Are new apartment buildings ugly by law?

Business, Real estate

Why are so many newer apartment buildings so ugly?

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But regardless of one’s aesthetic opinions, architectural worthiness can be viewed through a number of different lenses. How useable is the space? How does the structure contribute to livability? Is it inviting? Is it a good addition to the character of its surroundings?

But as builders negotiate regulatory environments and the landscape of profitability, tradeoffs are made that influence design in less than ideal directions.

Making room for cars, not people

The automobile fundamentally changed the way architects were required to think about space. As car culture became inseparable fom urban life, widespread regulations were passed that required new apartment buildings to provide enough parking spots to offset the burden that the neighborhood’s new drivers would have on commerce and existing residents.

In addition to increasing the total cost of rentable units by reducing the number of units that can be constructed on a property, these off-street parking lots offset the functional space of the building from the street, effectively installing an asphalt barrier between the residents and their neighborhood. Where once apartments were built with inviting stoops upon which residents can sit and interact with passersby, the offset building feels distant and alienating.

Luxury safe boxes

Another pressure point is the rise of the “safe box” building. Tall towers of glass with banners touting “luxury” living strapped across their facades, safe box units sell for tens of millions of dollars in places like New York City and London, but increasingly in other attractive urban environments too, like Vancouver, BC, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle.

What makes this a particularly troublesome phenomenon is that these buildings are not built primarily for people to live in; rather, they are constructed mainly for buying and selling. More than likely, the actual owners are real estate speculators living out-of-state or even in another country, investments passed between the ultra-wealthy, maintained solely for the appreciation of value.

Cheap and easy

The nineteenth century saw armies of highly-trained, poorly-paid craftsmen tinkering on vastly complicated ornamented structures, a time when architects were managers of the artisans on a construction project. Now, building firms are designers of templates, built via the labor of relatively unskilled workers. Omnipresent “wooden box” apartment complexes , characterized by a flat wooden frame finished with stucco, is the most definitive style in twenty-first century construction. This cheap, blocky apartment template is known as the “Type V” construction scheme.

By sticking to a familiar plan, laborers acquire a skillset that can be transferred to construction sites across the country, builders can expect to buy the same materials at the same dimensions, and regulators know what to expect when a project breaks ground. All this makes for a cheaper, faster, more predictable construction process. What it does not do is promote the kind of idiosyncrasies and improvisation that used to help drive architectural variety and innovation.

Can it be fixed?

The aesthetic qualities of new apartment buildings arise from a complex interaction between the prices and structural integrities of different building materials, the miasma of laws and permits that are required to build a new building, and consumer demand.

Governments can improve the beauty of neighborhoods by streamlining zoning and permitting codes, which would provide more time for architects and contractors to explore more development options. Meanwhile, strong efforts could be made to bolster regulations on speculative real estate markets and increase incentives for developers to create buildings not just designed to drive capital, but also to house actual human beings.

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