • Coffee shops or lounge, from which all passers-by from the other amenities may be viewed
  • Outdoor park space

Again, a key factor is to incorporate these in a way where they are NOT private and isolated, but which encourage social interaction and lingering.  Even better if these are public facilities, rather than private mimicry:  a real post office, Kinko, Starbucks, Gold's Gym, and Kindercare integrated to the project.  

In some of our projects at Niles Bolton Associates, we are also including full-fledged bars at which some the apartment manager hosts weekly happy hours.  Often, we include mini-theaters.

A location in an existing urban center saves the developer the cost of crafting these amenities from scratch.

As it becomes more desirable to live in high-density environs, and more necessary, it is increasingly important for architects and developers to focus on the creation of quality social spaces.  They add desirability and safety to a project, and help to compensate for smaller unit sizes.


Jeremy Fretts is a designer of residential and mixed-use projects at Niles Bolton Associates, Alexandria, VA. 

(1) "Living with Style," Multifamily Trends, 10:6, November/December 2007, pp. 32-35.


Good modernism; bad traditionalism


In a small wedge of land in northwest Washington D.C, there is an enclave of lots which are not subject to design review.  Herein, architects and homebuilders have been free to pursue their dreams.  It is in this special place, where I found the poster child for bad traditional architecture.

Side-by-side, you can see respectful, proportionate, well-designed modernism, and a ghastly, flat, badly-detailed neo-historicist mistake. 

The modern home, on the left, could be politely inserted in any historic rowhouse neighborhood in the area.  The "traditionally detailed" home on the right would be an eyesore in any context.

A word about the Palladian window (arch) at the top -- arches require support.  This one's hung from above, but the appearance of a primal structural member floating in space is inherently disturbing.  The thin window mullions below cannot possible serve as a structural support.

Further, notice

  • the anemic cornice, both flat and thin.
  • disproportion between upper and lower windows
  • thin window trim
  • squatty transom window over the door
  • the big blank masonry wall

For excellent training in how to do all these things in way that is not ghastly, check out Marianne Cusato's new book, hot off the press, "Get your house right." 


Humane Storage - A place for everything

No, this isn't a promotion for the Container Store, or IKEA.  They provide remedial solutions to consumers stranded in poorly designed homes and apartments.

However, visiting these stores can suggest what designers SHOULD be including in residences.  Too often, architects put random closets in leftover space without consideration of the actual function of the storage space. Here are a few oft overlooked items -- are you sure your design has a place for them?

1) Vacuum cleaner

2) Brooms, mops, buckets

3) Laundry detergent (if the stacked washed and dryer takes up the whole closet...)

4) Ironing board

5) Dirty laundry

6) Christmas decorations






Cool materials from the Solar Decathlon

I LOVE new materials!  And the Solar Decathlon, currently on display in Washington, DC, is a great source of innovative materials and systems of construction.

Here are a few I've noted from the various team websites.  




One-block wonder: The Village at Shirlington

Shoehorned into the suburban rat maze that is Arlington County, Virginia, is a one-block stretch of urban heaven. As appreciation for urban living has come into vogue, this block is becoming the centerpiece of a more contemporary “lifestyle” center, with new apartments, condos, and public amenities sprouting around it.

The village at Shirlington had a significant head-start on the lifestyle-retail / urban village concept. (insert history here)

Now, the Village has a significant head start, with mature street trees, nearby office tenants, and an established base of restaurants and patrons.

The small scale of the original project is noteworthy – buildings as small as one story create a unified main street. The tree canopy – mature oaks and locusts planted in the boulevard median – help to create the “outdoor room” critical to a sense of urbanity.

The location and user mix is also exceptional. _______ park is adjacent to the development, and offers a glimpse of green space. (Though Country Club Plaza in Kansas City captures a similar glimpse more successfully.) Office buildings surround the retail street, including WETA-TV, a prominent PBS station. At the terminus of the new, second block of development is a dramatic modern public library, and a performing arts center.

While New Urbanists are often fond of large-scale interventions in placemaking, the Village at Shirlington is proof that a small block, done well, can serve as the catalyst for creating a wonderful place. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be in the center of an economically vibrant metropolis.)

P.S. - This is also a lesson in patience.  Developers who are selling an "urban environment" should make sure to hold on to a few parcels as an annuity.  When the trees are full-grown, the place will only be worth more.