Category: design

Assembling the price of a happy city

How long does it take to go from one of Boston’s newest hip neighborhoods, the Innovation District, to one of Somerville’s even newer, actually not quite finished, ones, Assembly Row by public transit? During evening rush hour on a weekday, this trip of about 4.5 road miles took me almost an hour as I traversed the Silver, Red and Orange lines and the #90 bus. Somebody determined enough and in decent enough shape could have run this in about half an hour or walked it it not much more than an hour. Cutting Assembly Row a bit of slack, there will be an Orange line station there later this year.

Still Assembling the Orange line

But why, you ask, would I undertake such an errand? Well, oddly enough, I was headed to a lecture on urbanism set up by the virtual and estimable Design Museum Boston. Christine McLaren, lead researcher of the book, Happy City, was giving a talk at Assembly Row’s outdoor amphitheater (!) overlooking the Mystic River. Well, that’s my second favorite local river and I do love a good amphitheater, so naturally I had to attend. Plus, I wanted to check out Assembly Row.

McLaren served up what I have to describe as the usual New Urbanist kool-aid - of which I heartily partook – but she brought a key insight I hadn’t been paying attention to. Cities, she says, are machines for happiness. The objective function of a city is not efficiency, environmental impact, or GDP, it’s happiness. The key determinant of happiness, according to McLaren’s research, is social connectedness, so urban designs that increase such connectedness are the ones that make people happier and the ones we should build.

View of the Mystic river over the amphitheater

Here’s where I partially part company with the happy city people. They say the research shows that the far-flung suburbs are isolating and so are the densest apartment towers. The happy medium – attached townhouses, for example – is where you get peak happy. That may be so (I have my doubts but my sample size is small) but how can we get all the people who want to live in a city housed if we can’t go higher than townhouses? Like Matt Yglesias, I’m partial to density and don’t think it has to reduce happiness. A well-designed apartment building of any height is just a stack of floors, each one being a group of homes sharing some common space, not unlike a townhouse or courtyard.

Back to Assembly Row. It seems to meet many (though not all, watch those unprotected bike lanes!) the criteria of Happy City, at least it will once the Orange line station opens and the rest of the development is finished. So far as I can tell, there are 195 housing units from studio to 3 bedrooms in the 5-story Avalon development. I’m already thinking this isn’t enough.  As of Bastille Day, they’ve pre-leased 2/3 of the units, including all the 3BR. Mostly studios remain, starting 451 square feet or so for $1.,985/mo. Cheaper and no doubt more modern and well-appointed than downtown Boston but not so different from many existing mixed-use neighborhoods also a few T stops from downtown.

I don’t know how much taller the apartment building could have been by law, but I have to believe that the marginal cost of the 6th floor would be less than the average cost of the first five, and would have provided a 20% increase in housing units for less than 20% more cost. Repeat this logic as high as you care to go, and eventually the supply starts to reduce the price, and equilibrium tells you where to stop.

The median household income in the Boston metro area was a bit less than $72k in 2012. If you spent 1/3 of your gross income on housing, that would be about $2,000/mo, the price of the smallest studios at Assembly Row. If the average household is more than one person (looks like it’s about 2 and a quarter) the studio won’t work so well. One bedroom units start at $2,380, and 2BR at $2,835. It looks like the rent is too damn high and happy new urbanism at Assembly Row is out of reach to the average Boston family. To be fair, the developers have no particular obligation to serve the average family but I do think the new urbanists should strive to do so. It wouldn’t hurt if lawmakers lined up better incentives for developers to do so, too.

How did I get home from Assembly Row after 8pm? The Orange line would be of no use for going to Cambridge and the buses had largely gone to bed for the night. I took Uber, 3.5 miles in 16 minutes for $10.

Never Any Repeats

I’m no fan of display advertising, either in web banners or “out of home” and I certainly try not to participate in it. Logos and brands are already everywhere, why should you and"This shape invites much speculation" by Logo Removal Service I become unpaid ad space when manufacturers splash their logos on our stuff? Well, now there’s another solution to this problem: Logo Removal Service, a company (or perhaps an art project) that “renew[s] any and all goods through special transformation methods.”

That means they cut the logo right out of your t-shirt and replace it with a new piece of fabric that may or may not match the original item. Fancy stitching completes the look. You never know precisely what you get when you send logo gear in to LRS, but I think it’s safe to say it’ll be a unlike anybody else’s.

Simple concealmentI find it pretty easy to get blank t-shirts in the first place, but there are some items that are unavoidably logo’d and require obliteration, covering up, or in extreme cases, not buying in the first place. In any case, you’ve got to work with what’s available or make your own – possible with clothing but pretty hard with consumer electronics. I applaud LRS for encouraging creative re-use (do they call that upcycling these days?) over of disposable consumerism.

Second Little Pig: Vindicated

Since the googles said it was faster to walk from the Innovation District to South Station than to take the Silver line, that’s what I did. It was hot and humid but I’m glad I did because otherwise I would not have passed by BSAspace and dropped in for some AC. And had I not done that, I would not have seen an enchanting and informative exhibit called Urban Timber: From Seed to City, all about building with wood.

Mesopotamian plywood!

The gob-smacking revelations started right away. Did you know that plywood was invented by the Mesopotamians more than 5,000 years ago? Mind = Blown. It’s not just about plywood, there are many kinds of wood-based building materials, many of which compare favorably with concrete and steel. SOM has a project for a 40 story tower made of wood, unbuilt as of this writing, but not for lack of feasibility.

woodoutperforms

The show clearly has an axe to grind (so to speak) but makes some really interesting points about the environmental impact of various building materials and the industrial processes that make, mill, mine and harvest them. I especially liked the roll-call of large wooden structures. Unfortunately, in the USA, one of the largest timber-producing nations, the tallest wooden thing is still a giant redwood. In Australia, Scandinavia and beyond, they have some major wooden structures and some are quite marvelous.

woodparasol

In addition to the infographics on the walls, there are four projects by emerging architects featuring some innovative ways to build with wood.

woodduckworks

You can’t make this stuff up.

cantmakethisup

But seriously, gentle reader, you should get over to the Boston Society of Architects space and check this show out. It’s free and open to the public through September 30.

Adapter die

I met with the estimable @yobyot the other day and among the various complaints and commiserations we shared was a moment of venting about Apple switching up all our connectors for no particularly clear reason except perhaps selling lots of new cables, converters, dongles and adapters, all containing tightly patented Apple technology. Behold my latest shiny aluminum acquisition, the magsafe to magsafe 2 (or is that magsafe 2 to magsafe?) converter.

Magsafe to magsafe 2 adapter

Why would Apple do this to their loyal fanboys? The difference between the two magsafe connectors is so slight as to be hard to discern unless you have them side by side, or unless you try to connect the wrong one. The cynical answer is selling lots of little (easy to lose) $10 converters. The possibly fairer answer is, “thinness” the driving force in computer, tablet, and phone design these days. The old magsafe power adapter was just too big-boned for the latest generation of airy ipads and macbooks. You can see a similar event in the iphone world with the switch from the 30-pin connector to the lightning connector, which by the way, is very very nearly the same slim size as a micro-usb plug. You’ll notice that when you purchase a barely-there $19 lightning to micro USB adapter.

Lightning to micro USB connector

At this rate of Steven King-esqe thinning of devices, it won’t be long before the good old 1/8″ headphone plug goes the way of the RS-232. I won’t hold my breath for a sustainable industry wide standard on cabling, but it’s fun to dream.

What to do? Stay on the trendy treadmill and keep buying expensive cabling and piling on the e-waste? I’d love to break the cycle and I’ve been clinging, hipster-like, to old gear as long as humanly possible, but eventually it becomes time for a change.

Duck on the water, fire in the sky

This week in giant ducks, we have Energy Duck, a project proposed for Copenhagen’s harbor by a team of London artists. Energy Duck isn’t just a glass and steel foil to my house fave, Florentijn Hofman’s giant rubber duck, it’s a collector and accumulator of solar energy. You just can’t make this stuff up.

When stored energy needs to be delivered, the duck is flooded through one or more hydro turbines to generate electricity, which is transmitted to the national grid by the same route as the PV panel-generated electricity. Solar energy is later used to pump the water back out of the duck, and buoyancy brings it to the surface. The floating height of the duck indicates the relative cost of electricity as a function of city-wide use: as demand peaks the duck sinks.

Not everybody finds the design so ducky. The Finch and Pea suggests that

If it gets built, though, Energy Duck will have the ability not only to provide solar and hydro power to Copenhagen’s public grid, but to fuel the nightmares of Danish children for decades to come.

Nightmare fuel is ok as long as it’s renewable, right? You be the judge. Well, actually the judges of the Land Art Generator Initiative Copenhagen design competition will be the judge, but you get the idea.