“Everyone has either a bike or a dog,” said Tim Love, founding principal at Utile, Inc., of the animals napping on the polished concrete floor in the firm’s Boston studio. Designers’ bikes, visible from the street through the black cast-iron storefront, form a clever advertisement for the urbanist work within.
Utile likens itself to a think tank, and the comparison seems not just promotional but simply self-aware. Give this team of architects and planners a vision and they’ll make you a spreadsheet; give them some data and they’ll make you a publishable color infographic. Ongoing streams of work include market-rate multifamily housing; affordable housing for community-development corporations; master plans for economically challenged cities; and new development guidelines, zoning codes, and information graphics for public agencies. A packet of research and a sense of larger issues hovers around every project.
Love founded Utile in 2002 after eight years at Machado and Silvetti, where he was project director on the Getty Villa and several public jobs in Boston. “I thought it would be really cool,” he said, “to not only focus on Boston but on a very narrow area of Boston, and become the expert, and try to get as many projects [as I could] in the smallest possible geographic area.” Choosing South Boston because he lived there, he soon got both a housing commission and the on-call contract for urban planning and design review at the Massachusetts Port Authority. Specialization bore fruit, he said: “We ended up learning about the politics, the zoning, the market conditions, and which other consultants were working in the area, and that ended up being a very productive worldview for how we expanded our work.”
The firm’s most celebrated structure is the delicate Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion (2011) on the increasingly successful Rose Kennedy Greenway. Behind the scenes, however, Utile’s planners have consulted on many of Boston’s most important and controversial public works, including development guidelines on and around the Greenway. There is a bit of David-and-Goliath pride in the firm’s fairly meteoric rise. “We tend to get the tricky projects,” said Love, “where our proposal is more like a white paper, which gets at issues the client hasn’t thought of yet strategically [but] that interest them… and we beat out typically the more established firms. Our work is incredibly diverse. The funny way of saying it is that we’ll do anything; but the truth is that we tend to do things that have a complicated wrinkle to them.”
Boston Conservatory Studio Building
A music conservatory abutting the Massachusetts Turnpike and Fenway Park presents acoustical challenges. In this 2014 rehearsal facility codesigned with Handel Architects, a curtain wall opens the stairs and lounges to the highway, while red brick is both noise barrier and aesthetic response. “We like its relationship to Fenway and to that fantastic building next door,” said Love, referring to Jillian’s pool hall and nightclub, built in 1900. “But we also like the way, even though it’s a very contemporary building, [brick] signals the importance and the permanence of this institution relative to the others in the neighborhood.” LED signage works “as a foil to the brick” and a populist nod to the lively area.
248 Dorchester Avenue
With 33 units on six stories, but no hallways on floors three or five, this boutique South Boston rental project not only “defies the formulas that most developers live by,” said principal-in-charge Michael LeBlanc, but is “one of the most rational buildings a client has let me design to this point.” Each loft has a double-height living room with a mezzanine bedroom and bath; and every space, including the shower, is designed for maximum views toward Back Bay or the Dorchester Heights Monument. Invoking Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, LeBlanc said the building, “almost like a TV, projects a kind of image to its audience.” Units are based on a 16-foot grid that breaks down into 4-foot modules, making construction surprisingly affordable.
Downtown Waterfront Planning Initiative
Building on decades of efforts to reconnect Boston with its waterfront, Utile is working with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to improve the public experience in the now-flourishing 42-acre parcel that extends from the Greenway to the Harborwalk and the watersheet beyond. Priorities, developed with public input, include creating more views to the water; improving signage and wayfinding; clarifying pedestrian and auto zones; animating inactive edges; and accommodating growing crowds of both commuter and leisure water-transit passengers. Following the public-realm plan, Utile will draft a corresponding state regulatory plan (including building heights and massing) and zoning recommendations.
Hartford Capitol Area Plan: Housing
As part of its district-wide planning strategy for the City of Hartford, Utile designed three townhouse prototypes for a 20-by-50-foot lot, and drafted guidelines that allow no more than five homes of each type in a row. Then “we had a facade party in the office one day,” said Love, “and followed the guidelines we invented, and different people designed a couple of each version, and we just played our own game and created, you know, the Netherlands.” Developers can modify the plan for economy, he said, but “We’ll work with you to deploy it in a way that you don’t get a boring run of the same thing.”