Design Thinking for Everyone

You don’t have to an architect to think like one. Designers of all kinds learn to use “Design Thinking”: a method of problem solving that emphasizes “making to think” rather than the traditional “think to make” way of problem solving.  It’s a hands-on, iterative process that can be surprisingly useful when you are seeking to innovate in any field.  This approach is a valuable tool to cultivate creative thinking and empathy, skills that many social scientists believe will be highly valued in the job market of the future.

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National Expert Kick Starts Portsmouth Affordability Efforts

By Elizabeth Nguyen

We’ve been thinking a lot about affordable housing strategies here in Portsmouth since attending the events sponsored by PS21: Portsmouth Smart Growth for the 21st Century on January 28th and 29th. Are you spending less than 45% of your income on housing and transportation combined? Housing and commuting costs are linked, and both should be part of any strategy to provide affordable housing, according to Smart Growth expert Jennifer Hurley. The invited presenter and facilitator at the workshops, Hurley noted that spending a combined 45% on housing and transportation is an unachievable goal for many earners making less than the median household income of $68,436 in the Portsmouth area. The problem? Few transportation options and a low supply of a diversity of housing types that are accessible to jobs and services.

Two powerful takeaways from her presentation were not necessarily intuitive:

1.      You can’t have affordability without walkability. Walkability reduces transit costs and offers a high supply of smaller, centrally located housing units that can meet the market demands of a growing number of childless households. These do not have to be downtown, but could be developed as neighborhood hubs at underutilized spaces and paired with improved shared transportation options. Likewise, encouraging accessory dwelling units (in-law apartments) within our existing walkable and accessible neighborhoods would help meet this demand.

2.      Even building high cost housing stock will improve the affordability of lower cost housing. New high cost housing eases demand for low cost housing by providing for buyers who are willing to spend more, keeping the existing stock more affordable. You cannot, however, build your way out of the problem. More building and walkability also drive up land costs. When combined with solutions such as policy incentives for mixed income developments, community land trusts (see Dorchester, MA), and other forms of land banking acquisition some space can be reserved from market forces to the benefit of the city as a whole.

Developing local action plans was the focus of Hurley's Friday workshop at the Portsmouth Library. Some direct results of that workshop were participants establishing a work group to press for key policy changes and  organizing a community charrette to explore possibilities for underutilized properties.  Other tactical solutions can be found in the delightfully practical and dense 5-page paper “Affordable Housing Policy Guide Smart Code Module” co-authored by Hurley and available on PS21’s website.

While these efforts will help those earning just below the median income, Hurley cautioned, meeting affordability targets for low and no income households can only be achieved through a concerted policy effort from all levels government. According the Portsmouth’s 2014 Housing Existing Conditions Report, “Certain types of housing, in particular small apartments (with 0-1 bedroom) and larger units suitable for families (4+ bedrooms), are in short supply. About half of Portsmouth’s jobsmostly those in the service sectorprovide wages under $50,000 per year.”  The report also acknowledges that the greatest need for affordable housing in Portsmouth is for those earning less than 50% of the median income.

We see that in other states government solutions can work. In Utah, for example, the state has effectively housed all of its homeless and Denver is implementing a 10-year plan to do the same. Federal funding alone is insufficient to the need, however.

As we work on solutions, it will be important to be mindful of carving out policies and incentives for mixed income development within the downtown core and frequent and convenient transportation options when affordable housing is pushed to the periphery. Let’s not be afraid to reassess how we develop our core and provide opportunities for a walkable commute instead. Let’s demand that the city, and all that we think of when we imagine it, be open to all of us.

For more information on how you can become involved in the action plans, and for a video of Jennifer Hurley’s talk on Thursday evening, plus links to other articles on the issue, please visit the PS21 website

Downtown parking lots: orange are public and yellow are private. Image by Manypenny Murphy Architecture.

The Value of Architectural Competitions in New Hampshire

By Michael Kowalchuk

As I enter my second year as an emerging professional in New Hampshire, architecture school is more and more a distant memory. In most cases, this has been a positive experience. No one can sustain an average of four hours of sleep a night, consistent X-Acto knife wounds or ceaseless criticism without compromising their life expectancy in some way. On the other hand, professional life lacks the theoretical whimsy of the academy and all of the impossible cantilevers that come with it. As I become more confident with producing drawing sets and construction administration, I have found that the good old architectural competition has been a great way to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

I’m also writing as a young designer in a design climate that errs on the side of the conservative. In New Hampshire, it is hard to avoid the colonial past. The AIA NH Emerging Professionals Competition is a great way for young designers to critically engage with a local design challenge in a meaningful way. This is the second year I participated and despite the horrible flashbacks to late nights and feelings of perpetual self-doubt, I am so pleased that AIA NH recognizes the value of new ideas and gives young designers this opportunity.

In this year’s competition, I teamed up with a good friend from school who is based in Boston. This year’s competition offered an open ended program which allowed for a greater degree of design/intellectual flexibility. Ostensibly an inter-modal transportation center serving Greater Manchester, our project emphasized the potential for community development through the integration of refugee/immigrant housing and a regional market. The idea was that disparate, transient communities (tourists, commuters, immigrants, etc.) may find common ground beyond the way they travel. This cultural mashup fosters community growth where marginalization and segregation typically prevail. The project also recognized that architecture can productively intervene in current issues instead of taking a backseat, merely aesthetic role.

Contemporary buildings can contextually relate to the historical buildings that we love without inappropriate imitation. Oftentimes, superficial styles that do not relate to contemporary building practices are what the public expects. While not always appropriate, contemporary design can just as successfully relate to our distinctive natural environment and cultural history. Design competitions create space for this argument without requiring a final building to be realized. Whether one wins or loses (we lost), architectural competitions are a visual opportunity to engage with the debates that define our local built environment. This is vitally important in New Hampshire, where the conversation seems to be stuck at times and overburdened by the weight of historicism. Beyond their polemical value, they are a fun way for new designers to test out contemporary designs as well as sharpening our technical/design skills.

Design competitions create an independent platform for architects to voice their opinions when they are oftentimes beholden to the decisions of their clients. They create an opportunity for architects to present ideas to a wider, critical public which may not always understand our ideas at face value. The Federal Building in Portsmouth is having a bit of a midlife crisis and perhaps a design competition would convince a skeptical public that the building may have a brighter future, even if the knee-jerk reaction is to tear the mid-century Modernist building down. In the case of the architectural competition, less is not more. It would be great if competitions become a staple of architectural culture in New Hampshire and AIA NH is doing its part in encouraging this among emerging professionals. Check out our board below and please visit AIA NH’s website to see the winning entries.      

Reflections on Robert Campbell's Visit to Portsmouth

Robert Campbell, the renowned architectural critic for the Boston Globe, recently visited Portsmouth as part of PS21’s (Portsmouth Smart Growth for the 21st Century) ongoing speaker series. Campbell advocates for human scale cities as well as an appreciation for historical architecture through layering different architectural styles to reflect the times in which they were built. His views are especially timely for a city like Portsmouth, which has struggled with some growing pains recently. Rather than opposing growth outright, Campbell argues that the things we love about a building can occur at a variety of scales. In his talk he metaphorically treats the city like a home; large public parks serve as a communal dining room.

For Campbell, vibrant small cities such as Portsmouth point to the future of much of America. As Portsmouth continues to grow and change, we should heed some of Campbell’s advice. Let’s preserve what we love, grow equitably and be open-minded about how contemporary architecture can speak to our time within a multi-layered and vital urban context.

The event turnout could not have been better and the venue, 3S Artspace, was definitely a good choice as a reflection of Campbell’s values. We would like to thank PS21 for organizing this great event and look forward to the rest of their speaker series. See the link below for a video of the event: