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“The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still-unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio. On the sidewalks…the remains of yesterday’s Leonia await the garbage truck.” - Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I just learned that my underwear, my mattress, and most of my wardrobe all came from the same place. I didn’t purchase them from a one-stop, big-box retailer, but from a no-stop, small-box room—my bedroom, to be specific (from my bed to be more precise). All I had to do was open up a web page, pick, click, and then wait as my underwear, my mattress, and most of my wardrobe were shipped from a warehouse located in a Massachusetts exurb to arrive at my doorstep in two days or fewer. The maker of this mundane miracle is a company called Quiet Logistics, a third part logistics (3PL) provider that helps online retailers like Mac Weldon, Bonobos, and Tuft & Needle reach customers as quickly as possible. They and companies like them, along with online retailer behemoth Amazon, are using new technologies to redefine retail and transform the architecture of fulfillment. And if they don’t bring about the birth of Skynet and the robot apocalypse first, they might also transform cities and towns across America.
Open up any newspaper (or newspaper app) and you’re likely to read an obituary for the shopping mall. While the reports of its death may be somewhat exaggerated, malls are indeed changing as more and more people buy, well, everything online. Some are being transformed into mixed-use “town center”-style developments; others are filling vacancies with new tenants who lean into recent consumer habits like “showrooming,” an industry term for trying on clothes in one store and then buying them online from another at a lower price. While showrooming may be the bane of many a salesperson, retailers like the aforementioned Bonobos design and build stores as showrooms: comfortable environments where customers find the right-size pants and then leave empty handed; two days later they’re delivered to their home. Any longer than that and customers might not be so quick to leave without those slim-fit chinos. Thanks to the proliferation of fulfillment centers, no one has to wait for anything anymore.
Fulfillment centers are massive warehouses where the ephemera of our lives is stored until we call upon it with a wave of our hand. The typical fulfillment center is a rectangular box built from precast concrete slabs or tilt-up concrete panels that are poured on-site and lifted into place. They range in size from 300,000 square feet to more than a million, feature hundreds of loading docks, 30-to-40-foot-tall-space-frame ceilings (cubic volume is key), and towers of nearly endless shelves containing rainbow Slinkys, Swiffer Wet Jets, Hello Kitty pencil cases, and literally everything else. “The picking towers are like mini-buildings, only without mechanical systems,” said architect Greg Lynn, who has visited two Amazon facilities and has long been interested in the formal and spatial possibilities presented by new technologies. “Then there are the massive sorting areas and areas where they compress boxes. It’s like a little world. Or a theme park.”
While large distribution centers aren’t new, the growth of online direct-to-consumer shopping has prompted a building boom of the fulfillment center. For better and worse, no company is better known for these buildings than Amazon, which has built more than one hundred fulfillment centers in America alone, totaling over 77 million square feet in size. Amazon uses a few different types of these centers, each designed to accommodate a specific type of item: small sortable items, large sortable times, large non-sortable, expensive specialty items, and apparel, as well as newer facilities designed for perishable and nonperishable food. Some are conventional centers, where products are picked and packaged by human pickers who can walk up to ten miles a day; some use mechanized conveyance and sorting systems; others are automated with robots handling most of the heavy lifting.
While Amazon is the standard-bearer for this new model of retail, it’s not alone. Logistics real estate is booming. Online retailers, 3PLs, and traditional big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target have all invested heavily in new fulfillment centers to more quickly reach online customers. Target’s online sales tripled from 2013 to 2016, and in that time it nearly doubled the amount of space dedicated to e-commerce with two new fulfillment centers totaling 1.7 million square feet. According to Colliers International, in 2016 e-commerce prompted the construction of 74 million square feet of new warehouse space in the United States, with 93 percent of that space occupied. Already this year is on track to deliver another 55 million square feet, according to research firm Reis Inc., with Dallas, Chicago, Kansas City, Central New Jersey, and San Bernardino, California, as the top markets, although warehouse construction is also booming in Atlanta and Indianapolis.
As with all things real estate, it’s about location. Many of these fulfillment centers are built on former farmlands in centralized locations with easy accessibility to highways and airports. For example, Quiet’s new facility in Hazelwood, Missouri—its first outside Massachusetts—is part of a larger development of fulfillment centers built near St. Louis, where ground shipments can reach anywhere in the United States in two or three days. Amazon initially followed a different tact, building its warehouses in locations selected to take advantage of state tax policies. But those policies have changed as the industry has grown and states have grown savvier. Since 2013, Amazon has focused on building smaller fulfillment centers closer to major urban areas—sometimes even in cities—rather than building larger fulfillment centers in farther-out, less populated areas. The ultimate goal is same-day, and even same-hour, delivery.
But fulfillment isn’t just about fast delivery; it’s also about fast packaging. And that’s increasingly done by robots. In 2012 Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, now Amazon Robotics, whose rechargeable orange robots might look like a 1970s ottoman but can find anything in any warehouse instantly, and lift up to 3,000 pounds. They’re designed to move proprietary shelving “pods” along a predefined grid to workstations where real-live humans pick, pack, and prepare the items for shipment—often working on multiple orders simultaneously. Among other benefits, the Amazon Robotics system is flexible, scalable, and it’s five to six times more productive than manual picking. Plus, without the need for human-scale aisles, a fully automated warehouse requires half as much space as a traditional warehouse, and can use purchasing data to constantly rearrange itself so that the most frequently bought products are closer to the picking stations. The downside of this robot revolution? The robots can only be used to transport relatively small items that fit in the pods, and the systems requires a large and expensive investment in infrastructure—as well as a very, very flat floor.
After purchasing Kiva, Amazon took it off the market, forcing competitors who previously used them to find a new solution. This has resulted in a robot arms race as new companies rush to fill the void. One of those companies, Locus Robotics, was founded by Quiet Logistics, which was the first 3PL to use Kiva’s technology. Locus’s robots, which look like the love child of the Jetsons’ Rosie and a hat rack, can be integrated into any standard warehouse, cutting startup costs and accommodating the unpredictable nature of e-commerce. In a Locus-equipped warehouse, human pickers work in specific areas and the robots zip around each other from zone to zone, following the most efficient path to fill an order before taking it to the shipping station. Sensors, cameras, and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) help the robots map the warehouse and keep them from running into anything or anyone. Locus markets its robot as a more collaborative, worker-friendly solution that plays to the unique skill sets of both: The robot, with its infinite spatial knowledge, limitless stamina, and complete lack of self-doubt, quickly locates and delivers items, while the nearby human, with his or her prehensile hands, picks it up and puts it in the basket. For now, anyway. The robot arms race is becoming a robot hands race as companies work to develop reliable grasping mechanisms to replace human pickers who have annoying habits like going to the bathroom and going home at the end of their shift.
These two automation systems have very different implications for warehouse design, but denser solutions like Amazon’s automated ottoman seem ideally suited to the smaller fulfillment centers encroaching into our cities with carefully calculated products selected to get more people more things in less time. Lynn believes they could do a lot more than cut down shipping time on your Crest Complete Multi-Benefit Toothpaste with Whitening + Scope. “The level of spatial intelligence in these buildings is remarkable,” he said. “It’s clear that every item is being tracked at all times. In terms of localization and knowing where things are, it’s a hyperintelligent space.… [But] how do you take that kind of spatial thinking and apply it to other building types—a library or market or university?”
Lynn has been exploring that question with architecture students at Yale and UCLA, but we may not have to wait long to find out. Amazon is already experimenting with brick-and-mortar bookstores and grocery stores. Could Amazon U really be that far out? Could logistics save the shopping mall? Should more architects and planners consider these interconnected systems and design for robots as well as people? It may only be a matter of time before automation becomes integrated into our daily lives outside the warehouse and the architecture of fulfillment becomes the architecture of the city. Beyond packing and shipping, could fleets of autonomous vehicles transform cities by making parking garages and parking lots obsolete—creating new space for fulfillment centers, perhaps, or putting a new premium on curb space for drop-offs and pick-ups? I haven’t even mentioned drones yet. As technology evolves to meet the demands of our on-demand lifestyle, what else will change? Perhaps all cities will come to resemble Calvino’s fictional Leonia, whose opulence was measured “not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, [and] bought…but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new.” Ultimately, Leonia was threatened by a looming mountain of its own leftovers. But I bet they could get new underwear delivered in less than an hour.
BREAKING: SAIC and UChicago may be organizing the U.S. Pavilion at Venice Biennale
Under the leadership of the SAIC and UChicago program directors and curatorial team, the Exhibition and Program Coordinator supports the development of the U.S. pavilion at the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice, Italy (hereafter, “Biennale”) through research, fundraising, planning, scheduling, commissioning, staffing, and more. This work involves coordinating and collaborating with architects, artists, scholars, public and private organizations in both the U.S. and Italy.There is no word on the theme of the exhibition and the posting makes us wonder if this group was selected without a coordinated curatorial approach or idea, perhaps based on a fundraising budget and strategy? The job listing claims the Program Coordinator will be under the program director and curatorial team of the sponsoring institutions. The architecture program of the Art Institute of Chicago is directed by Jonathan Solomon who co-curated the 2010 U.S. Pavilion with Michael Rooks. (The High Museum in Atlanta was the organizer for the 2010 pavilion as well.) Solomon clearly knows his way around the Venetian Giardini. Stay tuned.
Going for Gold
Los Angeles will host the 2028 Olympics
L.A gave up the bid for the 2024 games, which will be hosted in Paris, after a deal was struck with the International Olympics Committee (IOC). The Committee had not reached a consensus as to which city would take the earlier games until today. The unusual arrangement saw the simultaneous announcement of the hosts for both the 2024 and 2028 games.
The city, when making its bid for 2024, proposed using its existing facilities from the previous Olympics. While extensive retrofitting and building temporary facilities will take place, no new permanent structures will have to go up. In this way, L.A. would be the “most affordable” of any U.S. proposal, as Mayor Eric Garcetti claimed. The L.A Memorial Coliseum and surrounding Exposition Park will be the main stages for the games; other significant venues include the Staples Center, Nokia Theater, Griffith Observatory, Dodger Stadium, and Rose Bowl.
The city’s proposal also relies heavily on expanding transit infrastructure, including the light rail, streetcar systems, and LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal. Officials have made the promise that 80 percent of spectators and visitors will be connected to venues by public transportation.
The U.S. has not hosted a Summer Olympics since 1996 when it was held in Atlanta. The success of both games, and especially in 1984 when the city turned a $250 million profit, as well as the advertised lower cost due to existing infrastructure, has made both the public and city officials amenable to hosting. Boston was originally chosen to be the American bid over Los Angeles and San Francisco but withdrew last minute in 2015 due to cost overruns.
L.A. had originally made its proposal and plans for 2024, and not 2028. According to the Times, while the city is still willing to accommodate for four years later than planned, officials have acknowledged that the cost and logistical estimates in the bid will likely be higher in 2028.
The official announcement will take place on September 13 in Lima, Peru.
From SO-IL in Paris to Atlanta’s ambitious highway-capping park: AN’s can’t-miss top posts from this week
Following several key revisions, Midtown East’s rezoning plan was unanimously approved by both the City Council Land Use Committee and the subcommittee on zoning and franchises.Atlanta’s highway-capping park moves forward but seeks new partners and funding The plan to build a nine-acre park over a highway in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood is moving forward after the Buckhead business district voted to create a nonprofit organization that will manage its future development. Facing soaring costs, the world’s skinniest skyscraper is facing foreclosure The world’s skinniest skyscraper on Billionaire’s Row in New York City could be headed towards foreclosure. The SHoP-designed building on 111 W. 57th Street has only been built up to 20 stories and is already $50 million over budget. Met Breuer exhibit introduces an Ettore Sottsass you’ve never seen before Although Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass is perhaps most famous in the United States for his legendary design collective, Memphis, his life and career involve far, far more, as a fascinating new exhibition at the Met Breuer in New York reveals.
Buckhead Park Over GA400
Atlanta’s highway-capping park moves forward but seeks new partners and funding
An ambitious plan to build a park over a highway in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood is moving forward after the Buckhead business district voted to create a nonprofit organization that will manage future development, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
The nine-acre linear park—proposed last year and planned for a section of Georgia 400—would be designed by the two New York–based firms ROGERS PARTNERS Architects + Urban Designers and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. The Buckhead Community Improvement District (CID), a public-private organization that invests taxes from commercial property owners within the district into the public realm, released today an updated timeline for the project. The next five months will be dedicated toward the creation of the nonprofit, as well as the planning and design of the park. The CID has also dedicated up to $262,500 in order to sustain its contract with the design team through 2017.
“The goal would be for us to truly hand this off to the new entity where they could count on some funding from the CID to help stand them up and help attracting additional partners,” Buckhead CID Executive Director Jim Durrett said to AJC.
Buckhead Park Over GA400, the park’s current tentative name, is a push from the city to encourage walkable environments and green spaces. The park is located at the confluence of Georgia 400, Peachtree Road, the MARTA red line, and the Path400 Greenway Trail.
The current design is an open scheme with various public spaces—a Commons, a Plaza, and the Gardens—that aim to create diverse experiences through the park. It will also be built over a MARTA station (acting as a roof, almost) and will be connected to various pedestrian paths. Public engagement is expected to play a role during the design phase, as well as in the formal naming of the park.
The approval was a narrow vote, 4-3, with dissenters citing a lack of key details—including funding sources. The estimated cost of the project is as high as $245 million, with Buckhead CID officials saying they expect funding to come through both public and private sources, including MARTA when the Buckhead MARTA station goes through a redesign.
With this approval to move forward, the Buckhead CID is hopeful that pre-construction work will begin in January 2018, groundbreaking will happen by 2020, and a fully operational park will open by 2023, according to AJC.Explore the park in 3D here.
"make homelessness rare and brief"
Atlanta’s $50 million fight to end homelessness is moving forward
Atlanta’s city council approved major funding for a plan to end homelessness, voting unanimously on Monday to issue $26 million in bonds to match another $25 million promised by nonprofit United Way of Greater Atlanta, as first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The city’s mayor, Kasim Reed, has made tackling homelessness a priority during his time in office. During his “state of the city” address back in January, he announced United Way’s commitment to match any city funding towards the homeless initiative.
“I am proud to announce that with the unanimous approval of the Atlanta City Council, we will move forward with our $50 million commitment to make homelessness rare and brief in the City of Atlanta,” Reed said in a press release.
The bonds and the matched donation will indeed bring in more than $50 million. The city will also leverage (i.e. taking on debt to increase the return on investment) an additional $66 million to make a total investment of more than $115 million to tackle homelessness.
Over the next three years, the money will be distributed to provide different services, including 264 new emergency shelter beds and housing interventions. Approximately $7.6 million will be used for the acquisition and renovation of shelters over the course of the next three years. The majority of the money (around $16 million), however, will go towards the primary goal of the city’s homeless initiative: buying or renovating 500 units that will be used as permanent homes for the homeless.
Atlanta has more than 3,500 individuals and families in need of shelter, according to an analysis by non-profit Partners for Home. But homelessness in the city has been on a downward trend, decreasing by 16.5 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to National Alliance to End Homelessness’ report 2016 The State of Homelessness in America. This approval of funds brings Reed’s pledge one step closer to reality.
“We now have the opportunity to end chronic homelessness in our city and ensure that all men, women, and children—regardless of circumstance—have the chance to live stable, meaningful lives and participate fully in their communities,” Reed said.
NYCxDESIGN kicks off this week, and our first ever Tech+ Expo will be part of it. Check us out on May 23rd from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at 639 West 46th St. For more information visit techplusexpo.com.
A wave of new technologies is transforming the architecture, engineering, and construction industries. On May 23, The Architect’s Newspaper will host the first trade expo and forum to investigate this convergence: TECH+. Taking place during NYCxDesign month, New York’s official citywide celebration of design, the conference incorporates visionary speakers, engaging panels, live demos, and product displays from leaders in emerging fields like virtual reality, smart buildings, parametrics, advanced materials, drones and robotics, AEC Software, and mobile apps.
Architects, engineers, designers, builders, real-estate professionals, investors, entrepreneurs, software developers, students, and makers will converge at Metropolitan West in New York—the center of one of America’s fastest growing tech markets—to discover innovations, come across start-ups, meet top experts, and build connections. A conference addressing new architectural technologies is both needed and timely, spurring new ideas, cross-pollination, and innovation.
“We see TECH+ as the place where technology companies and the AEC industry converge,” said The Architect’s Newspaper publisher Diana Darling. “We want to share what’s happening and start pulling people together. These fields are developing quickly, and people are eager to build a community.”
Over the past six years, AN has hosted 26 events for Facades+, a series of conferences taking place in cities around the country focusing on the future of building envelopes. TECH+ will build on that series’ success by teaming up with Microsol Resources TechPerspectives conference to host a full day of inspired presentations on the Innovation Stage.
Presenters at TECH+ will include keynote speaker Hao Ko, a Gensler principal who helped mastermind the Nvidia headquarters building in Santa Clara, California, and the Mercedes-Benz headquarters building in Atlanta; Kerenza Harris, leader of Morphosis Architects’ advanced technology team; and leaders of innovative companies like Graphisoft, Humanscale, Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), FXFowle, Thornton Tomasetti, and more.
Panels will discuss, among other topics, start-up technology investment, workplace design, digital printing and fabrication, virtual-reality environments, and on-site drone footage. More than a dozen exhibitors hail from around the AEC industry, in fields like BIM (building information modeling) software, virtual reality (VR), 3-D printing, engineering, and computer graphics. The conference will also showcase know-how from some of the city’s top tech incubators and research from cutting-edge technology programs at design schools like Columbia GSAPP, Parsons, MIT DesignX, and Pratt.
“TECH+ is a new type of conference,” said Darling. “We’re focusing on completely new ideas and techniques, and gauging where the future of the AEC will be and how we get there.”