Real Estate

Seriously, What's With All Those Soviet Apartments?

We have a confession to make. Two weeks ago, we published a piece in this space purporting to identify Dallas' 10 HOTTEST Apartment Complexes. While this might seem to imply that we used some sort of objective methodology for determining HOTNESS — or, for that matter, had any knowledge at all about the complexes we were writing about — we did not. Our only real criteria were that the developments be new, reachable by foot from the Observer headquarters and be virtually indistinguishable from both 1) the other complexes on the list and 2) 1960s Soviet apartment buildings. (Another confession: The shade of beige on Trammell Crow Residential's Goat Hill development isn't nearly as awesome as we made it sound.)

Among the questions we made no attempt to answer with the list was why Dallas' high-end renters are suddenly being stuffed into earth-toned rectangular pods. The question nevertheless seems important, given that these Khrushchev Houses are fast becoming the dominant architectural style of central Dallas.

Dallas is in the middle of a historic apartment boom. The Dallas-Fort Worth region is home to significantly more apartment construction than anywhere else in the country, much of it — some 7,000 units as of July — in Dallas' urban core. There are various reasons for this, some but not all of which can be blamed on millennials, but the upshot is that there are lots and lots of people with lots and lots of money to spend on rent. Developers are responding accordingly.

Those developers, being creatures of the market, are generally out to maximize profits. If anything, that's even more true of the faceless real-estate investment entities whose cash is financing the current boom. This means maximizing density (i.e., height) and minimizing construction costs while maintaining sufficient quality to charge premium rents. This is Economics 101, but it's these considerations as much as any lack of imagination on the part of builders that's fueling the re-creation of the Eastern Bloc.

The reason developers have only now settled on the beige, four- to six-story rectangle as the model of urban living can be traced to a change in the International Building Code in 2009 that allowed a wood frame for mid-rise (Type III-A) construction. With that, builders could add a couple of additional stories to apartment projects, increasing density and profits in the process, without having to switch to pricier steel and concrete. Shortly after the rule was changed in 2009, Multifamily Executive reported that switching from concrete to wood shaved as much as 40 percent from the cost of a five-story loft development in Virginia.

Materials costs fluctuate, so the arithmetic won't apply to every project, but developers clearly feel as though they have found a sweet spot. A thorough treatment of the phenomenon is found in a recent piece by Baltimore architect Klaus Philipsen, who laments the monotony of the new apartments that are reshaping his and other American cities.
They go to great lengths to vary materials, window patterns and use classic tectonic tools such as base, middle and top to break down the massing. But once one sees through this pattern, the visual splendor of this game seems stale, trite and becomes utterly predictable. Dressing up the one-plus-five extrusion box doesn't make architectural excellence any more than bouillon cubes and water make a gourmet soup. The base created by thin veneer, the cement boards, the synthetic stucco over styrofoam, the smattering of brick (substitute brick for whatever the assumed vernacular of your region is), the corner turrets that stick up slightly above the roofline of the extrusion, all these design moves are arbitrary, capricious and without either innovation or true historic reference and amount to little more than draping a popular wall paper over all the wood sticks and cheap thin sheathing. The result is instant urbanism draped in the garb of the season, ready to be replaced by another fashion a few years down the road.
Philipsen also questions the longevity of the wood-frame mid-rises, predicting that they will decay quickly and have to be razed within a few decades. The timber industry, which has been aggressively pushing use of wood in mid-rise construction, disagrees. To quote from the Wood Product Council's preview of its presentation at last year's "Design & Innovation in Multi-Unit Housing Symposium:" 
The use of wood-frame construction for mid-rise projects is innovative in its ability to achieve multiple, simultaneous objectives. Wood is a code-compliant solution to the issue of how to cost-effectively increase density while creating vibrant urban environments. A renewable resource, it can also help meet the sustainability requirements of even the most stringent green building rating systems, while offering the additional benefit of carbon sequestration.

The innovative use of wood is in fact changing the skyline. Increasingly, five- and six-story wood buildings are rising up among traditional concrete and steel shells as designers and developers embrace timber’s vast potential for lower costs, faster installation, and a significantly lighter carbon footprint
Developers and investors could, presumably, risk making less money and, rather than adding a patina of urbanism on a wooden box, build something interesting. But Dallas' Soviet era of development doesn't appear to be ending any time soon (we're looking at you Alamo Manhattan), which means it'll be up to neighbors and the city to use what leverage they have (e.g., zoning requests, withholding goodwill) to make these buildings suck as little as possible.
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson