Monday, July 13, 2009

Gimme Shelter

Allison Arieff in her review of the Buckminster Fuller exhibit at the Whitney last fall highlighted the following quote:
“Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time.
Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time.
Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.
It’s time we gave this some thought.”

If you accept no other aspect of this man's work you have to admit he was great at naming the problem. Fuller was obsessed with how people were housed. You will read how he wanted to maximize efficiency and was concerned with how compact we might live.

WE have a shelter crisis. It exists at all levels of the economic spectrum: We have the obvious problems of intractable homelessness, we have the new homeless that have been foreclosed upon, and we have the ironic situation of huge scale housing being wildly inappropriate for its intended purposes, while millions can't afford to house their most basic needs.

The solutions that are most often posed to these problems involve the design of yet more housing, most often single family variants as pointed out in Ms. Arieff review of Home Delivery in the same blog post above.

I don't believe we can build our way out of this problem. Nor do we have to. I think Bucky was on to something in the above quote and yet he never addressed it; the psychological imprint we place on space that limits it use. An office is an office, a bedroom a bedroom, a gymnasium, a classroom, a church, are all fixed in their use because we have assigned them an identity. When they are not in use for their intended purpose, they are vacant.

The Sears Tower, the biggest office building of them all, is about to undergo a massive renovation to "green" the building. 350 million dollars are going to be spent retrofitting this massive structure. To comprehend the scale consider The Sears Tower’s 4.56 million gross square feet (3.8 M rentable) would cover 105 acres if spread across one level. This is the equivalent of 16 city blocks in Chicago. This building has become the ultimate potential new monopoly board space and has changed hands many times in the last decade. The economic fact is that the building has never been more than 2/3 occupied since it was built.

The Sears Tower, and many like it, enjoy a "mixed use" zoning designation. It allows owners to rent lower floors to retail tenants. It does not include residential uses. In the early days of loft conversion in NYC, occupants had to blanket their windows else they might be discovered living in commercial spaces. When they hit critical mass, enough persons were in place, the blankets came down and the city was forced to accept the fact of this new use. Lofts were retrofitted for safety and other smart conforming changes and the model is now established. The zoning regulations in most cities prohibit the integration of residential land office uses within the same structure. A quick read spells out the problem and though the cited organization is directed to affordable housing options, their solution is applicable across a broad band of housing price points.

We can only imagine how much greener (and more economically viable) The Sears Tower would become if the full potential of this vertical city were to be realized. What if tenants had the choice of purchasing living spaces within their work environment. They would commute by elevator. What if those same tenants had educational opportunities available for their children throughout the building. What if the retail stores included the gamut of whole life products that satisfied tenants needs for food, pharmacy, and entertainment. Ironically none of these concepts is particularly creative. The developers of the Tower are proposing to build a 500 room hotel next door. If successful, we can imagine that all of the functions of an integrated living/working shelter we propose as an ideal will be achieved within the "imprint", hotel. People will be in residence, others will be at work in different rooms, still others will be dining, or working out, and still others will be attending seminars in banquet rooms. So we have de-facto zoning in place that accommodates our needs for maximized shelter for the 21st century. We simply have to declare that our structures are hotels.

A survey of the vacancy rate of our nation's city office spaces suggest that there are millions of square feet available for occupancy. The next shoe to drop in the ongoing fiscal crisis that is paralyzing our economy is the problem of high debt leverage in the commercial office market. We can foresee still higher vacancy rates and failed buildings as the debt cannot be rolled over. One way to head off that crisis is to maximize the affected buildings, helping them realize their rent potential. To achieve that goal we need to enlighten local governments to embrace creative new uses for these spaces and in so doing, go to great lengths to solve our "shelter" crisis.

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