Celebrating Two Decades of Innovation at Virginia Tech’s Center for Design Research 

For over two decades, the Center for Design Research (CDR) at Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture has been a beacon of innovation, creativity, and excellence in the fields of architecture, design, and technology. Directed by Robert Dunay, FAIA, Joe Wheeler, AIA, and Nathan King, with a vision to integrate cutting-edge research with practical application, the CDR has consistently pushed the boundaries of what is possible, earning recognition and acclaim on both national and international stages. 

It’s also been a beacon for the profession in the Commonwealth (and beyond) for converting curiosity into impact, a key generator of ideas for firms and a vital skill for students to learn, no matter which pathway they take to practice. 

“The term ‘experiential learning’ is bounced around a lot, but our definition of it is about expanding what’s possible in the studio and creating a context for both students and faculty to thrive,” says Dunay, “and there’s a competitive side to it and there is a side to it that’s about troubleshooting under unpredictable circumstances, which is a team dynamic you’ll find in architectural practice. We teach everyone to think in alternatives.”

Let’s take a closer look at the impressive range of achievements that have marked the journey of the Center for Design Research.

Pioneering Solar Decathlon Success (2002-2010)

CDR’s journey began with the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon Competition. In 2002, the CDR’s entry, “The Art of Integration,” garnered the BP Award for Most Innovative House. This success set the stage for a string of victories, including a first-place win in the Architecture category at the 2005 Solar Decathlon with “No Compromise,” and CDR continued its winning streak, culminating in the first-place award at the International Solar Decathlon Competition in Madrid, Spain, in 2010, with the groundbreaking design of LumenHAUS.

Global Exhibitions and Collaborations (2003-2019)

Beyond competitions, CDR has showcased its work on prestigious platforms worldwide. Invitations to exhibit at renowned events such as the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City and the Milan Furniture Fair in Italy underscore the international recognition of the Center’s contributions to design and technology. Notable exhibitions include “The Urban Garden: Innovative Building Skins, Industrialized Processes” in 2012 and “F.A.B.R.I.C.A.T.I.O.N.: Technological Material Transformations” in 2015.

Impactful Community Initiatives (2007-2015)

CDR’s commitment to social impact is evident in its involvement with projects like the Extreme Makeover/Home Addition in Blacksburg, Virginia, where it designed and constructed a house in just six days. The Center’s reach extended globally with initiatives like the Portable Laboratory on Uncommon Ground (PLUG) in Tanzania, Africa, facilitating research on communicable diseases. Closer to home, the Eco-Park Learning Center Research Project in Prince William County, Virginia, showcased the CDR’s dedication to sustainable architecture and community engagement.

Recognition and Awards (2011-2018)

The Center’s contributions have not gone unnoticed, with prestigious awards and honors validating its innovative approach to design. The AIA National Honor Award for Architecture in 2012, bestowed upon LumenHAUS, stands as a testament to the Center’s architectural prowess. Further recognition came with the first-place win at the International Middle East Solar Decathlon in Dubai in 2018, solidifying the CDR’s position as a global leader in sustainable design.

Forward into the Future (2019-2023)

As the Center for Design Research enters its third decade, it continues to push the boundaries of design innovation. Exhibitions in Times Square, New York City, and participation in world expos in Dubai underscore the Center’s ongoing commitment to showcasing its groundbreaking work on a global stage. Collaborative initiatives like the grant to increase research collaboration with other universities demonstrate the Center’s dedication to fostering interdisciplinary partnerships and advancing the field of design research.

CDR has carved out a legacy of innovation, excellence, and social impact over the past two decades. From pioneering solar-powered housing solutions to exhibiting at prestigious international events, the CDR’s achievements reflect its unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of design and technology. As it looks to the future, the Center remains steadfast in its mission to drive positive change through collaborative research, visionary design, and sustainable practices, leaving an indelible mark on the world of architecture and design.

Want to learn more?

What’s so radical about transparency? 

By William Richards

Last year, VMDO’s Michelle Amt, FAIA, wrote about the firm’s commitment to “radical transparency” on the road to 2030. She was reflecting on the prior year’s achievement: VMDO’s sixth time of reporting its project performance data to the AIA’s 2030 Design Data Exchange (DDx), whose results, she said, “contain victories and defeats that remain untold—untold because we are not even close to hitting our 2030 goals portfolio-wise.”

It seems potentially damaging to a business like VMDO to admit, “Hey, we’re not hitting our marks, even if we believe we’re doing the right thing.” But, Amt’s rationale was simple and compelling: let’s agree that the road to success is paved with failures, and if we can’t talk openly about those setbacks—and why they occurred—we won’t rise to the urgency of decarbonization. We won’t learn from each other if we keep secrets. 

Radical transparency isn’t anti-business, Amt contended. It’s actually pro-business development. 

In today’s architecture world, where performance data and the optics of practicing sustainably form a heady blend, firms that are serious about decarbonization must leverage both to differentiate themselves in a competitive market. The AIA and the U.S. Department of Energy launched DDx in December 2014 with 132 firms reporting project-level information about energy performance. Now it features a decade’s worth of data from 500 firms, which represents a potentially vital data set for the 2030 Commitment’s evolution. 

“The 2030 Commitment has spurred discussions about our role and responsibility when it comes to climate action, resilience, equity, and health [and] after three years of not seeing our firm-wide percent reduction number move significantly, we discussed whether we wanted to focus our business development efforts solely on clients who were already interested in or actively asking for climate action,” said Amt in 2023. “This made us look deeply at how we measure success and impact beyond the DDx.”

What’s so radical about transparency? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t just shine a quick light on data that was once considered, at the very least, uncouth for an employer to reveal about not hitting goals. In a company that practices radical transparency, advocates say it ensures everyone has the ability to shine that light. 

Once you consider net zero benchmarks and an earnest desire to hit them, it’s not too long before you consider the other dimensions of transparency that can push a firm forward.

That includes salaries, long the elephant in the room, but now more and more visible as the crucible of pay inequity between workers who do the same job, as well as between men and women who do the same job. Just Google “gender pay gap in architecture” and see what you come up with.

WPA’s Mel Price, FAIA (once the chair of the AIA Small Firm Exchange when she spoke about the principles of openness in an AIA National interview) has been a tireless advocate of transparency as evidenced by her Norfolk firm, co-founded in 2010 with Thom White, AIA—and an open-office plan pairs well with an open-books plan.

“Back then [in 2010], the economy was shaky and the recovery from the Great Recession was slow-going. It maybe wasn’t an ideal time to try something radical when it came to company finances, but in that moment of uncertainty it was critical to create a culture of trust,” says Price about WPA’s founding.

Today? The firm’s approach to openness appears to be both prescient and also sustainable. 

“The recent business climate hasn’t changed our approach to transparency at all and I really can’t imagine any economic situation that would,” she says. “I think the kind of trust between staff and management that true transparency creates is critical in the current moment as well. I can’t say if transparency is right for every firm all the time. But I do believe that if more firms tried, they would see what we have seen and they wouldn’t go back.”

Radical transparency in companies has been popularized in recent years as a function of equity—openness and visibility in organizational processes, decision-making, and communication. 

Advocates say, in the pro column, radical transparency fosters trust and accountability, and provides employees with a clear understanding of the company’s goals, strategies, and performance metrics. When employees feel informed and involved, they are reportedly more likely to take ownership of their work and hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for outcomes.

It also enhances communication. Transparent communication channels facilitate the exchange of ideas, feedback, and concerns among employees and leadership. By encouraging open dialogue, companies can identify and address issues promptly, leading to improved decision-making and problem-solving.

To Price’s point, it enhances learning and professional development, too. Transparency exposes employees to different aspects of the business, allowing them to gain insights into various functions and roles. This exposure fosters continuous learning and skill development, empowering employees to take on new challenges and expand their expertise.

On the cons side of the page, many observers see privacy concerns as the biggest entry. Radical transparency may infringe on individuals’ privacy, particularly when it involves sharing personal or sensitive information. Employees may feel uncomfortable with the level of exposure, leading to distrust of managers and bosses, and disengagement with the company whose Oz-like revelations are simply just too weird for most people because it’s such a different sort of experience to the vast majority of workplaces. 

It can also lead to misinterpretation of information. Transparent communication can sometimes backfire if not executed carefully. Employees may misinterpret information or jump to conclusions, leading to rumors, misunderstandings, and conflict. Effective communication strategies, such as providing context and clarification, are essential to mitigate this risk. If that weren’t enough, it can lead to the dissemination of information that puts companies at a disadvantage. n highly competitive industries, radical transparency may inadvertently reveal sensitive business strategies or proprietary information to competitors. While transparency promotes trust internally, companies must carefully balance transparency with the need to protect intellectual property and maintain a competitive edge.

Cons aside, at the heart of transparency is a propensity for sharing around the office, which extends beyond pay to more fully define collaboration for the benefit of the project teams. It’s the kind of “silo-buster” that organizations and companies strive, but often fail, to implement. 

For Price, that’s an attractive proposition for prospective employees. 

“Pay transparency has been an excellent recruitment tool. We have had many applicants who say they were attracted to WPA because of our open books policy and those who learn about it during the hiring process are intrigued,” she says—and it even extends to internal company outlooks about ownership. In 2020, WPA went from two owners to eight and, recently, upped that number to 13. 

“We found early on that our open books policy was resulting in an ownership mentality throughout the firm and it seemed only fair to reward that mentality with ownership,” says Price. “That ownership benefit is powerful and helps keep people invested for the long term.”

If you’re reading this and you are a firm owner or employee, what should you take away from WPA’s experience? 

Set salary aside for a second and focus first on the benefits of openness: When employees have access to diverse perspectives and data, they can generate creative solutions to complex problems and drive organizational progress. That holds for any firm across the Commonwealth or, really, anywhere. 

Companies known for their transparency and openness can be seen as desirable employers. Potential recruits are drawn to organizations where they feel valued, respected, and informed about the company’s direction and culture. Radical transparency, it stands to reason then, can help companies attract top talent and retain skilled employees.

Then consider salaries—not as an extreme version of transparency, but as a way to accelerate a real quality of equity within your firm. Once you do that, it’s hard to imagine why radical transparency is the exception and not the rule. 

“We don’t believe anyone in this industry should be underpaid,” says Price. “Firms that are transparent help build awareness around compensation in a way that makes it more likely that architects are being paid what they are worth.”

Page + Miller Hull’s gambit for Niger

The U.S. Embassy Campus in Niamey, Niger, was completed in 2022, mere months before the country’s president, Mahamed Bazoum, would be jailed by a military junta. It was one of seven recent coups d’état in the Sahel, a 2,300 square-mile region that includes ​​Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, as well as Niger, which is now nominally governed by Bazoum’s jailers, the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland—an organization that just this week called for America’s ouster from the country. Needless to say, there are a lot of eyes on the U.S.’s presence in the region focused in a physical sense on the 34,000 square-foot LEED Platinum embassy campus designed by Miller Hull with Page Southerland Page, and a 2023 AIA Virginia Award of Honor recipient. 

Page has lots of secure embassy work in its portfolio, too, working for more than three decades with the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations to design, maintain, upgrade, and preserve embassies and consulates in 100 countries. As you would expect, the campus includes state-of-the-art security features for its new chancery, recreation hall, and pool, and a residence hall addition for stationed Marines. The amenity-rich design for the American diplomatic corps, State Department employees, soldiers, and families, is also about bolstering infrastructure—not always the glitziest of pursuits, and yet the Miller Hull and Page teams elevated everyday architecture to be more than connective tissue—an entry pavilion for the adjacent American International School, a warehouse addition, a utility pavilion, and a service access pavilion. 

Case-in-point, the photovoltaic array—a 700 kilowatt solar energy farm that generates more than the campus’ needs. For comparison’s sake, a capacity of 700 mW is about the size of the “community-solar” operations you find in large rural towns like Bristol or Merrifield (both with populations just under 20,000. (The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s “Sharing the Sun Community Solar Data Project” maintains a reasonably current list of community solar farms throughout the U.S., which you may search by production capacity, state, utility that services it, and other criteria.)

Miller Hull and Page rightly surmised that an arid climate with tons of sun is ideal for a photovoltaic array. It’s a practical move—to create a self-sustaining power grid that doesn’t rely on the local infrastructure—and it’s also a strategic one, as well—to demonstrate independent energy leadership in a 2,300 square-mile region amid Chinese, French, and Russian economic influences. 

The future is uncertain for Americans in NIger, however. In April, U.S. military officials announced it would withdraw 1,000 troops at its two bases. This month, the diplomatic corps continues to negotiate an agreement with junta leaders to leave behind some troops, and a CNN reported on May 10 that a delegation recently arrived to iron out the details. This embassy project’s function will be tested far quicker and more rigorously than anyone imagined as last-ditch diplomatic efforts unfold, and Miller Hull and Page’s work will surely take center stage in the process. 

Architecture Firm/Architect of Record: Page Southerland Page, Inc.
Design Architect: Miller Hull Partnership
Owner: U.S. Department of State
Contractor: BL Harbert International, LLC
Geotechnical Engineer: Schnabel Engineering
Civil Engineer: KPFF Consulting Engineers
MEP Engineer: Mason & Hanger
Structural Engineer: Ehlert Bryan Consulting Structural Engineers
Blast Engineer: Weidlinger Associates, Inc.
Photographers: Amber Renee Design and Kevin Scott

Q+A: Alex Shifflett on her first decade of practice

Architect Alex Shifflett, AIA, is an associate principal at KGD Architecture who says good design is not just good for communities, but great as a teaching tool for young designers hoping to make a difference. “I’m lucky enough to work on projects that matter because it suits the way I work and think,” she says. Inform recently spoke with Shifflett about her experiences over a decade of practice and what it means for the next generation of architects.

Inform: Did you think you’d be doing projects like the types of mixed-use, community-forward projects you work on now when you decided to be an architect?

Alex Shifflett: I’ve been at KGD since I graduated from school and, at that time, we were doing office buildings—then residential projects when the market changed, and then combined multi-use projects, which have become more prevalent in the industry. It’s something KGD does really well. Being responsive to the market and being diverse is a natural exposure for me at KGD. The pride I have in my projects and my firm—I feel so lucky. [KGD’s] Tom Donaghy, AIA, and I have been working on large, mixed-use projects centered around public private partnerships for over a decade. We are excited about these types of developments and would love to do more mixed-use projects locally or across the nation because of how impactful they are. It makes me feel good as an architect, and it makes the people that live and play there feel good as well.


Inform: How do you think about the scale of the difference you can make as an architect?

AS: For a long time, we’ve been a local firm, but we now have a lot of projects elsewhere—and being able to spread out has been awesome. The exposure has been great for me personally. I’ve lived here in this area my whole life, and this is what I know, but I’m enjoying thinking about how far we can go in terms of making a positive difference—townhomes in Arizona, hospitality in Colorado, and so on. I’m learning things every day. 

Inform: How should someone who is an emerging professional think about their opportunity now?

AS: Be present in your experiences—make the most of those opportunities, learn as much as you can on your own. You come out of school and you don’t know how to do anything, but being curious and interested is enough. You gain so much more knowledge by investigating things yourself than if you wait for answers. Right now, there’s a lot of multifamily going on—and so get into it. Find out what you can learn, and make a difference. Critical thinking is hugely important when so many firms are running thin and fees are tight, so you have to think of ways of being more efficient and productive, and it’s a creative process to think that way. We all ask the same questions when we graduate, and we all have to figure out the answers. Every day, I am still learning new things and doing research. That’s what an architect does. Learning never stops.

Inform: If I have recently graduated from school and I come to tour a project, what am I going to realize about it? 

AS: Specifically for the large mixed-use projects, one will notice the scale and the complexity of them. When you see how the structure works and all the pieces that we had to invent and design to fit all the required program into the building, the whole thing is like a Swiss watch. One thing I push for internally is to gain exposure and experience during construction. It’s my favorite stage of the process, because you can find out if your design is going to work. The general contractor and the owner have a different role during that time, and things become real for the architect—so giving junior staff exposure to that, for our firm, is important.

William Richards is a writer and editorial consultant based in Washington, D.C., whose books include 2022’s Together By Design: The Art and Architecture of Communal Living (Princeton Architectural Press).

Ted Flato: Exploring smarter, better, easier, cheaper at Design Forum XVI

What is the future of practical technologies that make design easier, as well as the future of how architecture is made? Can large language models (LLMs) transform materials specification for the better? For the greener? Does empathy differentiate humans from machines? Does it matter? How will future technologies change the studio culture of firms? What does craft mean these days, anyway? These and other questions are up for debate this year at Design Forum XVI (Apr. 5-6, in Richmond) under the banner of “[Un]Certainty: Reflections on Craft at the Cyber Frontier.” 

Ted Flato, FAIA, of Lake|Flato, the 2024 AIA Gold Medal recipients, has a few answers to those questions—and more. ”The topic of this year’s Design Forum is great,” he says, “and for me, it’s about making buildings, and the camaraderie that architecture and craft can create. Some of these speakers are great friends.” Here’s a preview of some of the things he’ll raise at Design Forum XVI. 

Inform: How do you frame technology and craft as mutually beneficial dimensions of design?

TF: Architecture is a technological field and it’s forever trying to leverage science to elevate what we do. For David Lake and I, that began when we worked at an architect’s office in San Antonio, and that’s where craft began for us. O’Neil Ford was the guy in Texas who, early on, established a brand of modernism rooted in regionalism. Our first projects as a firm, Lake Flato, were in the country—and we like to say that style took a back seat. We really had to focus on materials and what we call “ranch technology,” or building with fewer things and adapting to dramatic changes in weather. Remote locations meant you couldn’t afford to ignore local craft. 

Inform: How did that dual pursuit between regionalism and technology help you scale up as a firm?

TF: We were able to hone the science of what was intuitive environmentalism, and we became more purposeful about it—going deeper in our analyses, and we wanted our buildings to perform well. We’d always be asking about new opportunities—and building systems became a focus for us, too, as we established our firm. Now, today, for us—we’re still looking at systems like mass timber or prefabricated systems. 

Inform: What are you working on now with mass timber?

TF: One of the more recent mass timber projects we’ve done—and we’ve done them in hotels and office buildings and university buildings—but the latest one that was joyful for me, personally, was working on O’Neil Ford’s Trinity University. He did it in a modern method or style in the beginning because it was less expensive, and as the campus evolved—and it’s a kind of Louis Kahn modernism, as brick buildings—we renovated a couple of his original buildings, and added a new one to the campus. They were “lift-slab” rather than “tilt-wall” and it means you could free-up the corners, which was a wonderful opportunity for us. So, mass timber made the most amount of sense. 

Inform: How did working in that margin between technology and craft influence your residential portfolio? 

TF: Smarter, better, easier, cheaper—those were the things we’ve been trying to explore in our residential portfolio. We started something called the “porch house,” or projects in remote locations designed as a series of rooms, creating less conditioned indoor space and more opportunities to be outdoors, and we developed a prefabricated system that allowed us to do that—ordering some bedrooms and some living rooms and connecting them using these “porches.” 

Flato has a lot more to say, so don’t miss out! Join him and a blue-ribbon group of panelists including Billie Tsien, AIA, of Tod Willams Billie Tsien Architects; Rick Joy of Studio Rick Joy; and Dwayne Oyler, co-founder of Oyler Wu Collaborative at this year’s Design Forum XVI (Apr. 5-6) focused on “[Un]Certainty: Reflections on Craft at the Cyber Frontier” at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU in Richmond. Register now

William Richards is a writer and editorial consultant based in Washington, D.C. From 2007 to 2011, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Inform Magazine. 

Op-Ed: CODE Charlottesville improves an unloved corner of Halprin’s masterpiece

The LEED Platinum Center of Developing Entrepreneurs, known as the CODE Building, opened in Charlottesville in 2022 to acclaim, both as a work of interdisciplinary design and as a sensitive intervention in the downtown pedestrian mall—sacred ground to be sure. Designed by EskewDumezRipple+ working with Charlottesville’s Wolf Ackerman, the CODE Building is a multi-use coworking, office, and retail complex that clocks-in at 215,000 square feet with a show-stopping public plaza designed by Gregg Bleam Landscape Architects. There is no shortage of metaphors to describe CODE’s role in the Lawrence Halprin-designed cityscape positioned, as it is, at the western end adjacent to the Omni Hotel—anchor, gateway, hub, and wedge all come to mind. But, it’s the design team’s responsiveness to a symbolic site and a higher bar for sustainability than most locales that set it apart. 

Halprin’s plan for the mall is legendary—the culmination of three years of public workshops titled “Take Part” and design iterations for the handful of blocks that defined the city’s original main street. Coming off the urban renewal years of the 1950s and 1960s that saw, among other bad ideas, the destruction of the nearby Vinegar Hill neighborhood, Charlottesville needed something for the win column to resuscitate its municipal core. Amid the pedestrian mall boom years between the 1950s and the 1980s, Halprin’s scheme that elevated the pedestrianization strategy to an art form. It’s also one of few in the country that have remained standing. As an economic gambit, the 1976 downtown mall eventually proved successful, and as a social experiment, it proved transformational. Later additions eked out another few blocks to create its current footprint. 

EskewDumezRipple+ and Wolf Ackerman’s contribution to that history is laudable. Replacing an old skating rink, the design team fought two related battles: one in massing and elevation between the dramatically shifting urban scales from Water Street to East Main, and one in plan to reimagine a rather unceremonious entrance to the mall between a skating rink and a hotel’s glass canyon wall. The new arrangement is finally the entrance the mall sorely needed, not because of a deficiency in Halprin’s plan, but because it had become underutilized for so long. Entering at Water Street behind the Federal Court Building, CODE steps down in height to bring us down to the pedestrian scale, offering an esplanade rather than an access road. If you’re headed the other direction and planning to exit the mall, CODE’s public plaza tucked underneath CODE invites us in—a fitting rejoinder to the mall, and also not a bad strategy if the point of the building is to entice workers and shoppers. 

Section courtesy EDR+ and Wolf Ackerman

The LEED Platinum project possesses all of the qualities you’d expect, from green roof terraces to decisions about site, orientation, and massing that drive down energy consumption to ventilation that doubles the usual flow of fresh air to water conservation and reuse systems. Operable windows and a 40 percent window-to-wall ratio also offer the optimal balance between light and energy efficiency. It’s part of the upper echelon of green buildings in and around Charlottesville that offer a test-bed for any number of strategies from Cradle to Cradle to mass timber to passive house. But, that’s all architecture nerd-speak. To the eyes of the mall dwellers in Charlottesville—somewhere between central casting for a Steely Dan song and central Virginia’s Horse & Hound set—CODE is a handsome building that appeals to the eye and seems, inarguably, just right. 

William Richards is a writer and editorial consultant based in Washington, D.C. From 2007 to 2011, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Inform Magazine. In 2005, he wrote “On Architecture,” a weekly column for Charlottesville’s free paper The Hook.

Architects and planners push code change study to boost affordability

Bills for both the Virginia House and Senate to study the capabilities of “point access block” construction and push for an amendment in the Virginia Construction Code are making their way through the legislative review process this month. HB 368 and SB 195 were sent to the House Committee on Rules on Jan. 6 and the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology on Jan. 8.

SB 195 passed with a unanimous vote (with one abstention) at press time. 

The code amendment was raised by Charlottesville-area architects and planners in 2021, which encourages the development of multi-unit buildings higher than three stories to be connected by a single staircase and access point—a building type often seen in older apartment buildings, but now outlawed in new construction today. The current requirement for multifamily buildings taller than three stories is to have two staircases lead to a series of double-loaded corridors, which often result in large floor plates and large units on either side of the corridor that, when priced competitively, exclude many Virginians living on modest budgets. 

Advocates of HB 368 / SB 195 believe that, if passed, would offer the chance to consider greater flexibility for designers and owners to create a range of housing types and, as a result, counteract some of the effects of gentrification and improve the economic, social, and racial diversity of neighborhoods and communities. 

Inform sat down with William Abrahamson, AIA, a senior associate at Grimm + Parker, and Gillian Pressman, a managing director of the nonprofit YIMBY Action, to find out about why this legislative action matters and what architects and planners around the Commonwealth can do to support it.

Q: Where’s the common ground between architects and YIMBY Action?

GP: YIMBY Action is a network of local groups of community members who want to see more housing in their communities, and that’s largely because they’ve been harmed by the affordability crisis, the environmental crisis, and the housing scarcity crisis. We include architects and developers who have personal and professional interests in this, but we’re mostly neighbors who want to see more affordable housing in our communities. We value our architects and all of the folks in the building industry. We show up on building sites. We address systems change like legislation. We have four chapters in Virginia, and we formed the Commonwealth Housing Coalition, which includes the National Association of Homebuilders, AARP, various faith-based groups, people along the entire political spectrum, people working to end poverty. 

Q: If I’m one of the thousands of architects who works (or has worked) on multifamily projects in Virginia, what will this allow me to do for future clients and their residents? 

WA: This really expands the toolbox architects can use to unlock the value of infill sites to increase density.  It also helps to increase unit and demographic diversity.  Removing long, dark double-loaded corridors will expand opportunities for family-oriented units with more bedrooms in stacked flats.  Point access blocks facilitate more double-aspect units with greater daylight and opportunities for cross-ventilation.  These will also help us create more mixing zones and unprogrammed “third-places” where residents can meet, enjoy light and greenspaces, and develop new practices of community. Current codes, construction costs, and zoning ordinances drive most urban affordable housing developments toward overly large, four or five-over-one boxes. Aside from luxury townhomes, high-rises, or retrofits, there are very few alternatives.  Most families looking for somewhere to live close to jobs and entertainment are seeing the same thing over and over, and it often is not a good fit.

GP: I think the ability to influence the state legislation process as one person is way higher than you would expect. Not many people actually contact their legislators. Getting a bill that has community members who have called in about it, makes it really stand out. You can have a powerful impact. 

WA: On the radio this morning, state representatives were describing dropping school enrollments and that families are leaving Virginia. It is inefficient and expensive to build three-bedroom apartment flats. It’s expensive to build townhomes. In these double-loaded corridors, you have narrower apartments, fewer bedrooms, less daylight, worse ventilation—because of high construction and financing costs. That’s where the square footage efficiency of point access blocks stands out—it’s much higher.

Q: We know how gentrification can boost the tax bases of cities, but we also know that it comes at a much higher cost than land acquisition and construction. Is this enough to counteract outpricing and the erosion of neighborhoods and communities? Or is this code change better paired with other strategies?

WA: Unit mix is a dry term, but right now in a typical development, it might be 80-,  90-  percent of a single unit type. With taller point-access blocks, you can have one-, two-, three-, or even more bedrooms in efficient configurations.  This allows a growing family, a retiree, a middle-aged couple, or a single person to all find appropriate homes in a building AND to stay in their communities when they need a change in housing. It is a way of addressing the stratification of society, by blending all these types of life stages under one roof.

GP: When people talk about gentrification, most of the time they are talking about displacement; which is people of color living in urban cores losing their homes as richer people come in and outbid them.. YIMBY Action is vehemently against displacement. Our solution to displacement is to build more housing! YIMBY Action believes that the entire region needs to build, not just specific sections of the urban core. We have made it so that the only place to add development is in urban cores, so a lot of the area in the city are low density or suburban areas—we have made it impossible and illegal to build generous amounts of housing there. So, then what happens, only the sections of the urban core with disenfranchised populations can be developed—which is driving gentrification. Where there IS building in urban cores, it cannot and should not be displacement housing. It’s fine to get rid of old buildings that pose a health risk. But, we cannot displace people when that happens. Our ideal is that exclusionary suburbs that make up a region also share the housing burden that cities are asked to bear. 

WA: It’s a question of scale, too. The bill allows up to six stories, which sounds high compared to most single-family zoned units, but the alternative is a mega-block. This bill allows the kind of density that’s productive and flexible.

Q: Advocates of this strategy cite European cities as offering a healthy and diverse mix of residents because they are zoned differently. What sort of ripple effect would this create beyond Virginia in the United States if it’s successful?

WA:   Virginia is held up as one of the top building code adaptation processes in the country—we have some of the most rigorous standards of public engagement, feedback, and engagement with code officials. So, if a measure passes here, it carries a lot of weight. There’s a second stepping-stone to this issue, which is elevator codes. Point access blocks would benefit from the smaller, cheaper elevators found everywhere except the U.S.  The U.S. requires unique testing requirements and safety testing requirements, so any vendor selling here must pay gobs of money to participate in the market. However, if you look at safety testing, there’s no loss — it’s not as if other countries have any higher rates of elevator failures. But what it means is our elevators are much more expensive to implement, maintain, and operate. This presents a hurdle to market adoption.

GP: The biggest thing is that this is scalable. This isn’t a code problem or a design problem. It’s a political problem. We think communities can be and should be more diverse and walkable and vibrant, but people are scared of that. There’s a culture in planning schools and local governments  about deferring to what they think local constituents  want. But, the constituents that planners and local governments have historically heard from are NOT representative. The people that show up to public meetings are neighbors who don’t want something to happen because of noise, nuisance, or a change that will affect their private property. People who are angry are motivated to come out to these meetings, and the voices of “no” drown out any positive philosophies of “yes” that could be present. We have to be representative in our politics and organize people to come out and be the voices of “yes.” We also have to encourage planners and local government leaders to engage in more representative community-wide planning processes that take the true views of local neighbors into account; instead of being swayed by an unrepresentative group of the angriest neighbors. 

WA: Adding to that, if someone doesn’t feel they have agency, they tune-out changes, good or bad, in the built environment. Public officials may have low literacy when it comes to community development principles. So who is going to take the time and energy to look at this issue?  Opening up this aspect of building form allows the professionals and the market to present new ways of building and living.

Interested in learning more and participating? Check out the Commonwealth Housing Coalition to find out how you can help.