Although it was originally published in 2019, this essay by Randy Nishimura, lightly updated, serves as a rebuttal of sorts to Duo Dickinson’s recent Common Edge piece,“The Architectural Pandemic of the ‘Stick Frame Over Podium’ Building.” Dickinson likens the building type to a plague; Nishimura offers a contrarian’s perspective.
A recent spate of articles bemoaning the proliferation of 5-over-1 apartment buildings caught my attention. Outlets such as Bloomberg, Common Edge, Crosscut, and Curbed have all commented on the building type, the common thread being a reproach for their ubiquity, sameness, and inexpensive construction. Some of the critiques rightfully point to the confluence of multiple factors—evolving building codes, a lack of developable land, rising construction costs, and an acute lack of affordable housing—that have given rise to countless examples of the type across the country. The same dynamics are in play here in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, so we naturally have our share of 5-over-1 developments.
I would argue that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the type and accept its widespread use in cities like Eugene. Achieving near-high-rise densities at a wood-frame price is a winning formula. 5-over-1 construction—so called because it frequently combines up to five floors of inexpensive wood-framed construction over a concrete podium—is popular primarily because it is a cost-effective means to build, especially here in timber-rich Oregon. Beyond its economy and ease of construction, the wood industry also touts the sustainability benefits of multistory wood construction, most notably the fact that wood products sequester carbon, and that their processing emits fewer greenhouse gasses than other building materials.
The density associated with four, five, or even six floors of housing above a street-level commercial podium contributes toward the kind of vitality associated with good urbanism. More and more people, including many Baby Boomers like myself, are downsizing and opting for homes close to urban cores where diversity, public transit, and cultural amenities are immediately at hand, and where established zoning most often allows 5-over-1 construction. Building densely and compactly is also consistent with the growth management policies embodied by Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundary legislation and the Envision Eugene Comprehensive Plan.
So why do some regard 5-over-1 projects as tantamount to a metastasizing cancer in our cities? Part of the reason is because they’re everywhere and yet too often look like they could be anywhere. It’s because the formula has been so consistently and prodigiously propagated. It’s also because their rise has been so sudden, an outcome of changing codes, improved economic fortunes, and pent-up demand in the wake of the Great Recession more than a decade ago. And it is true they sometimes tend toward being architecturally bland or downright ugly. In his recent piece for Common Edge, Duo Dickinson didn’t mince words, characterizing the architecture of many stick-framed over podium projects as “unrelenting,” “dreary,” and tantamount to an “architectural contagion.”
As I said, I have no problem with their abundance. The type is meeting a current need in a manner the marketplace supports. I also take no issue with how similar many of the projects appear to be, as long as they are responsive to the specifics of their immediate context (culture, topography, orientation, views, other site features). In fact, I see no reason why any single 5-over-1 project should even need to be an architectural standout. Every city needs “background” buildings that comprise the urban fabric, shape the public realm, and collectively define the character of a community. One reasonable expectation is that they make a positive contribution to the urban life of the neighborhoods in which they arise.
In his book The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton likewise expressed his appreciation for “graceful but predominantly unoriginal boxes”: “Though we tend to believe, in architecture as in literature, that an important work should be complicated, many appealing buildings are surprisingly simple, even repetitive in their design. The beguiling terraced houses of Bloomsbury or the apartment buildings of central Paris are assembled according to an unvarying and singularly basic pattern once laid down in forceful municipal codes. … Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.”
Being “a little boring” favors simplicity and plainness, but at the same time we should build to last. With wood-framed construction this requires care. Excessive complexity (i.e., lots of joints and corners) is a recipe for water infiltration, so embracing simplicity and plainness can be strategic. As the project type matures, we should see breakthroughs in more effective yet inexpensive thermal and moisture barrier technologies. Ultimately, we may see aesthetic advancements of the typology such that while remaining “boring,” the best projects might also possess a pleasing materiality and visual texture, collectively shaping memorable places and streetscapes.
Eugene may never be a high-rise city, but it can aspire to be the best mid-rise city possible. We should welcome the 5-over-1 construction type and enlist its use toward promoting compact development, providing affordable housing for all income levels, and protecting, repairing, and enhancing neighborhood livability. Many lament the cheapness of 5-over-1 buildings and their absence of aesthetic virtue, but I contend those critics may be missing the larger point. For architects and designers, they represent an opportunity. If designed with care, humility, and grace (as opposed to a misguided impulse for originality), these buildings comprise a viable means to radically improve the urban realm and address market demands. They may be “stumpies,” “blandmarks,” “SketchUp contemporary,” or “McUrbanism” elsewhere, but here in Eugene they may be just right.
Featured image: Titan Court, Eugene, OR., photo by Christian Columbres Photography, courtesy of Robertson/Sherwood/Architects pc.