This software can help developers find property primed for new projects

KPF's new Urban Interface visualizes building designs

Mar.March 29, 2016 06:15 PM

In Shanghai, the sun calls the shots in building design.

Bedrooms and living rooms in the city must get at least one hour of direct daylight during the winter solstice — a challenging design feature given the high volume of construction in the city. For Tishman Speyer’s Crystal Plaza, architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox generated tens of thousands of design options to test against Shanghai’s building height, sunlight and spatial requirements. Using digital versions of city regulations, the firm was then able to craft three-dimensional designs that fit local building code specifications and present Tishman with several different options.

“This didn’t give us one solution but a dozen,” said Luc Wilson, director of KPF Urban Interface, a research team at the firm. “It took a process that would have been difficult, that maybe would have taken months, and we were able to do it in weeks.”

For the last four years, the firm has been developing KPFui, a series of digital tools that use publicly available data to, among other things, test out building designs and assess how they may impact their surrounding neighborhoods. The software has allowed the firm, as well as their academic partners, to tackle and streamline complex development specifications and to help the city with the Zoning for Quality and Affordability text amendments and the rezoning of Midtown East.

One element of the interface is ‘Urbane,’ a collaboration between KPF and New York University’s School of Computer Science and Engineering. The software, which is still under development, can identify underdeveloped sites in the city and simulate how a new building on the site would impact the surrounding area — in terms of visibility of city landmarks and sky exposure from the streets, according to a research paper authored by KPF and NYU.

The Urbane system can visualize 2D and 3D data sets — something many architecture tools don’t support — and test out different designs in real time. As a case study, the team examined the Financial District and found 15 “underdeveloped” sites, meaning that buildings on the sites used less than 55 percent of the allowed Floor Area Ratio (FAR) according to the local zoning rules. After identifying the sites, the team determined that 12 of the properties were too small to use the maximum allowed area or to have a “commercially viable floor plate size.” From the remaining properties, the team tested out different floor plate options to determine what kind of residential building with ground-floor retail would have the least negative impact on neighboring buildings. (Those properties were not specified in the report.)

“The developer wants to maximize the value of a development while a city planner wants to mitigate the negative impact of new developments,” the research report states. “The architect must reconcile these competing objectives.”

Wilson likens the software to the game “Operation” — if a new development would negatively impact the views of surrounding buildings, the hypothetical structures will be highlighted in red, like a silent version of the buzz that signals a botched funny bone removal.

KPFui is also working with Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE) on examining the rezoning of Midtown East. Working off a request by the Midtown East Steering Committee, the team is using digital zoning analysis tools to study the current height and setback rules in the area. They are working to suss out any potential as officials move forward with plans to rezone the area from East 39th to 59th streets between Fifth and Third avenues. The rezoning of a five-block stretch of Vanderbilt Avenue — considered the first phase of rezoning the neighborhood — paved the way for SL Green’s One Vanderbilt. The second phase, proposed by Council member Dan Garodnick and Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer, would allow owners of landmarked buildings to sell up to 4 million square feet in unused air rights to developers across the district.

“It’s always helpful to have more information available publicly as we create policy,” said Frank Ruchala Jr., deputy director of the zoning division of the City Planning Commission. “Having an outside group through CURE undertake this analysis was a good way to do that.”

Jesse Keenan, research director at CURE, said that the analysis tools have an “underlying democratizing element” in that they break down the complexity of zoning and other issues and makes it easier for those involved to understand.

“It really opens the dialogue in terms of what is possible in development,” he said. “This type of platform allows the private sector and the public sector to more easily negotiate what’s at play.”

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