In 2015, local lawyer Mack Paul and real estate investor Frank Thompson helped organize a design symposium at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh’s Warehouse District. They called it “Build Raleigh Better” and developed an ambitious agenda. They wanted to bring together architects, developers, investors and the business community to raise awareness of the quality of our built environment.
It was conceived as a conversation-starter. “Frank and I had discussions about proving the point that there is demand for better design,” Paul says. “Selecting architectural talent for design here is not typical for a developer.”
It worked: the auditorium at CAM was jam-packed all day, a visible demonstration of local hunger for good design.
Thompson sees an architectural disconnect in the Triangle, a tech-savvy place where N.C. State’s College of Design turns out gifted architects who aren’t always empowered to contribute aesthetically in major ways.
“Raleigh is a high-tech hub and center for progress and our architecture doesn’t reflect that,” he says. “Most of the architecture here is not design-driven, but about making the most money.”
Thompson is an architecture aficionado who believes buildings should live up to their potential for excellence. He admires public structures like the North Carolina Museum of Art by Thomas Phifer, N.C. State’s Hunt Library by Snohetta and Dorton Arena by Matthew Nowicki, but scratches his head at the rest.
“Why is Austin this really forward-looking city, while Raleigh is embracing the past?” he asks.
With Paul and two others, he’s out to change that, and not just in Raleigh. They’ve formed an organization called 4Line LLC, with finance specialist Lee Norris and seasoned construction manager Jim Schaafsma, to find solutions. And they’ve now tackled two major residential projects in downtown Raleigh and on the edge of downtown Durham.
They’ve also selected two architecture firms – one local and another from San Francisco – to design them. With Raleigh Architecture Company, a relatively young firm here, they broke ground in January on the five-story Fairweather condominiums on South West Street. With David Baker Architects, nationally known for community-friendly residential design, they recently broke ground on The Grove, a 62-townhome community within walking distance of Durham’s American Tobacco Campus.
What do architects bring to these projects that a developer doesn’t?
“They give reality to a concept that a developer might have,” Paul says. “And they help work through the reality of building a project, like the practical parts of columns or infrastructure, everything that makes a building work for the vision.”
They also bring critical thinking about how a building sits on its site, takes advantage of its environment and relates to the culture of its place. “That’s where the value of an architect comes in – with thoughtful design,” says Robby Johnston, co-owner of Raleigh Architecture Company. “Design is not about an aesthetic style, but problem-solving.”
They often reweave a city’s urban fabric for the better, activating a project’s edges by designing for people rather than cars, and cultivating connections between citizens and their community. “The architect can think creatively and bring quality to the city,” says Amanda Loper, principal at David Baker Architects. “Some people can play the notes, but the music might not add to the harmony of the city.”
So while developers can provide financing and creative visualization, an architect can deliver innovation in thought, design and materials. And working together can mean added value beyond bricks and mortar. “Our projects are always made better by the vision of the developer,” she says.
The downside is added cost. “Architectural fees associated with a significant, design-focused project can run substantially higher than fees for an off-the-shelf design,” Paul says. “But architectural fees comprise a relatively small part of the overall project budget – typically one to two percent.”
Cost was a concern at The Grove in Durham, but for Loper, with architect of record Perry Cox and landscape architects at Stewart, that was simply another problem to be solved. “The developer was concerned about cost, so we were creative about how we spent that money,” Loper says.
The idea here was definitely not to build a huge box that hugs the edges of property lines – a common residential solution that’s popped up, mushroom-like, across the nation in recent years. Instead, the architects created a series of 16 buildings, with public spaces between them.
Among the three-story townhome structures are outdoor kitchens, shared deck spaces and patios at a variety of scales. “The concept is to create community,” says Katie Hamilton, a project designer at Stewart who collaborated on the master planning, site planning and landscape design.
The townhomes, with footprints between 15 and 18 square feet, are flexible. The smallest is 1,285 square feet; the largest, about 2,000. But all can be configured to add bedrooms and baths in different ways. On the ground floor is a garage, an entry and a potential component for office or studio.
Prices start at $434,000 and go up to $975,000, according to The Grove’s website.
The property is just under 3 acres, with about 21 units per acre, including a few larger single-family homes. It’s bounded on three sides by public streets; to the west is a sloping landscape. “It has major topography,” Hamilton says. “It lends itself to single family residential to the south and larger scale apartments to the north and west.”
On a high point between downtown Raleigh and Dix Park, construction of the five-story Fairweather is now underway in Boylan Heights. “It’s higher than most places downtown. It will be a building with presence in every direction,” says Johnston, the architect.
On the ground level will be a recessed plinth, or platform, that the architects have pulled back from view and light corridors. Above it will be five levels of 45 condos, some cantilevered out, with floor plans from 700 to 2,500 square feet. They’ll be constructed using a post-tension concrete method, to achieve a long span with a minimal depth of slabs. “We’re saving two feet a floor, so we get a whole extra floor,” he says.
The lowest level will be for parking and commercial space. Above, a perforated box for residences is designed to be well-connected to its surroundings. The Red Hat Amphitheater is a block away to the east, Union Station and the Dillon are to the north, Dix Park to the south, and the future Sam Jones Barbecue is across the street. Common space on the rooftop allows views of it all, plus sunrises and sunsets.
Inside, floor-to-ceiling windows will dominate. They’ll be 8 feet tall and 2 feet wide in the baths, 4 feet wide in the bedrooms, and double height – 18 to 20 feet – in the penthouse. “These solutions generate an exciting form that’s full of volume, light and natural air circulation,” he says. “In return, the same things allow you to explore the outside from the inside.”
More than 60 percent of its units are already sold, with a price tag starting at $405,000, according to the Fairweather’s website.
A future trend
The Fairweather and The Grove are harbingers of collaborations to come, according to Paul. “It’s a very intentional mission to do projects with good design and architects and test the market to convince other developers,” he says. “This is a copycat business about what works and doesn’t work.”
Toward that end, he’s working with another development group to bring Brooklyn’s S9 Architecture to Raleigh to develop a 20-story office tower around CAM. Two more architect-designed projects were recently announced for downtown: a 20-story mixed-use project by Gensler on the former site of The News & Observer, and another 20-story tower at 301 Hillsborough St. by Duda/Paine.
For a community with deep roots in modern architectural design, things are looking up. The only question now is how these finished forms will add to or detract from our city’s skyline. The answer is something we’ll have to live with for decades to come.