David A. Smith Tells VIATechnik Why the Elevator Is Due for a Comeback and Explains Why We’re Not Living in Futurist Pods Yet - BIM Services, VDC, VR, Construction Management, Estimating, Scheduling Services

David A. Smith Tells VIATechnik Why the Elevator Is Due for a Comeback and Explains Why We’re Not Living in Futurist Pods Yet

Anton Dy Buncio
Jul 9

While Urbanization is on the rise and technological advancements crest everyday, not much is changing in the sustainable housing sector. So, what’s the hold up?

According to David A. Smith, founder of the Affordable Housing Institute (AHI), we’re not going to see anything new in the next decade. VIATechnik interviewed David about what solutions he envisions for sustainable housing in urban areas, and what we can expect to see, not just in the next 10 years, but beyond. David A. Smith is a sought-after speaker and consultant on sustainable housing financial ecosystems with 35 years of experience in complex affordable housing transactions, programs, and policies. That boils down to a globetrotting career consulting Congress, a U.S. Senate Subcommittee, HUD, and countries ranging from Turkey to India, and Mexico to South Africa.

Working as a policy advisor and program advisor, he stays focused on changing the housing finance ecosystems permanently, and for the better. On the lighter side, David is a witty writer that adds a dash of comic strip-style snark, making his blog for AHI an unexpected pleasure to read – it can be a no holds-barred review of current industry news that traditional journalists wouldn’t dare dig into.

VIATechnik wanted to pry open David’s lifetime, award-winning, treasure-trove of experience in housing to find out what’s next in building design and technology, and what might be hindering us from becoming more sustainable and economically viable when it comes to urban housing. With great insightfulness, David not only  crunches numbers, examines urban building designs and considers impact and economic viability, he references everyone from Charlie Brown to the more obscure Samuel Pepys to fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein. His solutions read like a page from a popular science-fiction novel (like from his own book In the Cube, where he reimagines the buildings of a futuristic Boston), but maybe science fiction is exactly where we need to be looking.

We did a little problem and solution analysis of current design and construction in our interview with David Smith to find out:

Problem: Density. Solution: Building up.

VT: What is the most pressing issue for builders and designers in regards to the environmental state of an area?

DS: As George Lucas found out, ‘environmental considerations’ can be a Romulan cloaking device for neighbors who just don’t want things built near them – this despite the reality that, for any given number of people, higher-density development is better than the homestead-with-picket-fence that is often perceived as greener.

VT: Is there a ready solution to the rise in urban population?

DS: Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is the principal visible manifestation of awareness to the consequences of increasing urban density.  But even TOD thinks only in two dimensions, instead of three – that is, the most sustainable means of urbanization involves going up, higher into the sky.

VT: Any new design trends that lend to building higher?

DS:  The elevator is the ultimate in urban TOD, and so far it’s underused as such.  I dramatized this in my science fiction novel In the Cube, set in 2080, where the City of Boston has become a giant arcology extending to more than 150 stories.

Problem: People are creating new family units and the retiree population is rising.

Solution: Design live-work & multi-tenancy housing.

VT: How important should adaptability be to architects and designers when considering the design and construction of a building?

DS:  It ought to be huge, because as America urbanizes and America ages, ‘aging in place’ needs to be transforming into ‘extending independent healthspan’ (the period of time when an adult can live entirely independent and happily). Technology (broadband and computing) offers the promise of making the home interactively responsive to a physically less mobile homeowner.  Flexible-wall configurations could allow larger homes to be subdivided to accommodate a service-oriented intra-home multi-household tenancy: elderly homeowner who rents to two (say) younger people, with the younger people providing services in exchange for living accommodations (and some rent or payment going in either direction to balance the equities). That sort of multi-generational household used to be the norm (and is the norm in emerging nation-cities today) but has been zoned and building codes and tort-litigated out of existence in America. VT: Tell us the most exciting, up and coming construction industry innovation.

DS: Web-based ‘technological housing’ where doors and windows can be opened and closed, energy consumption monitored and adjusted, based on real-time usage.  Ray Bradbury predicted this in a 1950 short story, There Will Come Soft Rains. This has great potential to make the home an independence-enabling environment, not an independence-threatening one.

Problem: Unsustainable stick-built houses in urban areas. Solution: Modular housing and IBT.

VT: What seems to be the fastest growing design trend right now, and what effect is it having on the industry?

DS: Micro-housing, though at the moment it’s over-hyped both in terms of its livability and its practical ability to address housing scarcity.  At least the micro-housing discussion is creating a basis for examining our anachronistic and restrictive building and zoning codes that have failed to keep up with the ‘post-nuclear fission’ of acceptable American family and household configurations.

VT: How have design trends shifted in the past few years to accommodate self-sustainability?

DS: Not fast enough. Some design trends are at the architectural-concept concept; few have made it into practical scalable customer-accepted delivery.

VT: What kinds of construction technologies are currently on the forefronts of architecture and are showing the most promise?

DS: Industrial building technology (IBT) together with micro-modular housing are both attracting enormous interest, but neither yet solves the scale-customization problem. IBT is viable but only at kilo-scale (1,000 or more homes at a time) and that limits customization; modular housing produces boxy surroundings – cars without wheels – that may be suitable for young adults for a while but doesn’t lend itself to evolving or aging families. In the 1930s, science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein predicted that the artisanal model of home construction – custom-build on-site – would be replaced by true modular construction. Eighty years later, we still haven’t cracked it.

Problem: Population increase and commuting. Solution: Technology & live-work spaces in homes.

VT: How have design trends shifted to accommodate the rise in urban population?

DS:Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is the principal visible manifestation of awareness to the consequences of increasing urban density.  But even TOD thinks only in two dimensions, instead of three – that is, the most sustainable means of urbanization involves going up, higher into the sky. This has always been the case; in prior eras, the flat-over-shop was a recognized mode of urban living.  Samuel Pepys, for example, basically worked at home his entire life, because his home was right next door to Whitehall.  In emerging country mega-city expanding informal neighborhoods moving from peri-urban to urban, the most striking change is the replacement of ground-floor bungalows by two and three-story live-work spaces.

VT: How can construction technology positively affect sustainability and population growth?

DS: Reduce transportation requirements by increasing discorporated value chains – people working from home using broadband to create virtual meetings and virtual teams.  Nothing will ever fully substitute for face-to-face human contact – we are social creatures – but as we boost the functionality of the home office, we can reduce commuting and all its negative externalities.

Problem: Old zoning & codes. Solution: Retrofit.

VT: How significant will the understanding of architectural designs by the youth of today impact the industry in the next ten years or so?

DS: Not as much as you’d think, except in retrofit. Something like 90% of all the housing that will exist in 10 years exists now; and with the increasing NIMBYism of urban environment, it becomes ever more important to retrofit existing zoning-allowance, or adaptive reuse, even increased density on the same footprint.  So we are not suddenly going to be living in flexible-adaptable domes or pods. But we are only five years away from having new household formation by young adults who have literally had pervasive broadband communication at their fingertips their entire sentient lives.  Omni-broadband is the next essential in all forms of housing.

VT: To what extent does sustainability impact the methodology surrounding the design of a building?

DS: Certainly there’s a hyper-awareness that up-front construction-configuration choices have a determinative effect on downstream operations and maintenance, and therefore an investment today in something more sustainable (i.e. lower energy cost) will yield benefits for years or decades into the future. However, this tradeoff is only partially calculable: though we have Green Capital Needs Assessments (say), and can do payback or NPV analysis, the assumptions on which the NPV analysis depends – useful life of the improvements, changing energy costs, possibility of generation-skipping future technology that would make our current technology obsolete – create inherent ‘known unknowns’ that make judgment (or faith) a component on green/sustainable energy improvement decision-making.

VT: Is  working around the environmental state of an area becoming increasingly difficult on designers and builders?

DS: To focus on designers and builders is, unfortunately, slightly to miss the point.  Designers and builders have to be policy change advocates, because without changes in the building codes and zoning codes, what designers creatively design, builders cannot profitably build.

VT: Where does innovation and sustainability strike a balance?

DS:The balance between importance, necessity, and value is struck in the marketplace, and in modern urban society, the marketplace consists of two overlays: Private actors (people, companies) making individual trades and purchases according to their own perceptions of their self-interest. Public entities, government, which creates the enabling, indifferent, or disabling ecosystemic environment, including laws, subsidies, incentives, and rules. The marketplace acts like a Darwinian ecosystem, and if innovations die, it is because they are not delivering value perceived by the private actors. You can’t really tell people what to want, but you can use government to change the pros and cons of different choices, and then let the marketplace of private actors decide how they adjust their purchases accordingly. Most mutations die. Most innovation fails. That’s all right; what matters is spotting the rare innovation that works, and then scaling that by delivering it to the market. I like Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

VT: If you could wave your own industry appointed wand, what would you like to see happen?

DS: Vaporize the single-family-oriented building codes and zoning requirements and replace them with clean-slate thinking about what new forms of housing configuration are appropriate given the mutability of household configurations, the importance of live-work spaces, the power of technology to make the home smarter, and the need to increase verticality as the ultimate in urban sustainability.

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Anton Dy Buncio
Jul 9

1 comment to “David A. Smith Tells VIATechnik Why the Elevator Is Due for a Comeback and Explains Why We’re Not Living in Futurist Pods Yet”

  1. CEO David Smith interviewed by VIATechnik - Affordable Housing Institute Says:

    […] David Smith was recently interviewed by VIATechnik, a company which provides consulting services for engineers and designers, to participate in a problem and solution analysis of current design methods. Read the full interview here. […]

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