Tag Archives: Housing


Since moving to Cambridge, I’ve heard and read about the award-winning Accordia development in Cambridge, 300-some units of housing built in 2004 and designed by architecture heavyweights Feilden Clegg Bradley (plus some others).  I was lucky enough to tag along on a tour led by Peter Carter, who worked for the Cambridge planning office as one of the point people when the development was given planning permission.

I was really blown away by some of the development (which is large enough to constitute its own neighborhood), and really disappointed by other parts.  There are three green corridors running through the neighbourhood, which pre-date the development; the houses are snuggled in between the trees and on a beautiful sunny day are dappled with sunlight and shot through with green open space and greenery.  Toward the back of the development, the trees peter out, and there are some big open spaces mixed in with higher-rise development, but the relationship of building and open space is vastly different.  At one end of Accordia, the scale is perfect – three-story buildings along narrow streets with greenery and balconies at all three levels (on the ground, first-floor terraces and second-story balconies, all of which have dense planting).

At the other end, the buildings are larger, and the design quality is equally high, but there’s a serious drop-off in the quality of the landscape architecture.  The space opens up – but too much; the slight step-up in density doesn’t correspond to the large increase in circulation space, and the lack of green space means that the space just looks unfinished.

I have some quibbles with the layout but the architecture is, for the most part, amazing.  The UK requires that 30% of all new developments be affordable units, and a good chunk of them are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric.  Another chunk of them are included in larger apartment buildings, the tallest of which is 8 stories.  There is a row of houses at the back that look a little worse for the wear, and many have wood doors that have weathered differently and shabbily. On the other hand, the houses at the front are amazing and there are two taller buildings that I would love to live in, if they didn’t front onto an awkwardly-scaled public square.

A couple of caveats: the Accordia development is still in development; the last few houses are just being complete now.  There was evidence of construction in some corners of the space that will be removed in the next couple of months.  The atmosphere in one corner was seriously affected by a “historic” bunker that still stands, disused and surrounded by seriously ugly fencing – obviously through no fault of the developers. And finally, we were there on a Wednesday afternoon in August, which is not historically the busiest time of year in a residential development in the UK, when everyone and their mother is on vacation.

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Allison Arieff on Suburbia

Allison Arieff  is an infrequent contributor to the New York Times’ Opinionator blog.  I don’t read the rest of it, so I can’t comment about the quality of the rest of the contebnt, but Allison Arieff is stellar – one of the best writers putting the challenges of suburbia and the state of urban planning in context for laypeople.  Whenever I see her name on my RSS feed, I click it.

Today, her post “Shifting the Suburban Paradigm” addresses how little attention people have paid to the design of their houses.  While good design has become an increasingly important component of our other consumer decisions, the housing market has not risen to the challenge, and developers and boutique architecture firms both continue to make uninspired, boring homes.

Here is a good example: this is a new ZeroHouse, developed by KBHomes.  It is intended to provide a synthesis of suburban comfort and green living….but the first things I noticed were 1. it’s ugly and 2. the garage is the dominant design feature, but there is no driveway.  Where does the car go? That doesn’t look like a super walkable neighborhood.

Ms. Arieff suggests that the current economic situation should provide an opportunity to rethink the nature of homebuilding, but that instead, homebuilders have rethought the nature of their marketing.  What was frustrating to me is that she didn’t address how ludicrous it is that homes are being built at all (and I say that as someone whose profession would really, really profit from some more homebuilding) when there are literally thousands of vacant and foreclosed properties around the country, and the only real demand in the last five years has been for multi-family homes.

What buyers want may be debatable; certainly, there have been plenty of people who bought ugly houses with views of the highway in exurbs located 45 trafficky minutes from the city.  All this would seem to support the idea that what people what is single family homes, at almost any cost.  But then, in the last decade, there has been a downtown condo-building boom (midsize cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Nashville, TN have seen their downtown populations explode from a condo-building craze).  However, the issue is less what buyers want than what cities enable developers to give them.  Zoning is crippling development, especially in edge communities that are maturing and are in need of densification.  Builders have continued to produce ugly, boring houses, but town councils (many of them staffed by community volunteers) who have failed to understand the effect that their zoning laws have on development.

I don’t know the best way to educate rural communities about sustainable development.  Certainly working with builders would be a good place to start, but its hardly the end.

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