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Adaptive Design

By Eric R. Osth, AIA

When I moved to the Bay Area to attend graduate school in the summer of 1999, the dot-com era was reaching a fever pitch. This was a period of intense creativity and imagination fueled by grande lattes in round-the-clock work environments. It was a fully funded petri dish of outlandish experiments, intensive testing and robust research into this fascinating new way to interact. Everywhere you went, you could sense unrestrained optimism for a bright future of unparalleled communication and access to information and services. With these new ways to interact and connect, people were anxious to figure out what this meant for the way we live.

In graduate school, I distinctly remember a colleague proclaiming that the Internet would end the cities – that with the power of the Internet, the commercial and retail power of cities would diminish as people would be at home on their computers learning, shopping and working. In his mind, it would be a completely "sub-urban" lifestyle. The panacea of this "wired" world was not materializing at the same rate as the innovation and, in December 2000, the bubble burst.

The dot-com era research and development did indeed hold great promise. But the hardware – the desktop computer – could not support this promise of true freedom for the world. The two were almost at odds with each other: the Internet on a home computer was indeed liberating, but at the same time was a very anti-social hardware for a very social media.

The next wave of hardware technology, the hand-held device (smartphones, iPads, etc.), allows you the freedom to roam while connected to the exuberant ideas of the dot-com era. As cities continue to flourish with people on their handheld devices, it is clear that my colleague was only partially correct. The cities are not dead, but it is true that, as a result of technology, change is coming to the way we live in our cities, towns and neighborhoods.

Major changes to the way we live used to come around once in a great while. In the modern era, this evolution is the latest in a series of major technological achievements that have transformed development patterns and the way we live inside, and outside, our homes. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, the use of passenger railroads allowed people to live and commute from outside the city. Thus, the suburb was born. At the start of the 20th century, the first assembly plants allowed the car to be mass produced, making it more affordable to more people. This allowed people to live almost anywhere, and the automobile suburb was created. Since that time, the relationship of the car to the dwelling unit has been a paramount design concern in most any context. In the 1970s, the first energy crisis pushed architects to begin to renew traditional discussions of sustainability and energy-efficient design in a new architecture. In the last few years, this has been another critical design concern.

Today, we are again in the midst of major changes. We are seeing shifts in the way we communicate, research, work and interact in our daily lives. For example, my neighbor's children do not watch television anymore, but use their hand-held devices for entertainment. On a hand-held device, my seven-year-old son contacts his grandparents via a video conference. Locally, I watch college students take campus tours on hand-held devices. In our office, we work around the planet in real time. Hand-held devices are expanding the possibilities for life within our own houses and within our cities. You can literally be anywhere to live, work, learn and play.

So how will this change the way we live within our dwellings and our neighborhoods? As architects and urban designers, we must be aware of these coming changes and incorporate them into sound principles for design. In our practice at Urban Design Associates, we have observed a crystallization of recent trends in the design of dwellings and their neighborhoods.

In the design of dwellings we have seen the following:

As a direct result of the growth of hand-held devices and the increased use of laptop computers, we have seen a diminished concern for the location of the desktop home computer and the television in the programming of a dwelling. In addition, with the exponential growth of online learning at all levels, we see a possibility for future consideration of this task in the programming of dwellings.

Following the American desire for "choice," the Internet offers an incredible array of choice and customization. In our projects, we have also noticed that buyers gravitate to the same principle for dwellings. Buyers are seeking flexible units that allow for customization in the way rooms live – and can grow and/or change with their needs. We understand this as a growing trend that will remain past the recession. This has offered the opportunity for smaller dwellings, which have performed better in the recession, and may continue to do so after economic recovery.

With comparative pricing and analysis at the fingertips of a buyer, price and value are critical concerns. Thus, we are seeing great interest in smaller, more efficient dwellings. We understand this trend will remain beyond the recession. As architects, we must be able to achieve great design with less.

In the design of cities, towns and neighborhood we have seen the following:

Mixed-Use, High-Density Neighborhoods
With the access to the world on a hand-held device and the increased use of laptop computers, people want to be near activity. As buyers select smaller dwellings on smaller lots, higher-density, new and existing mixed-use neighborhoods have remained strong markets around the country. We are seeing that people are asking to be physically connected to their neighborhood resources through easy connections by transit, by bicycle and by foot. With the scarcity of energy resources, this trend is likely to remain as it is a key contributor to a sense of place.

Active Open Spaces and Urban Environments
With the freedom to be anywhere, residents are demanding high-quality open spaces. We hear this in the public meetings we facilitate. We have also observed this in the open spaces around our office in downtown Pittsburgh. We see people meeting, working and socializing throughout the work day. This was not the case 10 years ago.

The Renewal of Main Street
We have seen a trend toward smaller retail spaces and we believe this trend will continue. Today, on a hand-held device, an individual can walk into a store, scan the bar code and find a better price on the Internet. Therefore, this may put high volume big-box stores at a disadvantage in the future. In addition, nationwide retailers may begin to create stores of smaller scale to introduce products, which could be very compatible in neighborhood-scale main street retail locations.

The way we live has always been evolving, and will continue to evolve. And the changes are accelerating. As designers, we must be aware and knowledgeable of these current trends. This way, as we design, we can create places that are remarkable and rooted in their local places, but at the same time, relevant and meaningful to today's world.  

Eric R. Osth, AIA, is a principal and architecture studio director of Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, PA.


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