David Ross Scheer: Why do all the new apartment buildings look the same (and do they have to)?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hardware Apartments in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

You can hardly help noticing the boom in apartment construction in and around downtown Salt Lake City. If you look a little closer, you’ll see that they are very much alike, like the same doll dressed up in different outfits.

The buildings I’m referring to are five to seven stories tall and have a boxy shape. The ground floor is a parking garage, sometimes combined with shops. Four or five stories of apartments or condos sit on top of this concrete “podium,” so they’re often called podium buildings. They cover a large area compared to older apartment buildings, often taking up a considerable portion of a block face.

These buildings are prevalent because they maximize developers’ profits by balancing leasable floor area (more is better) with construction cost (less is better). The residential floors are built of light wood framing because this is much less expensive than concrete or steel. The building code restricts this construction type to four stories, five if special lumber is used. For structural stability, wood framing requires large areas of flat, uninterrupted walls from the foundation to the roof. This gives podium buildings their boxy shape.

Simply put, podium buildings represent a proven formula for creating marketable housing at a reasonable cost.

Why are we seeing this apartment building boom in the first place?

Salt Lake City, and the region as a whole, suffers from a severe housing shortage and a related crisis in housing affordability. One of the primary factors in the cost of housing is the price of land, which has been increasing due to the high demand for housing. One way to make housing more affordable is to use less land per unit, that is, by increasing density.

And that is exactly what is happening. According to the Ivory-Boyer Real Estate Center at the University of Utah, more multifamily housing units are now being built in Salt Lake County than detached single family homes.

Podium buildings, which can achieve densities of 65-100 units per acre, are a response to the need for more affordable housing. Increasing density also contributes to sustainability by reducing the distance people need to commute to work and school, and making serving the area by transit more efficient.

So, bravo podium buildings, for playing an important part in solving our housing problems! But they could be even better if they were better designed.

Many podium buildings are street killers. Their ground floor parking garages come right up to the street edge of the property, creating a dead, blank wall (and no, windows into parking garages don’t help).

Their long street frontage worsens the problem. City planners have tried to avoid this by forcing some developers to provide commercial space along the street, with mixed results. Simply building commercial space doesn’t guarantee there is demand for it. In some cases, mandated commercial space has remained vacant or underused.

Another solution, being explored by Giv Development, is to provide live-work units entered from the street that can be used for commercial or residential purposes or both. Giv’s Executive Director Chris Parker says, “If I can’t rent [a live-work unit] to a business, I can definitely rent it as living space.”

In either case, these units create activity on the street. If and when conditions call for it, the street can become a lively commercial zone. With a little thoughtful design, podium buildings can enhance our streets.

The design of these buildings is also having a major impact on the visual character of our city. Cities are visually defined by the architecture of their periods of expansion. In terms of residential neighborhoods, think of the brownstones in New York, or San Francisco’s Victorian “painted ladies.” Salt Lake City is now undergoing a boom in housing construction that will permanently transform it. Large areas of our city will be characterized by the design of podium buildings.

What can we do to ensure that their effect will be positive?

The answer is not to try to regulate design. Salt Lake City has design guidelines (rules, really) in its zoning regulations. They have not prevented podium buildings from diminishing the vitality of our streets and have been responsible for many overwrought designs that will look outdated in a few years (and make the buildings harder to maintain). The fact that the guidelines are written, interpreted and applied by city planners with little or no training in design may be have something to do with this. But my experience as an architect has shown me that trying to codify good design in written regulations doesn’t work. The cure is often worse than the disease.

A better solution is for designers (both architects and their clients) to create better buildings by following a few voluntary guidelines:

• Put active uses, not parking garages, on the street-facing sides of buildings.

• Think of these buildings as background buildings, not showpieces. Too often designers try to make their building stand out by virtue of its unique design, competing with each other to make their project more eye-catching than the rest. The result is the visual cacophony we’re starting to see on 400 South. Instead of seeing them as isolated objects, the designers of podium buildings should view them as background buildings that make up the fabric of the city. This should stimulate, not stifle, designers’ imaginations.

• Use only exterior materials that convey a sense of permanence as befits a major city. Materials like stone, brick, precast concrete and glass are appropriate. Materials like stucco and residential siding are not.

Some developers will claim that their limited budgets make this last guideline impractical. But Brian Hobbs, chief operating officer and co-founder of Salt Development, disagrees. “Some developers hide behind economics, but it’s not about economics. It’s about being strategic about where you invest the money you have.” He adds, “Less than 20% of a project’s budget goes to exterior finishes, so spending a little more on them doesn’t have a great effect on the overall budget.”

Salt Lake’s podium buildings pose a risk to our city’s future due to the simple fact that so many are being built in a short span of time, concentrated in certain areas. The neighborhoods of brownstones and Victorian houses mentioned above illustrate the tendency of such areas to decay and even become slums. By allowing some of our streets, such as 400 South, to become dominated by podium buildings, we risk having those areas decay in this way in 25-30 years.

The best safeguard against such a future is to design and construct these buildings well so they retain their viability.

The podium buildings being built today will define large areas of our city for a long time to come. Hobbs sees potential in these buildings, saying, “If each project is well-designed and well-executed it can positively impact our community for the next 50 years.”

Isn’t it worth some investment to ensure that, as Salt Lake grows, it continues to make its residents proud?

David Ross Scheer, Salt Lake City, has practiced and taught architecture and urban planning for over 30 years.