New steel & wood innovations that make mid-rise construction easier, faster, cheaper

Earlier this year, I wrote about some new materials and techniques that could make structural engineering for mid-rise buildings easier, faster, and cheaper. If widely implemented, these could make human-scaled mid-rises more affordable, more widespread, and frankly better looking.

ConXTech

1. While I was in California, I saw two examples of steel-framed mid-rise buildings constructed using ConXTech, an Erector Set-like approach to steel frames that promises to save time and money through computer-aided prefabrication. Eddie Kim writes in the LA Downtown News that the Eighth & Grand grocery + apartment building, “There’s no army of welders diligently fusing each joint and beam. Instead, steel girders are being lowered and snapped into place.”

Dan Garibaldi from developer Carmel Partners told Kim that the technique cut costs some, but really saved time and added design flexibility, particularly crucial in a mixed-use project: “We contracted for the steel at a beneficial time so the cost differential is not nearly what it would be today… The main benefit is how quickly we can complete the framing. In addition, ConXtech allowed us [to build] an additional residential floor and create long spans that are not easily achievable in wood frame.”

ConXTech co-founder Robert Simmons expressly invented the system to compete with Type III-over-I construction. He told Kim, “we were looking at ways to create a competitive method of structural framing versus wood and I couldn’t do it with concrete, so I started looking at steel.” His firm worked on the concrete retail podium at Santana Row in San Jose, which suffered a massive construction fire — not unlike recent fires that destroyed under-construction, pre-fireproofed Type III buildings in Mission Bay and on Bunker Hill.

Santana Row

Santana Row’s upper-story apartments (and hotel) were rebuilt using ConXTech steel, and there are palpable differences between it and, say, Rockville Town Center (another Federal Realty development, built as conventional III-over-I), notably more generous window openings and a subtler transition above the podium. At Santana, the base of the building often extends above the second floor, allowing not just for retail mezzanines but also adding vertical articulation.

2. Cross-laminated timber is a particularly exciting new technology for D.C. buildings: under current building codes, it can reach up to 90′ high — the height limit outside of downtown — and uses wood, which is locally available, easy to work with (i.e., fast and inexpensive), and has a comparatively small carbon footprint. Plus, it can look like the old timber lofts of yesteryear, a building type I’ve long been fascinated with.

Architect Michael Green’s Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George, B.C. was recently completed; it reaches 90′ with its eight stories — or, technically, five stories and a penthouse over a one-story podium with a mezzanine, a bit of creative accounting perhaps done to satisfy code requirements. But whatever, Prince George might as well be on the moon, since it’s 500km from even Edmonton or Vancouver.

What’s more notable is this seven-story speculative office building that fits right into downtown Minneapolis’ loft district, designed by Green and developed by office titan Hines. Sam Black writes in the Business Journal, “Unlike Warehouse District buildings such Butler Square and Ford Center that were built out of huge logs, modern timber buildings use wood engineered from several layers of younger trees.

Today’s office tenants disdain boring concrete high-rises, and even the new-construction concrete “lofts” that began popping up in the 2000s are a weak alternative. CLT offers architects a chance to build an authentic timber loft building, from scratch, and without harming old-growth trees. Bob Pfefferle from Hines told Kristen Leigh Painter of the Star-Tribune, “it provides an authentic building that is respectful of the neighborhood. This will have the ambience of the old warehouses with timber beams that everyone wants, but solves all the problems of energy efficiency and light.”

Bike overnights from D.C. through Maryland

Harpers Ferry in October

My recent five-day bike tour through the mountains whetted my appetite for quicker escapes into the same countryside. Luckily, the DC region sits astride the fall line, which puts a variety of topographies within reach. This makes it possible to do a bike overnight, or more ambitiously, a sub-24-hour outing (S24O).

On such a short trip, it’s important to ride enough miles to make the trip an accomplishment, but not so many as to be exhausted or to preclude any off-bike adventures. One key to doing so is to strictly limit the mileage spent biking down dangerous streets in traffic-choked suburbs, and to take advantage of trails — particularly easy-grade rail or riverfront trails.

One weekday-only trip that combines these, starting in the District, is a bike trip from Poolesville, Md. to Harpers Ferry, W. Va., returning via the C&O Canal towpath along the Potomac. This takes advantage of Montgomery County’s urban growth boundary, the area’s extensive rush-hour bus system, and the centuries-old Potomac path.

One recent day, I awoke at 5 AM to board a Red Line train at 6 AM, leaving the system at Shady Grove just as the morning bike ban started. From there, I waited a few minutes for RideOn route 76, which on weekday peak hours travels from Shady Grove through Kentlands, then deep into the Ag Reserve, and eventually ends in the rural town of Poolesville. Like all RideOn buses, the buses sport dual bike racks. Interestingly, the largest business in downtown Poolesville is a tractor supply store — the last place I expected to be able to take a city bus to.

The historic center of Poolesville, Maryland, just past the terminus of RideOn route 76.

Poolesville is famous among area cyclists as a jumping-off point for rides on country roads, but I wasn’t aware of any car-free routes to get there until I scrutinized WMATA’s regional bus maps.

From Poolesville, it was a quick 5 1/2 mile, downhill ride down Whites Ferry and Wasche Road to the Dickerson Conservation Park, and then onto the C&O. Harpers Ferry is another 22 miles upriver, not far past the railroad-centric town of Brunswick, Md. Equally charming Shepherdstown, W.Va. is another 13 miles upriver.

The main street of Brunswick, Maryland.

Lodging and camping options along the way are plentiful. Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry offer numerous B&Bs and hostels, while the C&O has walk-in campgrounds every few miles along the trail plus six historic cabins available for nightly rentals.

The return bike trip is all downhill, and can be accomplished in one day: It’s 61 miles from Harpers Ferry to Georgetown, or 73 miles back from Shepherdstown. 13 miles can be shaved by hopping across the river at White’s Ferry and picking up the W&OD trail in Leesburg, which also has a charming downtown, and ending at the Silver Line. (Even with just Phase 1, Silver extends further than any of Metro’s rail lines.)

Another, 7-day-a-week transit option that I’ve used is Metrobus B30 — yes, the BWI bus. It, too, has bike racks just like every other Metrobus, but unlike other Metrobuses it travels beyond the Patuxent River and into metro Baltimore. (This option takes much longer than MARC, which may soon add a bike car to its Penn Line weekend trains.)

From the BWI light rail station, a cyclist can:

  • Board a Baltimore light rail train into the city, with its fantastic neighborhoods and Olmsted trails — or to Hunt Valley, about half a mile short of the Northern Central Rail Trail north to York;
  • Connect to several other buses, notably MTA’s buses to Annapolis or RTA’s buses through Howard and Anne Arundel counties;
  • Ride up alongside the tracks to the BWI Trail and follow the signs to the B&A Rail-Trail to Annapolis and the Chesapeake shore;
  • Walk through the BWI Amtrak station, then ride north on Ridge Road and through old downtown Elkridge (not much there) to the Patapsco Valley state park’s trails.

(That said, biking all the way to Baltimore or Annapolis is certainly feasible. I’ve used Brock Bridge Road for the former, and Governors Bridge Road for the latter, and enjoyed a relatively low-stress trip. Next up: Metrobus to Olney, then riding via Columbia and Catonsville to Baltimore.)

Someday, urban cyclists in DC will be able to easily slice past the sprawl aboard commuter trains. It’s possible today to bring bikes aboard VRE midday trains, which makes it possible to leave early on Friday and ride back from Manassas or Fredericksburg. Another option to consider is VRE halfway, then a ride through the farms to Charlottesville (from F’burg or Manassas).

The region’s weekday commuter buses might also prove useful, although they’re certainly not geared to weekending cyclists. Loudoun Transit runs to Purcellville, aka the western end of the W&OD Trail, and appears to allow bikes for pre-registered users. Maryland’s commuter buses cover a vast territory from Hagerstown to the Eastern Shore, but have no specific bike policy.

Majority rule, minority rights — or Moses and NIMBYs

Terror alert

I snarkily wrote up a little headline last Monday: “Belmont Bypass’ Immediate Neighbors Slam Outreach, Will Vote On Keeping Bottleneck.” Then Daniel Kay Hertz wrote a somewhat fuller reponse, pointing out that a few people would vote on a project that impacts rail service for hundreds of thousands.

(Not surprisingly, the referendum failed, with 583 votes against. In June 2014, the three rail lines that would benefit from the bypass carried 6,353,313 passengers.)

Many broadly beneficial, but locally detrimental, projects are subject to being torpedoed by hyper-local concerns. As with any Locally Undesirable Land Use (LULU), the benefits are broadly distributed but the costs are highly focused. Many will gain a bit, but the benefits are in the distant future and somewhat speculative, so the issue has soft salience to the majority. On the other hand, a few will lose a lot, so those loss-averse few have a strong incentive to fight tooth and nail against threats to their homes. It’s just human nature.

Later comments directed at both Hertz and I raised the specter of Robert Moses bulldozing East Tremont for the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Yes, there are some surface similarities: properties expropriated for a transportation improvement. Yet these projects differ incredibly, not just in what is being done, but more importantly in how they are done.

A new highway arguably fails a cost-benefit analysis once social costs are calculated: It exacts leviathan costs, from destroying communities to contributing mightily to destabilizing the planet’s climate. (This probably even applied in Moses’ era, before thousands of miles of highways were built, subjecting further investments to the law of diminishing returns.) A new transit connection has a much better balance sheet. The Belmont Bypass has particularly high leverage, since it finally unleashes the bottlenecked potential of the miles of four-track structure beyond it.

More important is how the project is executed. In a democracy, the majority rules with respect for the basic rights of the minority. Moses infamously low-balled property owners when seizing land, and paid tenants (and rent-controlled tenants in an era of high housing inflation arguably hold a claim resembling property) almost nothing; such expropriation is clearly contrary to the Fifth Amendment or to the UDHR‘s Article 17.

Several property owners stand to lose their property to the Belmont Bypass. In such a high-profile situation, which public opinion broadly in their favor and multimillion-dollar properties on the line, I imagine that this group will receive just compensation — quite unlike the residents of East Tremont, who were largely ignored by the press, whose cries for help went almost entirely unheard by their legislators, and who lacked funds to file lawsuits.

Yes, a slightly larger population will be inconvenienced by construction for a few years, and this crowd appears to have provided most of those damning 583 votes. While pollution, even non-toxic pollution such as carbon, can justifiably be construed as violating others’ right to life, the noise and dust from construction can be mitigated to a significant extent.

In short, the substantial benefit that the majority will derive can justly be seen as outweighing the relatively minor rights claims in this instance, and the comparison to Robert Moses is spurious.

Of course, it’s rare for citywide transit agencies to make decisions at the hyperlocal level. Yet it’s absolutely typical for decisions to be made about permitting additional housing at almost a parcel level; in that case, the marginal benefit to other regional residents is so marginal as to be doubted entirely. Yet affordable rentals, in particular, are a LULU that local NIMBYs have successfully engineered the regulatory regime to discriminate against. Ryan Avent writes in the Economist: “The benefits and costs of population growth occur in a way that practically guarantees highly restrictive building rules.” Michael Lewyn takes the view that “cities cannot be trusted to weigh the citywide interest in new housing against neighborhood concerns… the chances of abuse are simply so high that a higher authority must step in.”

New economic geography: fewer centers, more edges

from a plane

There’s obviously no room to build anything, anywhere.

October’s Economist Survey on the global economy by Ryan Avent included a shout-out to his Piketty-informed thoughts on housing prices. In short, the productivity gains from current technology have increased inequality between people and places. The returns on specialized skills are worth more in an era of cheap communication and transportation, great cities aggregate many people with such specialized skills –and furthermore, agglomeration effects appear to be growing even as communications costs decline. Even virtual reality won’t be able to replicate the everyday, subtle reinforcement of ambition that great cities provide; as Paul Graham writes:

The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle… A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off.

Ideas have become so complex that those with specialized skills need to gather around others with complementary skills just to understand topics, much less to achieve the discovery or innovation stage. And, well, interesting people like one another; not for nothing has “assortative mating” taken off, spawning study of managing “the two-body problem” in fields like academia and medicine. (Hint: bigger cities, with bigger labor markets, are more likely to solve the problem. This has become a boon to universities recruiting in large metro areas, while those in small college towns struggle.)

In short, there are fewer centers and more edges. Scarcity being what it is, the centers (and only the centers) are winning more capital, and the edges are losing.

The result has been a highly uneven reallocation of wealth, whereby some places are winning in the form of skyrocketing property prices. These high prices create a substantial drag on the economy: increasingly high rents in the most productive locations steal from the most productive. This steers:

  1. Capital towards landlords, enlarging a rentier class (as Piketty notes) and starving more productive sectors.* This creates a vicious circle, as the NIMBY cartel further tightens its regulatory capture over the land use regime, and extracts ever-higher rents.
  2. Labor towards less costly, and less productive, places, creating economic losses. One recent study quantified that economic loss to the United States in 2009 at 13% of GDP — equivalent to sawing off the entire state of California.

—–

This might be worth unpacking further at a later date: Just reforming land-use regulations, or even entirely repealing the “shadow tax” of zoning, still won’t do enough to produce more affordable housing. Even if zoning is reformed to “make more land,” that land’s still subject to construction’s “hard costs,” which are just too high nowadays.

Construction costs have risen faster than inflation, and far faster than stagnant workforce incomes. Slides 5-6 of this presentation [PDF] by Thomas Hoffman from Enterprise points out that even with free land, even the cheapest construction now costs 50% more than the affordable rent for a low-income family.

Sure, embedded within construction costs are other perhaps-useless regulations, but housing affordability in gateway cities is a problem with many root causes, and with many solutions as well.

—–

* Rent or mortgage principal paid, aka “housing service expenditure,” does not have a multiplier effect on GDP because it’s not factored into GDP. However, it’s worth noting that in 2000, HSE amounted to nearly $1 trillion, which supported only some of the 1.1 million jobs in real estate (NAICS 531). Reducing rental prices would take investment income from landlords and give them back to consumers, who would probably spend in other sectors that generate more jobs per dollar.

Shorts: centripetal force, P3s, office park retrofit

Bubble map: growth in 25-34 population, 2010-2012

Growth in 25-34 population for DC-area counties, 2010-2012, with core jurisdictions aggregated for clarity. 42% of the growth is concentrated inside “the diamond,” which is home to 18% of the region’s population. A similar trend was noted in metropolitan NYC.

1a. Another recent report (by James Hughes and Joseph Seneca, reported by my colleague Stephen Miller) confirms that population growth has overwhelmingly shifted towards the core in the New York region since 2010. Third-ring suburban counties like Dutchess and Hunterdon are actually losing population, overall suburban population growth has slowed by 80% — and the core is on pace to recoup its entire 30-year postwar population loss (1950-1980) in just one decade (2010-2020).

Also echoed: a much larger proportion of young people (20-somethings) are heading downtown. “From 1970 to 1980, suburban counties captured 96 percent of the growth in this demographic. From 2010 to 2013, that figure dropped to 56 percent, with the urban core becoming increasingly competitive.” Since the report is from Rutgers, it defines “core jurisdictions” as including Hudson, Bergen, and Essex counties.

We’ve seen these trends reported in a national (PDF) and even DC context, but it’s worth noting since the NYC area is so huge and its economy has done well since 2010.

2. This week fall, Streetsblog USA will be publishing a three-part article I co-wrote with Angie Schmitt about what befell the Indiana Toll Road P3. Bad timing and bad traffic projections were just the tip of that iceberg.

3. Jonathan O’Connell from the Post reported last week that a new Fairfax County school was repurposed from an abandoned office building.

It’s a clever response to the changing Skyline/Bailey’s Crossroads neighborhood, where an aging housing stock and distance from transit have created a Toronto-esque high-density suburban immigrant enclave. Larger immigrant families have pushed up population density and school enrollment; retail is thriving, judging from the continued traffic jams and low vacancy rates. At the same time, office users have engaged in a “flight to quality,” towards newer and more efficient buildings closer to transit.

What’s more, the cost was very competitive. Fairfax spent $19 million in 2014 to buy and refit the building for 800 students (granted, a few amenities are still forthcoming) — which is right around the national median cost for a greenfield grade school in 2010.

Hong Kong’s revolution is in the streets, not the skyways

Even in “the city without ground,” #UmbrellaRevolution has taken not to the ersatz quasi-public spaces floating above Central, but instead to the ground — or at least to the traffic-sewer highways that fill what little is left of the ground:

(c)2014 NextMedia

It’s an interesting contrast with Occupy Wall Street, which happened to fill privately owned public space even though New York has comparatively more truly public spaces.

Trevor Boddy’s essay about North American “skyway” systems in Variations on a Theme Park seems prescient:

Heretofore streets functioned as periodic reminders and enforcers of the civic domain; the new patterns of city building remove even this remaining vestige of public life, replacing them with an analogue, a surrogate.

Precisely because downtown streets are the last preserve of something approaching a mixing of all sectors of society, their replacement by the sealed realm overhead and underground has enormous implications for all aspects of political life. Constitutional guarantees of free speech and of freedom of association and assembly mean much less if there is literally no peopled public space to serve as a forum in which to act out these rights…

[Protest] activities have been displaced over the past decade from the square and main street to the windswept emptiness of City Hall Mall or Federal Building Plaza. To encounter a ragtag mob of protestors in such places today renders them even more pathetic, their marginality enforced by a physical displacement into so unimportant, uninhabited, and unloved a civic location.

Only a full-scale revolt, involving hundreds of thousands, can be taken seriously under these conditions.

Not that a U.S. Supreme Court case matters much in this context, but Thurgood Marshall’s concurring opinion in the Pruneyard Shopping Center case is also worth remembering (emphasis added):

[S]hopping center owners had opened their centers to the public at large, effectively replacing the State with respect to such traditional First Amendment forums as streets, sidewalks, and parks…. Rights of free expression become illusory when a State has operated in such a way as to shut off effective channels of communication.

(Image of Occupy Central on Monday, 29 September 2014 from Apple Daily/NextMedia.)

My five days on the GAP + C&O trails

GAP ride

Overlook just east of the continental divide.

Three general observations:

  • Six days would be perfect; the five-day schedule offered insufficient recovery/slack time and left me feeling rushed, despite good stretches at 15+ MPH. In my case, a rainy morning and the Fallingwater side trip ended up taking up a good chunk of day two, which left me with almost a century to accomplish on day three. Plus, the towns were more interesting than I expected.
  • For the most part, you actually might not want to stay overnight in the most interesting towns (IMO: Ohiopyle, Cumberland, Harpers Ferry). Their attractions are mostly open during the day, whereas for an overnight location you mostly just want to eat dinner and crash. Specifically, I’d recommend stopping at Harpers Ferry during the day when the historic park’s attractions are open, then overnighting at Lockhouse 28, and then a leisurely reintroduction to metropolitan civilization the next day.
  • The C&O’s surface varies tremendously. Some of the sections are, like the parts closest to DC, very rocky and tough to take at speed, but others are much smoother (and often muddier). I did appreciate taking breaks from it, though.

The daily itinerary, as it played out:

  1. Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle, Penna. 77 mi. slightly uphill via McKeesport, West Newton, Connellsville. Stopped at Target in Homestead to buy a $30 tent, which did in fact pay off. Some of the Steel Valley towns would have been worth a side trip, but the main goal was to get out of town. Highlight: Appalachian Juice Company in Connellsville.
  2. Ohiopyle to Meyersdale, Penna. 42 mi. uphill via Confluence, Rockwood. The morning trip to Fallingwater was very steep: it’s 780′ of vertical over less than five miles. By comparison, the GAP’s first hundred miles rise by about the same amount. I’d planned to make it over the divide to Frostburg, but had to stop 15 miles short once night fell — it’s really, truly dark. That said, Fallingwater is truly transcendent.
  3. Meyersdale to Hancock, Md. 93 mi. mostly downhill via eastern continental divide, Cumberland, Paw Paw. Detour onto Western Maryland Rail-Trail. Highlight: dinner at Buddy Lou’s in Hancock.
  4. Hancock to Sandy Hook, Md. (Harpers Ferry) 48 mi. flat via Williamsport, Sharpsburg. Detoured over land from Williamsport through Antietam Battlefield. This cut out about 16 miles by keeping us away from a particularly windy stretch of the Potomac; plus, the main uphill was from the valley up to Williamsport, where we were stopping for lunch anyways. Highlights: lunch at Desert Rose Cafe in Williamsport and Nutter’s Ice Cream in Sharpsburg. However, we did end up bypassing Sheperdstown, W.V., a town that other riders commended.
  5. Sandy Hook to Reston, Va. 45 mi. via Leesburg, switching to W&OD via White’s Ferry. Took the Silver Line to Washington Union Station from there. Highlight: ultra-smooth cold-brewed Hopscotch Coffee. Although this was the only day that passed by any breweries (Crooked Run, Old Ox, Lost Rhino, Mad Fox, Bluejacket, etc.), we were in too much of a hurry for any stops.