Design Matters

January 08, 2019

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Popular real estate blog, “Curbed” released an article last month seeking to answer the question, ‘Why do all new apartment buildings look the same?’ It’s a well-written piece that touches on a host of external variables and challenges that impact the design of new buildings, including many decisions we face when designing our projects at Milhaus. 

What this Curbed article doesn’t choose to tackle is why, despite some of these challenges, design is still critically important and why projects can still be unique, forward-thinking, visually appealing, and financially feasible all at the same time. I may not be able to fully answer that question either, but I think it’s a topic worth exploring. 

Quick Disclaimer: I write this knowing full well that none of our projects at Milhaus are perfectly designed and that there are always things we can improve and refineWith a mission dedicated to transforming neighborhoods though, design plays a very big role in achieving this goal and is something our teams are thinking about constantly.    

So, what’s the secret sauce to designing an awesome project? The quick answer: There isn’t one. Every project is unique because every block of every neighborhood of every city is completely different and design should be too.   

Designing a great project is so much more than a pretty picture. You could design the most beautiful building imaginablebut if no thought was given to functionality, resident safety, street-level engagement or overall user/resident experience, then all you’re really left with is just a pretty building, which does very little for the neighborhood around it or the residents who end up making these buildings their home. Cities and neighborhoods are a sum of multiple buildings, uses, spaces, and most importantly, peopleA single building won’t alone transform a neighborhoodbut it’s connection and relationship to other buildings and spaces around it, plays a pivotal role in making these areas stronger and more eclectic. 

Artistry Indy

Back to the burning question though – Can’t you have an appealing exterior building façadea project that is financially successful and a building that is functional and well-integrated into its surroundings?  Well, that’s the goal, isn’t it?!  

Design and tastes as we know are very subjective, which makes answering that question so difficult. As the Curbed article states, history judges design and architecture on a curve and the era we’re experiencing now is no different.  

A well-designed exterior doesn’t always require the most expensive materials. It’s about designing with the right building scale in mind and creating facades with appropriate material, depth and/or color changes. If you’re not doing these things, then you’re likely breaking the first rule; which is to create an inviting and comfortable place for people to enjoy and doing so within the design context of the surrounding neighborhood. Different projects may utilize similar materials, but that does not mean each one will or should look the same. Small and inexpensive design moves can have a major design impact and while housing affordability and construction costs tangentially affect overall project design decisions, it doesn’t have to be at the sacrifice of overall architectural craft like the article suggests. Some projects are the first of their kind in neighborhoods that are just starting to form an identity (e.g. Artistry, Indianapolis) and others are in well-established districts with a distinct and recognizable design character (e.g. Vim+Vigor, Milwaukee). Regardless, each of these projects should be designed to respond to the area around them but still find ways to create a distinct identity of their own. 

Artistry Indy was the first of many future developments in the newly created Market East District. Surrounded at the time by surface parking lots, we worked closely with the city on a modern building design that utilized bold splashes of color to help create a destination and mold an identity for this cultural district.

Pinnex is in the eclectic North Square / Fountain Square area of Indianapolis. Located in a predominately single-family neighborhood, the project features several intentional design features aimed at better integrating the project into the neighborhood. This includes a generous ‘front-yard’ setback, colonnade style balcony forms on the main building wings and darker wood tones on the primary facades.

Vim+Vigor is juxtaposed against several turn of the century buildings in the old Brewery District of Milwaukee. A cream city brick façade helps to blend the old with the new, which respects but doesn’t imitate a previous style of architecture.

I’ll cut my thesis here, but I’d be remiss to not first give a quick shout out to the array of architects and designers we’ve used on past and current projects. They play just as large of a role in helping us achieve our mission as they each bring a different perspective on how to impact place through quality design, and different perspectives are important. ‘Good’ design may be subjective and difficult to universally achieve but focusing on design through the lens of neighborhood transformation seems like a great place to start.