Building in the urban environment makes design a delicate balance of risk and opportunity. Explore this topic by listening to this podcast, or by reading it.

Listen in, as David Tracz with Studio 3877, shares his perspectives on designing for the urban environment. The “bones” of the urban centers might be old, and rife with chance, but the opportunities to bring them back to life are what inspire designers like Tracz. If you already design or build in the urban environment you’ll enjoy hearing from someone who shares your experience. If you’ve never designed or built in the urban environment, these insights will inform, entertain, and maybe even inspire.

Listen Now to the Urban Building Podcast

Use this link to listen to the second podcast in this series.

Here’s the link to the third podcast in the series.

Part 4: Building in the Urban Environment: Earth Sensitive Design
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Podcast Transcript

Introduction: Welcome to the Construction Informer, and this podcast in the series about “Building in the Urban Environment.” And let me just throw out some statistics here to frame our discussion today. According to the World Health Organization, just about half of the world’s population lives in urban areas today. And that percentage is projected to rise to almost seventy percent by 2050. That means there’s going to be a whole lot of building going on in urban centers. And with that comes all the challenges of building in those environments.

It’s really different trying to build something when you can’t just drop down a dumpster with just a day’s notice: Or, you’re working with dated utilities that are buried twenty different ways below streets and sidewalks. Those are examples of challenges with the actual construction. But long before construction begins someone has to wrestle with the design aspects of those challenges.

So, here to provide some perspectives for us on design for the urban environment is David Tracz with Studio 3877, a DC-based design firm specializing in hospitality, residential, and commercial projects, to name a few. Welcome David. You know I’m always curious about how people get started in their chosen career paths so what was your inspiration to choose building design.

You know it’s funny. There’s always that sort of old adage, you know, architects know from the beginning what they want to do, and that’s pretty much what happened for me. I was in early high school when I realized something that I enjoy doing is design, and creating. And at the time it was more about sketching cars and that kind of thing but it very quickly grew into building, and understanding the built environment. So it was a very smooth process actually. I went right to architecture school from high school and never looked back.

And I guess building in cities was always on your agenda, so what is it about designing for the urban environment that’s different from say designing for the suburbs?

Well I think just the sheer quantity of people and opinions you have. In an urban environment I think people are more used to large groups of people being around. I think they’re sort of more used to maybe working things a little bit differently. A little bit more of a rougher feel. And sometimes it can depend on where it is we’re working. Cities feel differently. D.C. in particular has a little bit more of obviously a governmental feel, but you know we’ve done work in Denver, Colorado, and that city has a very different aesthetic, that we always need to pay attention to. So the suburbs tend to be a little more loose. You kind of have to create your own environment there. In the city you’ve really got to respond to what’s around you to really draw people in, and to provide them with an experience.

So yeah, so dealing with what’s existing there, and I guess a lot of times there’s a lot more to consider than in the suburbs, because in many cases  in a suburb you’re starting right from scratch, whereas in the city you’re not doing that really all the time.

Most definitely. I mean I think we’re actually in a one hundred year old office building that was originally a print, and paper mill. So you definitely have to start with something and really build off of that, versus, as you say, in the suburbs, you really can start with just a basic building and run from there, so the world is sort of your oyster.

There’s probably a difference too in the opportunities you have for design. Are there things about the urban environment that open up design opportunities?

You know, I think so, and I don’t know whether this is just a function of what project types tend to be built out in a suburban environment. But at least within the city you really have an opportunity to try things a little bit newer, and maybe a little bit fresher, because you are trying to work around something sometimes. You’re really trying to build within an existing space, or take advantage of some existing structure. And really, challenges turn into opportunities, when it comes to older buildings or that kind of thing.

Do any of those projects that you’ve done there, come to mind that you can elaborate on a little?

We did a project here in D.C. called Matchbox. It’s a pizza restaurant. It was built within an existing building in a historic district. The building itself had been around for quite some time and had lived multiple lives since it was originally built. It was a bowling alley, and then translated into a nightclub, and then actually a jazz club, a very high end jazz club, and then a car dealership, and then to a rehearsal space for a stage company, and then finally to the restaurant that it became. So it really expanded and contracted in different ways by each use. So again, in the end, the building had a lot of character, that was built upon from all those uses.

So that becomes part of the design too, I guess in a lot of cases.

It did indeed, especially in this case. When we started to demolition the inside of the building and clear out what were the rehearsal spaces, we realized because it was rehearsal space they really had to make it what it was they wanted. And we realized that there were a lot of the existing beams, and really beautiful pieces of the existing construction that we wanted to expose and use as focal elements of the restaurant. So now in the midst of the restaurant there are these large built up steel beams that were original for the building but they were previously just covered up. We just exposed them and gave them a little bit more of a new life. So that project really took on a whole new life once it was demolished and exposed.

And I guess, you know, it seems like when you are dealing with all of those ancient parts of a structure and trying to make design come alive, but yet, I guess being new but at the same time retain some of the old, there’s gotta be some challenges too. I mean, if you think about the whole aspect of designing in the urban environment what are some of the greatest challenges you face.

You know I think the challenges a lot of time particularly for those instances are maybe related to historic preservation and how that could be applied. A lot of times buildings will degrade over time, and so it’s a question of how. What kind of shape the building is in. You know there are cases where we’ve worked on a project that actually had a series of buildings that were connected over a period of time. A series of town houses that were all connected, and so how do you strategize to make those townhouses all work together as one building, eventually. So those I can see being sort of the biggest challenges, and then, it’s aesthetics at times. You may not necessarily want that old school, rustic brick aesthetic. Maybe you want something a little more modern. So how do you work that into what is an older wood frame, or brick and wood townhouse. It takes a little bit of flexing with the design muscles there.

Did you have have an example of that, like say one you’ve done there? Where they didn’t want to keep much of what was there before?

I’m trying to think of one project where we ended up leaving, or really covering up all of this, the existing space. You know we’ve got a lot of projects that were health care related. We did this medical marijuana facility where we ended up really making it purely functional for them. So we ended up covering up a lot of that existing character in the buildings that we were working in. In fact, trying to really work around some level changes, and adding ramps in some spaces, and making it a little more streamlined, and deal specifically with the function of medicinal marijuana requirements like higher security and that kind of thing.

Did you have many issues with that, I mean as you were moving forward I suppose approvals were kind of challenging maybe?

Yeah, yeah. I mean the District of Columbia hadn’t really figured out how they were going to give the C of O because actually it’s still illegal federally. It was hard to figure out how they were going to provide a C of O to something like that. So they had legalized portions of it but just they were still working through the process in our particular build, and that was actually the first in the district. So it encountered all of the major roadblocks that it possibly could as far as not just getting a building permit but also getting a certificate of occupancy.

I want to thank you David for your insights on designing in the urban environment. Certainly something that people who typically work out in the suburbs or wherever, would have some things to learn from that, so, thank you again, and thank you to you listeners for tuning in, and until the next time, build it well.