On Wednesday May 9, the California Energy Commission will vote on whether or not to require solar panels on new homes. The standard is expected to pass and would apply to all single and multi-family homes up to three stories tall as of January 2020. Exceptions will be made for shaded structures or in situations where it is impractical to install panels and offsets can be used for other solutions, such as re-charging batteries like Tesla’s Powerwall. Homes will not have to reach net-zero status (that is, relying completely on the solar panels for all energy), but is still expected to San Francisco already requires solar panels on all new buildings under 10 stories tall—statewide about 15 to 20 percent of new single family homes rely on solar energy. As California is the world’s fifth largest economy, the massive sales-boost that would result in this measure should not only lower the cost of solar panels in the state, but across the U.S. Installing solar panels will make it approximately $25,000 to $30,000 more expensive to build homes than those built under the 2006 code. However, homeowners are expected to save $50,000 to $60,000 over 25 years. While some have pointed out that this could make California’s housing shortage situation even more dire by raising housing costs, the energy–saving benefits (and California’s increasingly wealthy population) may outnumber the naysayers. This is the most recent of California’s sustainability measures as it continues to push toward a more environmentally friendly future, including filing a lawsuit against the EPA from lowering vehicle emission standards.
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Divisive rapper Kanye West has been on a tweeting spree lately, and just dropped a series of photos from the Hidden Hills, California, house that West has been collaborating on with Belgian interior designer Axel Vervoordt. West had been taken to task earlier in the day by Twitter users after the rapper professed his love for Donald Trump (and earned a retweet from the president in the process). In response, and to prove that he wasn’t in the “sunken place,” West released a suite of photos of his and wife Kim Kardashian’s 15,000-square-foot home, currently undergoing an interior renovation.
do this look like the sunken place 😂 pic.twitter.com/ixzKnaaaSy— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018
Vervoordt’s influence can definitely be felt throughout; the designer is known for his use of light, raw materials, and a washed-out color palette to highlight a space’s structural qualities. The polished concrete floors, vaulted ceilings, and long sightlines will likely highlight West’s art once the renovation is complete (it's estimated that West and Kardashian have already spent $20 million on the project). While the team-up might seem like an odd choice, West and Vervoordt seem to have formed a bond based on art. West recently interviewed the designer for The Hollywood Reporter, and repeatedly expressed his admiration for Vervoordt’s ability to evoke emotion from a space. “It was an immediate connection,” said Vervoordt. “I could feel that you were really in love with things. Even if people think we come out of two different worlds, the act of meeting makes one another stronger. You were so spontaneous, totally true and intense. Now we're working on a house together, and I've learned from you because you have great taste. We talk about things, we change things.”
more tweets from the sunken place 😂 pic.twitter.com/nJQdQ2aVKn— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018
Meet the incubators and accelerators producing the new guard of design and architecture start-ups. This is part of a series profiling incubators and accelerators from our April 2018 Technology issue. Trimble-owned Gehry Technologies (GT) launched a three-month design-and-technology-focused accelerator program called ZeroSixty that is geared toward helping a new generation of innovators revolutionize project delivery across the AEC industry. The accelerator program will help start-ups based out of its Marina del Rey, California, offices to “build and scale” their services by connecting new entrepreneurs with “people, networks, and technologies,” according to the company. The effort is aimed at turning back the increasingly common trend among mega-projects of being over budget and behind schedule. ZeroSixty comes three years after software developer Trimble purchased GT in an effort to integrate and disseminate innovations in technology-driven project delivery across its various platforms. GT was originally founded in 2002 by Frank Gehry and his team at Gehry Partners to adapt techniques from the aerospace and automotive industries and apply them to the firm’s most complex building projects. In the years since, the group has worked on a variety of challenging projects across the world for various high-profile architects, including the Beijing National Stadium with Herzog & de Meuron and the Louvre Abu Dhabi with the Ateliers Jean Nouvel. ZeroSixty was founded by German Aparicio and Lucas Reames, both GT veterans, earlier this year and is currently accepting applications for its first cohort of companies. “The idea is to help entrepreneurs scale their products and services by leveraging our past experiences, field expertise, and client base while continuously seeking to innovate,” Aparicio said. The GT team has always been at the forefront of this niche within the AEC industry, including back in the early 2000s when, working on the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, they were among the first to utilize virtual reality visualizations for on-site construction. Now, Trimble and ZeroSixty seek to build upon this legacy by focusing on new AEC-related applications for emerging technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and data analytics. “These technologies offer the opportunity to provide greater insights using a data-driven approach to project delivery and increase the quality and efficiencies of our industry,” Aparicio explained. With ZeroSixty and its no-equity support for emerging practices, Trimble has its eyes firmly set on building the future. Aparicio added, “These technologies promise to create services on the web that can be used on demand to automate everyday tasks so designers, project managers, contractors, and facility operators can focus on the more interesting or important part of their everyday lives.”
Let’s face it: no one has ever characterized a solar panel as being particularly attractive. In fact, they’re eyesores. While the environmental and business cases for photovoltaics are relatively easy to make, their aesthetic dimension has long been a losing proposition. “In states like California, solar is half the price of the local utility, even without subsidies,” explained Ido Salama, co-founder of Sistine Solar. “At the same time, it feels like all solar products look the same: they come in either black or blue, and, while solar panels work great, many people would describe them as ugly. At the very least, they look out of place on a roof,” he added. Rather than attempting to convince people to appreciate solar for what it is, Salama and company set out to build a solar panel that appeals to their sense of aesthetics instead. To that end, Sistine Solar introduced its SolarSkin technology—described on the company’s website as “solar with curb appeal”—in 2013 when its developers won the renewables track of the MIT Clean Energy Prize. Since launching SolarSkin, the company recently introduced its online Design Studio platform to allow anyone to design, customize, and price a solar installation.
How it worksDeveloped by MIT engineers, SolarSkin is a thin film specially coated with ultra-durable graphics and integrated onto high-efficiency solar panels. The technology employs selective light filtration to simultaneously display an image and transmit sunlight to the underlying solar cells with minimal loss in efficiency. The product is available in any number of colors and patterns, is compatible with every major panel manufacturer, and is available for both new and existing roofs. The end result is essentially a kind of camouflage for the typically drab photovoltaic panel. Sistine Solar’s new SolarSkin Design Studio is an online tool that allows architects, designers, and homeowners alike to design and order a customized solar system from a desktop computer or mobile phone. With a $99 refundable deposit, end users will receive a preliminary system design using LIDAR mapping, a detailed panel layout, guaranteed production figures, a realistic rendering, (where suitable image is available), and guaranteed delivery within 90 days. The Design Studio is intended to get customers more excited about solar, according to Salama. “Homeowners appreciate the transparency, customizability, and especially the ability to match their solar panels to their roof,” he said. “Architects and designers love it because for the first time, they have a product that allows them to showcase solar in a way never before possible—integrated, congruent, harmonious." In spite of the improvement to aesthetics, however, solar technology still faces a number of challenges in terms of market transformation. “Soft costs is one barrier,” he said. “Solar is so complex because every municipality has different rules when it comes to permitting solar.” Noting that it may take one to three days to physically install and wire up a solar system, Salama points out that it can take up to three months to get a permit. “If soft costs could be reduced—like streamlining the permitting process—we would see a radical transformation in adoption,” he suggested. Of course, affordable storage is an ongoing issue with solar technology. “When solar and storage become more economical than buying from the local utility, we will see a huge shift towards distributed generation and plenty of homeowners cutting the cord,” Salama predicted. Now that solar panels are eligible for a makeover, however, there’s one less hurdle to overcome—making the future of solar technology a little more attractive.
Some of the most fruitful innovation in the AEC industry right now lies in the realm of factory-built buildings. Whether they include experiments with prefabrication, mass-timber construction, or modular components, architects are increasingly working with building assemblies that are fabricated off-site and under controlled conditions. And while some designers work in these modes on a one-off basis, a new crop of technology-focused, end-to-end construction service firms have sprung up that can take a project from idea to finished building all on their own, including construction and fabrication. Established in 2015, Katerra is one of the firms that are shifting how buildings get designed and built in the United States by pioneering a hybrid business model that combines prefabrication with mass-customization. The Menlo Park, California–based company is a relative newcomer in the field, but with over $1.3 billion in projects and an expanding nationwide presence, Katerra is poised to make factory construction a thing for the future. AN’s West editor Antonio Pacheco spoke to Craig Curtis, president of Katerra Architecture, to discuss its business model, examine how the company integrates technology into its workflow, and delve into the firm’s new project types. The Architect’s Newspaper: Can you tell us what Katerra does? Craig Curtis: Katerra is an end-to-end construction and technology service company that applies systemic approaches to remove unnecessary time and costs from building design and construction. Our services include architecture and engineering, interior design, materials supply, construction management and general contracting, and renovation. What are some of Katerra’s short- and long-term goals? Since the company’s founding three years ago, Katerra has accomplished a significant amount: We have more than $1.3 billion in bookings for new construction spanning the multifamily, student and senior housing, hospitality, and commercial office sectors. [During this time] our global team has grown to more than 1,400 employees and we also opened a manufacturing facility in Phoenix and started construction on a mass timber factory in Spokane, Washington. Going forward, we are focused on delivering the projects in our pipeline, bringing our Spokane factory online in early 2019, and continuing to build out additional domestic factories like the one in Phoenix, where we fabricate building components. We will also continue to expand and improve Katerra’s technology platform, which underpins our vertically integrated model. What does it mean to use a “systems approach” with regard to building design and project delivery? Katerra’s model uses technology and end-to-end control throughout all levels of design, development, and construction. By moving from individual project thinking to a systems approach, we deliver greater precision, higher productivity, and improved quality control. With design, we combine product standardization with customization. This provides the efficiency of manufacturing without sacrificing design freedom. Through our global supply chain of curated, high-quality products, we eliminate middlemen, passing savings directly to our clients. We also integrate Building Information Modeling (BIM) tools and computational design with our global supply chain infrastructure. So, plans go directly from design to the factory floor and to the construction site. Materials and products arrive at our construction sites on time and ready to install. As a result, the activity at a Katerra construction site more closely resembles a process of precision-sequenced product assembly than traditional construction. Speaking generally, how much time does Katerra’s business model shave off a project timeline compared to traditional project delivery? In 2018, we are beginning construction on the first series of fully optimized buildings designed by Katerra. This particular building type is a three-story suburban product for workforce housing. We anticipate being able to achieve up to a 40 percent reduction in project schedule for these projects, providing significant benefits to our customers. As we develop similar tools for other market sectors, we anticipate significant schedule reductions, with the percentage dependent on the complexity of the building type. What are some of the innovative technologies Katerra employs from a design, fabrication, or construction point of view? A great example is our use of Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID). We add RFID tags to all the components fabricated in our manufacturing factory. These tags are accessible from mobile devices either on the production floor or in the final assembled product at the job site. Each RFID is linked to an archived file showing the entire assembly of the selected component, including video of each step in the manufacturing process. With this RFID technology, enclosed wall panels can be delivered to the job site, allowing local building inspectors and third-party verifiers to perform virtual framing and air sealing inspections. Application of RFID is just one of many ways Katerra is using technology to drive down costs, improve quality, and deliver a superior customer experience.
Turnaround Arts: California recently announced a $1 million donation from architect Frank Gehry. A leading figure behind the proposed redesign of the Los Angeles River into a mixed-use district with substantial parkland, Gehry will direct his donation towards underserved communities abutting the river just south of Los Angeles. As he said in a statement, "I have been working on the Los Angeles River, and through this work, I have discovered the great need for this program in the districts closest to the river, especially south of the city of Los Angeles." Founded in 2014 by Malissa Shriver and Frank Gehry, Turnaround Arts: California is the state chapter of a larger initiative championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. Coordinated by The Kennedy Center, Turnaround Arts strives to improve academic performance and improve schools through the arts by providing arts education to nearly one hundred underperforming schools in seventeen states and Washington D.C. With Gehry's donation being matched by an anonymous donor, Turnaround Arts: California’s program will be extended to ten more schools in the next five years, with the first of these three participating as of April 16. In total, 17,000 K-8 students in California will now be served by educational programs led by Turnaround Arts. In a statement, Gehry added, "Over the last forty years, I’ve spent time with kids in the classroom using architecture and art to get them engaged, focus their attention, and even introduce mathematics, civics, and other subjects that they might not have otherwise been receptive to."
May 12, 2013 Penngrove, California Drive north through Marin County, past Petaluma on Route 101, exit onto Railroad Avenue and right onto Old Redwood Highway. Small farm lots, old barns and sheds, prickle hedges and honeysuckle. “It’s not a commune,” says Jay Baldwin, coming out to greet us, but it is a shining hill that rises to the west from Penngrove Valley with seven tiers of chicken coops restored by old hippies and student squatters. Jay and his wife, Liz Fial, have been here longer than anyone else, since 1963. “Is it possible?” he asks himself, counting backward on the fingers of one hand. “Same year that Kennedy got shot, two months earlier,” he says, describing how he moved out from Michigan, driving 2,370 miles from Ann Arbor, through Denver, breaking down outside of Salt Lake City, while carrying all of his worldly possessions in the back of a ‘56 Chevy. Their domesticated coop has a low sloping ceiling, but it’s attached to a larger barn where Jay stores all of his experiments. Old wood planks are nailed vertically, board and batten, weathered and dark, as if oiled and smoked for years over a slow-burn fire. There’s a configuration of short two-by-fours beveled and nailed onto one wall in a radiating asterisk shape with elk antlers hanging from the center, sacred animal vibe, wild roses and ancient Ford, rusted out. Jay and Liz did all the work themselves, and they manage to live on $8,000 a year, happy and fine and low-impact. We eat a lunch of fresh berries, homegrown lettuce, cucumbers, cheese, and lemonade, while Baldwin tells me about his association with Buckminster Fuller, how he first met him in Ann Arbor, after one of Bucky’s all-night, epic lectures that started at 7 p.m. and went till dawn the next morning. They met up again in the fall of 1969 when Bucky came to visit Pacific High School, a free-form hippie school in the Santa Cruz Mountains where Baldwin and his fellow dome-head, Lloyd Kahn, were teaching students how to build domes. Together, they fabricated as many as 17 different versions of Bucky’s geodesic prototype, and one of the most experimental variations was Baldwin’s “Pillow Dome” that was made from clear vinyl pillows inflated with hydrogen. (The vinyl pillows were fabricated by a company in San Francisco that made inflatable female dolls for porn shops.) Bucky liked it so much that he lay down and took an hour-long nap inside the 20-foot-diameter structure. When he awoke, he asked Baldwin to build one on the Fuller family island in Maine. Baldwin said yes, if Bucky would pay for all the material expenses. “He said OK and wrote us a check,” Baldwin says, who prefabricated all the parts at his barn in Penngrove and then packed them into the back of his trusty ’67 Citroën DS wagon and drove from California all the way to Camden, Maine—about 3,300 miles—only stopping in Carbondale, Illinois, to help a friend make a ferroconcrete sailboat. “We were on Bear Island for about a week, living in one of the old barns,” recalled Baldwin. “There was an ancient pool table in there, and we shot pool by candlelight on the greatly slanted table, a challenge. It all went well, though Kathleen [Whitacre] and I were held in obvious low esteem by the New Englanders, probably because we weren’t married.” August 27, 2013 Bear Island, Maine A few months after seeing Baldwin at his house in Penngrove, I make it out to Bear Island, Bucky’s wind-swept, family island in Penobscot Bay, and although I know that one of Baldwin’s domes might still be lying in ruin, somewhere on the island, I’m taken aback when I see it there because I didn’t think it would be positioned so prominently on that first foggy march up from the harbor, up the hill, just past the Eating House, on the way to the Big House, emerging like a specter from a wafting plume of mist, silvery white against a backdrop of deep pine-tree shadows. I’m stunned by its simple, geometric beauty, an unexpected surprise, a hidden gem, and I hold back from looking too closely on this, my first pass, because I want to save it for later when I will return, alone and with my camera, to inspect the structure from all possible angles, inside and out. This is what I do an hour after my arrival, because I don’t want to lose the milky light and mysterious veils of mist, but by the time I return to the site, the light has dissolved into a dull pewter matte and the wind has kicked up to blow all the fog away. Once he’d transported all the parts from the mainland to the island on a lobster boat, Baldwin assembled the Pillow Dome on an old tennis court using three-fourths-inch EMT electrical tubing “because it’s galvanized inside and out,” and filled each opening with a 15-milliliter triangular pillow. It took them about a week to complete the dome, only because of so many distractions, including Bucky himself, who would frequently come by to check on their progress and talk for hours, or insist that they go sailing for the rest of the day. Late one evening, everyone sat beneath the struts of the unfinished dome and waited for a lunar eclipse, but when Fuller’s sister rushed down from the Big House to announce its arrival and said: “Brother, the eclipse is coming up from the bottom!” Fuller snapped back: “The moon doesn’t have any UP, stupid!” Everyone laughed except for Baldwin who felt bad about making Bucky’s sister the brunt of the joke. I walk around the ruins of the Pillow Dome. The vinyl “pillows” disintegrated a long time ago, but the thing itself, the main structure, the galvanized geodesic skeleton, struts, connectors, and bolts, are in surprisingly good shape considering it’s a 43-year-old artifact left to endure the salt air and brutal winters of coastal Maine. Even the star-shaped skylight at the top of the dome is still intact, and you can see how it was hinged around the edges so that the top panels could be flipped open for ventilation. There’s no sense of a roof pressing down, or of walls closing in. It is more of a floating, bubble-like sensation, and reminds me of Fuller’s enormous “Biosphere” that I visited the years before, in Montreal. It felt like a future that hadn’t happened yet, or at the least, a future that hadn’t been fully digested. The tetrahedral poetics of the geosphere, now black and naked, stripped clean of its original acrylic shell, manifested itself as an alternate sky—if that makes any sense—and there was something about looking through its prism-like veil that made the oddly pixelated horizon seem infinitely small. After his experiment on Bear Island, Baldwin worked with John Todd of the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, and together they fabricated a larger version of the Pillow Dome, skinned with Tefzel, an ETFE fluoropolymer resin made by DuPont.
California State Senator Scott Weiner has unveiled a slate of new amendments aimed at shoring up support behind his controversial housing bill—SB-827—that could potentially spell the beginning of a detente between pro-housing and social justice-focused advocacy groups in the state. In a Medium post published Monday night, Weiner laid the groundwork for this potential reconciliation by addressing some of the thorniest aspects of the bill critics have lamented thus far, while also proposing the addition of key new elements. Additions to SB-827 include mandatory affordable housing requirements, strengthening demolition controls outlined specifically by the bill, and doing away with the most significant height increases allowed by SB-827. Weiner’s bill has been heavily criticized from multiple angles since it was introduced earlier this year. On one side, NIMBY groups have decried the intended effects of the measure—densification along transit stops and an erosion of parking and height limits associated with development in these areas—while groups that represent low-income residents and communities of color have targeted the bill as yet another instance of top-down exploitation. In response to the latter set of critiques, Weiner added a bevy of pro-tenant fixes to the legislation several weeks ago, proposing a so-called “right to remain” that would require developers to offer new units to existing tenants for projects that benefit from the bill’s new development standards, among other fixes. The most recent crop of changes aims to further soften the edges of the bill, while making explicit elements that were only hinted at before. The biggest change comes from the addition of an affordable housing requirement for all but the smallest projects. The bill will now require between 10 and 20 percent of new units constructed to be set aside as deed-restricted affordable housing, with specific allotments made for “low income” and “very low income” households within these new guidelines. The highest inclusionary requirements are triggered for mixed-use projects consisting of 25 percent or more office space, according to the post, with projects made up of nine or fewer units exempt from inclusionary rules. While the proposed bill did not initially propose to strip away local control over building demolitions, the updated language would penalize developers who utilize California’s controversial Ellis Act provision to evict tenants from rent-controlled units. In a significant win for rent-stabilized households, the bill will halt the issuance of a demolition permit on properties that have recorded an Ellis Act eviction within the last five years, meaning that landlords will not be allowed to evict rent-controlled tenants in order to demolish an existing structure to make way for market-rate or luxury development. Going one step further, the bill will also aim for a so-called “no net loss” strategy that will force developers to replace any demolished rent controlled units lost in the process of redevelopment. These protections will apply in addition to the right-to-remain and inclusionary requirements, so if, for example, an existing 10-unit, rent-controlled structure is demolished, the new development must include 10 new rent-controlled units, add roughly one new deed-restricted affordable unit, and allow all ten existing tenants to take up their old leases at similar rents as before, with however many remaining new units set aside as market-rate homes. The new compromises represent a victory for social justice groups and low-income tenants and could potentially smooth out opposition to the bill in some of these communities, though that is yet to be seen. Another key change is that the bill would no longer totally eliminate parking requirements for transit-adjacent areas, but allows up to 0.5 parking stalls per unit for developments located along high-frequency bus routes and for developments located more than a quarter-mile from a rail stop or a ferry terminal. The bill will also require developers to issue monthly transit passes to building tenants. The new bill would also scrap a previous 85-foot height limit imposed on transit-adjacent properties in order to “focus the bill on 45- to 55-foot wood frame buildings,” which Weiner contends are more affordable to build than the steel structure buildings that would be required at the higher limit. The additional height limits will also no longer apply to rapid bus-adjacent sites, though those parcels will still benefit from lower parking and higher density restrictions. The bill is making its way toward formal hearings on the California State Senate floor. For more information on the changes, see Weiner’s post.
Following a flurry of attention after one of Uber’s self-driving cars struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, the ridesharing company has announced that it would let its permit to test autonomous vehicles (AVs) in California expire on March 31. According to a March 27th letter from the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Uber has suspended all of its autonomous vehicle testing indefinitely until the Arizona investigation wraps up. It’s only been ten days since Uber’s self-driving car killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, but the news around the event has moved incredibly quickly. After it was revealed that the vehicle was traveling 40 miles-per-hour in a 35 mph zone, video of the incident showed that the human “safety driver” had taken her eyes off the road. Arizona’s governor Doug Ducey has since suspended Uber’s license to test AVs, and the company has settled with the family of the deceased. The investigation into the cause of the crash is being investigated by The National Traffic Safety Board, National Highway Traffic Administration, and the Tempe Arizona Police Department. “We proactively suspended our self-driving operations, including in California, immediately following the Tempe incident,” Uber spokeswoman Sarah Abboud told the New York Times. “Given this, we decided to not reapply for a California D.M.V. permit, with the understanding that our self-driving vehicles would not operate on public roads in the immediate future.” Uber may have dropped its California application because of the stringent requirements that the state places on self-driving vehicle testing. Companies are required to document the number of “disengagements” when a human takes over, as well as complete incident reports; it’s likely that Uber would have had a tough time getting its application approved without a definitive result from the Arizona investigation. Still, as Uber draws down, other self-driving car companies are ramping up their efforts considerably. The Alphabet-owned Waymo announced on Tuesday that they had partnered with Jaguar to produce a fleet of 20,000 (electric) autonomous luxury taxis, and that they expect to make 1 million trips a day by 2020.
If California’s gubernatorial candidates are to fulfill their ambituous goal of adding up to 3.5 million new housing units across the state over the next eight years, new efforts will need to be undertaken to streamline and reform the state’s sagging construction industry—Could this effort create an opening for mass timber construction to take hold in the Golden State? It might, and here are a few reasons why. For one, there’s a growing push for new urban housing in California that could soon make the mid-rise apartment the state’s quintessential dwelling type. There’s strong reason to believe that if proposed regulatory changes go as planned, cities in the state could see a flowering of the kinds of four- to eight-story multi-family structures mass timber excels at delivering. With construction times running 15 to 20 percent faster than conventional building, there’s a potential mass timber technologies could help bring new units online very quickly, especially if minimum dwelling standards are set and municipalities streamline permitting and approval. Secondly, mass timber is becoming more widely-accepted as a building approach, reflecting a growing awareness of its inherent structural and fire-safety benefits. The nascent industry is cheering recent changes to the 2021 version of the International Building Code that will allow mass timber construction for structures up to 18-stories high. The shift could bring down the cost of building dense housing in the medium-sized city centers—downtown Long Beach, Glendale, San Diego, San Jose, and Oakland, for example—where lots of growth could happen but has so far been lacking. At these heights, it’s possible mass timber buildings could be more affordable to build than conventional structures while still delivering the height and structural resilience formerly only possible through concrete and steel frame construction. With San Francisco and L.A. building out larger transit systems and the state’s high-speed trail line on the way, it will be important to add high density nodes throughout the state to meet climate and housing goals. Cory Scrivner, a mass timber specialist with Structurlam, explained via email that with the coming changes to IBC and looming reforms to local zoning, “The market for mass timber will be growing significantly over the next few years.” With disruptive and new tariffs on foreign-grown softwood and imported steel and aluminum, its possible there could be further financial incentives to build structures made from regionally-grown timber, as well. Katerra, a Menlo Park, California-based construction technology and services start-up, is busy constructing a 250,000-square-foot factory in Spokane, Washington where it will produce mass timber products including cross laminated timber (CLT) panels. The company, which seeks to bring many aspects of the construction process—design, engineering, materials, manufacturing, and assembly—under one name while also modernizing the construction trades, is well-poised to play a role in California’s housing recovery. The company—which already has a functioning factory in Arizona—is growing, having just received a boost of $865 million in investment capital as it seeks to build out its network of regional manufacturing facilities Furthermore, because mass timber manufacturing is typically performed indoors with fewer workers and in advance of job site installation, mass timber construction also potentially holds the promise of side-stepping the state’s vexing shortage of skilled construction workers, one of the many unsolved structural repercussions of the Great Recession. According to Craig Curtis, president of Katerra’s architecture unit, the company’s factory-focused business model means that fewer—and differently-trained—workers are required on site. Instead of hammering nail to wood on a desolate job site, Katerra’s equipment operators and workers produce interior and exterior wall panels, roof truss assemblies, floor systems and countertops, among other building components in a factory. On-site, a crane and a well-trained team of workers assemble each new building in a fraction of the time compared to normative building practices. Curtis said over telephone, “[Addressing California’s housing crisis] is exactly the type of problem we are trying to solve—everyone deserves to live in a well-designed home delivered at an affordable price point.” And lastly, because each mass timber assembly is made to order, the so-called “mass-customization” potential of mass timber construction could also be a boon for the urban character of cities and residents alike, potentially resulting in a rich variety of building approaches and unit types. Might this variable approach even do away with the dreaded “stucco box?” Only time will tell. California’s housing shortage is a watershed event several generations in the making that will require proportional measures if it is to be adequately addressed. Given current understanding of what the mass timber industry is capable of producing, a rising wave of zoning reform, and growing funding sources for affordable housing construction, it might be time for municipalities and developers alike to take a look at this new building technology.
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti is catching heat this week for making comments that expose his continued embrace of unproductive, NIMBY-fueled, anti-housing rhetoric. At issue is a reversal in Garcetti’s support for a controversial state housing reform bill known as SB-827, a measure that would lift arbitrary restrictions on building heights and abolish costly minimum parking requirements for development sites located up to ½ of a mile from rapid transit stops across the state. Although rough estimates indicate the bill could add millions of new units to California’s anemic housing stock, the bill has elicited widespread concern over the potential displacement and erasure that communities of color could see as a result. Opposition is most fierce in Los Angeles, where fears run high that hard-fought economic protections for working class neighborhoods could be wiped away by the bill. A coalition of 37 community groups called ACT LA recently stated its opposition to the measure in a letter, saying, “The antidote to segregationist low-density zoning imposed upon and against communities of color is not an ‘open the floodgates’ approach.” In response to these concerns, State Senator Scott Weiner—one of the politicians behind SB-827—has proposed a series of pro-tenant amendments that would keep local demolition controls in place, allowing cities to forbid the destruction of rent-controlled housing or historic structures, for example. The bill will now also allow local inclusionary zoning plans to remain in place, ensuring that developers will continue to meet prescribed affordability requirements. The biggest addition will require developers to guarantee the so-called “right-to-remain” for existing residents, where developers pay people to stay in their neighborhoods despite new market-rate developement. While it is yet to be known if these amendments will assuage displacement fears within the state’s economically-vulnerable communities, the changes seem to be immaterial to Garcetti. After initially supporting the bill with the condition that tenant protections be included, the mayor has flip-flipped and is now seeking protections for single-family zones, as well. Describing the bill’s potential impacts on L.A.’s urban fabric, a spokesperson for Garcetti emphasized that the bill “is still too blunt for our single-family home areas.” Parroting a common—and classist—NIMBY talking point, Garcetti explained at a luncheon on Wednesday that dense housing in single-family neighborhoods would look out of place and that “we have plenty of space and land” to continue suburban-style development. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Garcetti said, “Can you imagine, three blocks in, in a single-family neighborhood, you could go 10 stories automatically. It wouldn’t look right.” Garcetti has long-supported single-family zoning, but his expectation that measures like SB-827 preserve this type of housing struck some activists as a new and unwarranted position. Mark Vallianatos of Abundant Housing LA said, “I don't know why [Garcetti] decided to move the goalposts and insist that SB-827 not change single-family only zoning, even after his concerns about rent-stabilized apartments had been largely addressed by amendments.” Aside from seeking to keep L.A. locked into its suburban past, the mayor’s view that major housing legislation focus on preserving single-family zoning is seemingly at odds with the commonly-accepted solutions to California’s persistent and worsening housing affordability crisis. Experts agree broadly that the crisis is chiefly one of under-building resulting from the type NIMBY-fueled sentiment Garcetti expressed at the luncheon. Across the state, an overabundance of single-family zoned land and a resulting deficit in construction of new multi-family units, especially near high-capacity transit routes, is pushing housing out of reach of millions, burdening households with high rents, and forcing thousands into homelessness. Schools are closing in the Bay Area because families can’t afford to live there. Critical personnel—school teachers, medics, firefighters—face excruciating commutes because the only affordable communities are far-flung. 58% of Angelenos are rent-burdened, nearly 56,000 people in Los Angeles are experiencing homelessness, and California was recently ranked last in terms of quality of life in a recent U.S News and World Reports survey. The list of negative impacts resulting from the housing crisis goes on and on. And yet, to Garcetti, dense housing still doesn’t quite fit. The human cost of the crisis aside, Garcetti’s views miss the mark environmentally-speaking as well because single-family zoning bakes in auto-oriented lifestyles, fuels traffic congestion, and drives transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. Today, transportation emissions make up the bulk of California’s contribution to climate change. As has been said repeatedly, without greater investment in mass transit and density, the state will be unable to meet its ambitious climate goals. Garcetti’s comments also fail from an investment value-capture point of view—How can the state benefit from billions in new transit investments when only a select few have access to new metro lines? Given that the mayor strongly championed the multibillion dollar Measure M transit initiative in 2016, it would seem prudent to invest in—or at least allow—density near those lines. But instead, with the insistence that single-family zones be preserved, Mayor Garcetti risks undermining these new transit improvements in addition to extending the negative effects of the housing crisis even further. And for what? Whether the mayor is willing to accept it or not, if California is to truly embody the progressive ideals so many of its state and local leaders espouse, it must drastically reduce the amount of urban land dedicated to single-family housing. There is simply no other way around it. If he wanted to deflect development energy from single-family areas, the mayor could issue any number of constructive reforms, like lifting the prohibition on housing in L.A.’s commercial corridors, for example. Given Garcetti’s comments and track record so far, however, this seems unlikely. Instead, the conversation will continue to focus on the specious claims of housing-secure residents unwilling to make room for others.
Come April 2, California will see fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) hit the streets after the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) ruled that the cars don’t need a human in the driver’s seat. First proposed in October, the change means that the 50 companies registered to test self-driving cars in the state could start to ramp up the scale of their projects. The changes come as other states, like Arizona, have seen tech companies ramp up their investments in self-driving cars thanks to a lack regulations. Once the rule takes effect, these vehicles will only need an operator to monitor the car remotely, similar to flying a drone, just in case. Uber, Google’s self-driving car initiative Waymo, General Motors and other big-name players in the industry hailed the move as a major step forward in rolling out AVs on a mass scale. "This is a significant step towards an autonomous future in the state, and signals that California is interested in leading by example in the deployment of autonomous vehicles," Uber spokesperson, Sarah Abboud told The Sacramento Bee. "With this effort complete, we look forward to working with California as it develops regulations applicable to autonomous trucks." Even though it seems as if California is easing off the gas, companies will still be required to report their "disengagements," or human takeovers. While the self-driving cars being tested for mass market production use an array of cameras, radar sensors and satellite data to navigate, the technology isn’t perfect, and most AVs are tested in flat, open landscapes without pedestrians. After April we might see self-driving cars expand their reach onto busy streets or highways, but a full-on integration with manned traffic still seems unlikely. The industry leader in disengagements, Waymo, still reports needing a human takeover about every 5,600 miles, even as the company has announced that it would be launching a driverless ride sharing service in Phoenix, Arizona later this year. Despite the promised safety and environmental benefits that fully autonomous cars would bring (not to mention self-delivering pizzas), consumer advocacy groups have complained that rushing to bring AVs to real streets could endanger lives. Nonprofit organization Consumer Watchdog railed against the decision, releasing a statement accusing the DMV of prioritizing speed over safety. Although advancements in self-driving technology have been promising, the group wrote, “Even if the robot cars were to reach the highest level of perfection (which they are nowhere near, despite what clever marketing might have you believe!), robot cars will co-exist in a world with other humans, who will continue to act in unpredictable, non-robotic ways. Put simply: the robot car world will not be perfect, despite what the technocrats may have you believe.” With more autonomous vehicles set to take up space on public streets, it remains to be seen how well they’ll integrate with our messy, irrational transit system.