Look for development, workplaces and architecture to contract in the new decade

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, January 2, 2010

You probably have read more than enough about the decade -- the "aughts" -- that just ended, about the best and worst, about what should be remembered or forgotten. I prefer speculating about the new decade, the tens -- or is it the teens? Where, what and how will we design and build?

Consider some predictions:

-- Housing and infrastructure development costs, environmental and energy concerns, and new regulations will help put the brakes on exurban sprawl. More states, counties and municipalities are embracing "smart-growth" principles that encourage compact, dense, walkable mixed-use development and redevelopment of areas served by existing infrastructure. Many jurisdictions in the Washington region already are modifying out-of-date zoning ordinances to foster smart growth, wiser urban design, and better architecture.

-- Widespread adoption of smart-growth policies and guidelines means that real estate projects will increase within metropolitan regions while development of farmland and rural landscapes will diminish. Government planners and developers will focus more on underutilized or obsolete commercial and industrial properties -- "brown fields" -- and deteriorating or underdeveloped portions of urban and suburban neighborhoods in need of revitalization.

-- In downtowns and metropolitan suburbs, growing numbers of residents will be motivated to use transit, walk or ride bikes for some of their daily trips. More people will work at home. This promises to reduce not only traffic congestion, but also the amount of on-site parking -- in surface lots and garages -- required for transit-accessible destinations with an appropriate balance of housing, jobs, shopping and public facilities.

-- As housing development within center cities and metropolitan suburbs increases, the rate of attached home and multi-family construction will rise relative to the rate of single-family detached home construction. Renting rather than owning a home will continue to be an economic necessity for many. But many American families increasingly will view renting as a socially acceptable and desirable option.

-- Smart sensors and controls will better monitor and more efficiently deliver energy required for heating, cooling and lighting, and for operating appliances and other household equipment. This will enhance comfort and convenience while reducing square-footage needs. In the next decade, younger owners and tenants will be less interested in expending effort and resources paying for and maintaining giant houses, luxurious master suites and expansive lawns.

-- The workplace for many Americans will change. Increasingly sophisticated information and communication technologies, coupled with evolving modes and methods of working, will have architectural consequences. Work spaces will become less rigidly structured and more flexible. Telecommuting will grow. In offices, the amount of floor area per employee and the number of private offices will diminish. Augmented digital memory capacity and the use of "cloud computing," whereby data, software and hardware are kept off-site and accessed via the Internet, mean less space will be needed for computer equipment, filing cabinets and bookshelves. The size of America's libraries and document archives inevitably will shrink.

-- Architecture of all types, including housing, will be increasingly "green." Architects, engineers, developers and government agencies will more energetically embrace sustainability, routinely employing green design and construction strategies to achieve desirable LEED ratings. LEED -- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design -- is shorthand for the U.S. Green Building Council's nationally accepted method of measuring and rating a building's greenness. Sustainability will be an essential real estate marketing feature and an indispensable architectural attribute sought by owners and tenants.

-- Of course, the greenest building strategy is to not construct a new building at all. And countless aging buildings, embodying enormous investments of energy and material resources, are worth saving and retrofitting. Preserving, modernizing and adaptively reusing existing structures will represent a growing share of all construction in this decade.

You may be looking for speculation about stylistic architectural trends. But forecasting what buildings will look like, or should look like, in five or 10 years is a fool's errand. Architects' aesthetic philosophies and tastes are more eclectic and numerous than ever. Today we can design and build almost anything that obeys the laws of physics, and that someone is willing to pay for.

Consequently, my only prediction about future architectural styles is that we will continue to have plenty of them, and regrettably plenty of not-so-beautiful buildings, regardless of their style.

Welcome, 2010.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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