Drifting in a Cloud of Amenities
Most architects care to believe that people will recognize a well-designed space when they see it and that the nuances of a successful design process will be ascribed value in the eyes of potential occupants. However, what seems to be increasingly often, there are extra features and accoutrements that are added to the package outside of the inherent quality of the living space in order to sweeten the deal for payors and entice them to cough up that little extra something. These property amenities are emerging as an interesting barometer for how our culture is ascribing value.
But of all of the glitzy add-ons to high-end real estate, how many of them are really adding that much when it comes to quality of life? How many of them are simply just wasteful pieces of program included for no other reason than an expectation that they represent an image of exclusivity– regardless of whether or not they are used once the project is actually occupied?
It begs the question of not only do we really need them, but do we actually want them? Do we like having them or do we like the possibility that someone else may like having them? Are there other options for what we think of as amenities to living that could actually improve our quality of life in a progressive way?
If You Build It, They Will Come
We are increasingly seeing the inclusion of supplemental components to residential projects in order to stoke the perception of value in potential buyers–especially when catering to the wealthiest bracket. A list of modern amenities could include: indoor pool, private storage rooms, refrigerated storage, day care, gym, wellness center, sauna, hot tub, basketball courts, sun decks, private movie theatres or screening rooms, and let's not forget parking. These are all things that take up square footage and add to energy consumption, but are said to be worth the cost due to the premium they wrangle from buyers. "Apartments in buildings flush with amenities can [reportedly] cost 15 to 20 percent more than those in more basic buildings."
We have reached the point where the cultural pairing between these attributes and an image of success is so strong that they become included almost be default. To not have them would somehow diminish the quality of what was being offered. One the other hand, not so long ago, the NY Times reported on how seldom these facilities are actually used by the people that buy them. Urban Turf had a similar finding for locations in Chicago.
The take away to some people is to spend more effort and money trying to actively program activities for the spaces that residents have access to. However, there's a deeper implication that there is a perception of value in having the paraphernalia, but the amount of actual value they add to the daily lives of their collective owners is relatively small. Another great example is the idea of uninterrupted views facilitated by all-glass exterior walls. The Urban Green Council's paper on glass and views found that 59% of glazed area was usually covered with shades or blinds and more than 75% of all glass buildings had more than half of their window views covered by subsequent development.
This reality is not just an urban one with suburban developments being just as guilty in building things like tennis courts, putting greens, swimming pools and rec centers. There is even an argument to be made (rather that I would make) that the presence of needless space penetrates into the most basic levels of residential planning in the forms of formal dining rooms and living rooms. These antiquated spaces are thought of all but essential to an American home despite the fact that they no longer comprise the regular usage patterns of most Americans. Even front lawns are thought of as iconic staples of home living despite the fact that maintenance cost is both monetarily and environmentally high for something that gets a questionable amount of actual use.
In the twilight of the 19th century, William Stokes wanted to build the grandest hotel in New York City. With the architect Paul E. Duboy commissioned for the design, Stokes financed the 17-story structure on Broadway between 73rd and 74th Streets and clad in a regal limestone facade of Beaux Arts inspired details and a Parisian mansard roof. Clocking in at around 500,000 square feet of space, the building was envisioned to skimp on nothing and provide its patrons with an unparallelled hotel experience. Even today the building remains an architectural bellwether that helps to define the character of Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Unsurprisingly, the Ansonia boasted a healthy list of amenities as well. Those staying in one of over 1,400 rooms could enjoy access to grand ballrooms, restaurants, a palm court, tearooms and cafes, a bank, a barbershop and tailor, writing rooms, Turkish baths, and an indoor swimming pool. It was also reportedly the first air-conditioned hotel in New York. Yet perhaps the most interesting component of on-site services was the rooftop farm. As reported in numerous places, the roof hosted accommodations for "about 500 chickens, many ducks, about six goats and a small bear. "Every day, a bellhop delivered free fresh eggs to all the tenants, and any surplus was sold cheaply to the public in the basement arcade."
While clearly a trend that has failed to catch on in urban construction, Stokes' vision was well ahead of its time. Some could argue that Stokes was wasting money by affixing a farm to what may otherwise be valuable roof space, but maybe he recognized a broader idea of what "amenities" should include–well ahead of his time. In an age where consumers pay a premium for locally grown produce or farm-to-table delicacy, would having unfettered access to on-site food not be something worth paying for?
A rooftop farm is also one of the most sustainable amenities for residential living. Besides being an elevator ride away from a farmer's market, rooftop greenery could bring the fringe benefits of stormwater reclamation, added insulation, promoting biodiversity and battling urban heat islands.
Though the Ansonia's farm failed to survive the evolution of the building over time, it points to an enlightened example of how one can program the perception of the "finer things" in life. The integration of food production could be the first step towards a broader viability of urban farming in our cities that could be able to prove its added value over time once the market had enough examples to evaluate.
There is an opportunity to change the face of what is considered valuable perks of everyday living and focus on what would actually improve quality of life rather than only the quality of a real estate pitch. Could it be that living within walking distance to transit does more for everyday quality of life than a bocce court on the roof? Might it make sense that cleaner air and water are a better recipient of funding rather than a basketball court?
Not all the news is bad though. The idea of providing filtered-fresh air to newer buildings is becoming more widely accepted as tenants make the connection between a healthier indoor environment and long term value. Beyond healthier occupants, comprehensive building HVAC systems can trade things like through-wall or window air conditioners for centralized cooling towers–leading to a better performing exterior envelope and buildings that exhaust air that is cleaner than the air they bring in.
Buildings like COOKFOX's design for 300 Lafayette Street prompt the belief that having access to outdoor space is an amenity worth paying for and only a couple steps away from urban farming space. There is a growing list of building components that can repeatedly raise one's quality of life in a sustainable way rather than simply claiming more area for its own sake. All we need is some more test drives to see how we can tailor more options to more homeowners.
Why buy the car with the tow package included when you don't intend on doing any towing? Instead, just get the car with better gas milage and enjoy benefits that prove useful.
Image Credit: mosbybuildingarts.com , Rob Cleary