Kind of Blue

Sterile rather than soulful, this is the all-business blue that fills your screen when you boot up windows; a blue that looks as if it was color-matched to the utilitarian blue of the generic blue tarp you can see in the bottom left of the photo. (Not that you asked…)

At 19th and Yesler, this is the latest by gProjects and b9 Architects. When built out, it will consist of five live-work homes and six townhouses. The same team developed the recently completed 7-unit “Urban Canyon” project at 19th and Pine (photo below). These two firms do great work and are starting to get more recognition for it (e.g. here, here, and here).

Urban Canyon achieved a 5-star Built Green rating, see this case study for details. The homes are expected to perform “32 to 45 percent better than International Energy Code,” though it’s not clear which features are most responsible for those savings. Given the high up-front cost of photovoltaics, it’s impressive to see them included. The total 7 kW of PV would produce roughly 7000 kWh per year, our about half the annual energy use of one typical townhouse.

Urban Canyon also stands out for it’s site design.  Shared common space invites neighborly interaction.  There are no garages, so entrances sit at street level, forming a stronger connection to the public realm.  The unusual roof lines are a matter of taste, but if nothing else they give the project a unique and fun identity.

The work of the gProjects/b9 team is living proof that townhouse-scale development doesn’t have to be heinous. It simply takes thoughtful design. So why is it that thoughtful design is in such short supply?

19 Responses to “Kind of Blue”

  1. Steve

    Well, the unit referenced in the Times article you linked to appears to have cost almost $900,000. Admittedly, that’s for 2400 square feet, but still — I’d be willing to believe good design pushes up prices more than low-end buyers are willing to accept.

  2. Sir Learnsalot

    I’d rather we have more bold colors like that blue house than a bunch of beige, gray and dull blue vinyl sided junk that Seattle seems to love.

  3. Matt the Engineer

    I think the reason houses seem so creative compared to townhouses is that there are thousands upon thousands of blueprints out there for sale to use in building a house. Yes, you can pay for an architect to design you a new house from scratch (for a price), but almost all houses use some version of existing plans.

    However when it comes to townhouses that meet Seattle’s codes efficiently… well, there are a small handful. Perhaps to get more creativity in townhouses we need either to make our codes match some large city with an existing variety of plans or come up with some committee of architects to start churning out creative plans on the city’s dime.

    Another palatable option might be to find something that looks nice when built all the same. San Francisco’s row houses for instance, or New York’s brownstones.

  4. dan cortland

    Looks like pieces of a Driscoll project fell off the back of a truck and were nailed back together by chimpanzees.

  5. Dan Staley

    Many new projects in Denver look better than Seattle’s. F’r instance, in Seattle, I’ll take that blue, even tho I tend toward Dan C’s descriptive hyperbole. Stapleton has an area, per Matt, where there are brownstones on one side of the parkway and more modern…um…mixedmatstones on the other (can’t quickly find good piccies). There are areas here where some developers are cut loose and they produce good stuff.

  6. Joshua

    Matt @ 3 – couldn’t agree more. The City of Portland held a design competition for “family-friendly” housing (check out this PI article: I would imagine that if developers had access to more design diversity, we would see more townhouse diversity.

    Also, I like the blue, because it’s unapologetic (how un-Seattle!)

  7. AJ

    The Urban Canyon at 19th and Pike hasn’t really impressed me– it actually feels imposing and unfriendly from the street. I walk by every day and when you compare it to the houses that surround it, it feels like some kind of cubby hole that people can sneak into without associating with the neighbors.

    And those neighbors are fabulous and nice, so it’s even more stark.

  8. joshuadf

    I doubt Urban Canyon is targeted at low-end buyers. At least it’s a breather from the “rich, young, white” ads for condo projects. I really like the shared P-Patch and pathways instead of just a shared driveway as in most townhome projects.

  9. A Lydia kind of blue

    I’ve watched that 23rd & Pine project from before the beginning. I was a little obsessed with it for a while, especially after meeting its former, now homeless, yet quite talkative tenant there a few times.

    The single-family house it replaced was 100 years old — a stout, friendly old codger not afraid to sport a little gingerbread. Doubtless, the house was not in the best repair. I could see that myself as the rooms were peeled away.

    If anything my gal said was true, its tenants were longterm and had never partaken in the abundance we quibble about. That house kept them dry and off the shoals. And then it was gone.

    I don’t know what happened. Maybe the old guy (if there was one) died and his son in Tucson sold the property. Could have been a foreclosure. Maybe somebody wanted to go see what living in Saskatchewan is like. Maybe my informant is as imaginative as I am gullible. I don’t know.

    Does it matter?

    I have a habit of living in old houses. Mine was built in 1922 by a fellow who lived next door. He was a stonemason. He built this house for his son, who never lived in it.

    For a long time, a lady who took care of foster kids lived here. Maybe it was one of them who dropped the iron on the floor in the attic (we saw the burn on the floor when we pulled up the carpet).

    I don’t think it was that accident that caused the fire 10 years ago. (The shape of the iron is older fashioned.) It gutted the house, which sat empty for a number of years. Then some flippers renovated it two owners ago.

    Now I’m piecing together its history as my own goes on.

    Does it matter?

    Does it matter what happened to the house that got torn down? Does it matter what happened to the people who lived there? Does it matter what the stonemason’s name was, what his life was like? Or why his son didn’t live here?

  10. Greg W

    At least its not paired with a slightly deeper version as the accent color, like when boring people decide to do something artsy to their house when they repaint. You know the one. Every neighborhood’s got one of them.

  11. Greg W

    Oops- I really meant to say “deeper version as the trim color”

  12. Sabina Pade

    DB asks why thoughtful design is in such short supply. I think the answer is self-evident from the responses to his postings, and even from some of his postings themselves : because there is insufficient tolerance for it in Seattle.

    Even DB’s readers, who surely count among the more open-minded of Seattleites, often weigh in heavily against architectural solutions that don’t square with the homogeny of their surroundings.

    Few seem eager to remind themselves that the Space Needle and the Smith Tower stuck out conspicuously in their day. Selig’s Folly was criticised not for being innocuous, but for being tall. There were protracted fights over the appropriateness of a downtown transit tunnel…

    In a word : we bemoan the lethargy of our urbanism in rising above lowest-common-denominator solutions, yet even the educated among us claim monkeys have been at work when we’re not given status quo. What to do?

  13. dan cortland

    I would hope that the educated among us know that chimps are not monkeys and realize from that the very moderate nature of the criticism.

  14. michael

    as a neighbor of this project, i must say the color is much welcomed…a nice contrast to the drab beiges and grays of every other property on the street, including numerous SHA properties…i think the bold color is an appropriate expression of the boldness of the project-live/work units in not the most desirable of locations…

  15. Dan Staley

    What Sabina said.

  16. tres_arboles

    As a layman with an interest in residential design, I am glad to see each of the examples Dan posts here. greater metro-Seattle quietly has a nice, understated collection of mid-century modern houses that seemed to have sprung up at the time of, and just after the Worlds Fair. Like it or not, the space needle is indelibly linked to our city’s image. So why not Seattle lead the current modern trend in homes as well (and busquely depart the faux shaker ressurection that unevenly owned the 1980’s and ’90’s)?


  17. Pat Williams

    Ugly, blocky, angular stuff. Where’s the creativity in that?

  18. dan cortland

    Sabina raises a few strawmen.

    The notion that a popular “lack of tolerance” for good creative design (gcd) is suppressing it isn’t credible. Design review boards end up having to design projects half-assedly for some applicants who are driven by their pro formas. The pictured buildings may have gcd aplenty inside, but their appearance is merely cutesey (e.g., the off-kilter roofs don’t seem designed to optimize solar E potential: does their form have a function?) and about as creative as the pomo parapets and diamonds that were sprinkled on everything in the 80s and 90s. (They’ve aged well, haven’t they?) Lack of homogeneity with surrounding buildings is not in itself a mark of gcd. And this ain’t physics: there’s no law of conservation of gcd: 100% of what’s built can be uninspired. Dismissing critics as unsophisticated is conventional. Eventually those of us in the vanguard see, for example, early fans of the Central Library publishing retractions in the newspaper.

    The Space Needle is Big Kitsch. That the only preserved view corridors in Seattle honor this monument to civic boosterism and misplaced faith in technological magical thinking is a great joke about our path to the current crisis in unsustainable growth. Unfortunately, it’s not just literally over the heads of some of the readers of this blog.

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