Founder Bob Tiscareno looks back on twenty years building Seattle
By: Bob Tiscareno,
AIA, Tiscareno Associates
Every entrepreneur knows that the secret to success is staying agile to shifting economic and cultural winds. But in the Puget Sound region, the pace of change can feel more like a hurricane. Since launching Tiscareno Associates in 2002, my colleagues and I have watched a number of forces transform the greater Seattle area—forces which have touched nearly every aspect of the built environments we create.
On this occasion of Tiscareno’s 20-year anniversary, here’s a look back at the primary lessons the last two decades have taught my colleagues and me about building this region that we love.
Transit-oriented design (TOD) is the future
The reason is clear: building housing near mass transit is the sustainable thing to do. When I launched Tiscareno Associates in 2002, construction on Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail was still a year out. Kent Station, a mixed-use project at one of Sound Transit’s major terminals, became our client and one of the first TOD projects in the area.
Since then, as we began to specialize in multi-family/mixed-use developments, our client list has traced the rise of TOD in the region. Riverpark, Milehouse, Modera, the Triangle, Redmond Square, and the Spark—just to name our projects in Redmond—joined a critical mass of multifamily housing developments clustering near transit hubs across the region.
Fast-forward to today, and those developments are proving that mixed-use TOD can be sound investments. Even if the projects are finished before the transit systems are, as has been the case with those projects near the coming Link Light Rail station in Redmond (now projected 2025), phaseable development offering parking until transit gets going has proven workable.
With each new TOD project we take on, the incremental adjustments we’ve learned to make along the way have maximized TOD efficiencies, bringing about lower and lower parking ratios with every project. Our most recent Redmond projects Redmond Square and the Spark offer our lowest parking ratios yet.
Pay attention to the ground-floor experience
Because TOD seeks to dial up public engagement with built environments, the architect’s increasing task is designing with pedestrians top-of-mind. One way we do that is with woonerfs, the Dutch concept of pedestrian-priority streets, which can bring a human scale to large multi-use developments and dial up street-level engagement.
Woonerfs show up in an increasing number of our TOD projects—including the pedestrian-only woonerfs we ran right through the middle of Redmond Square and The Line, a mixed-use multifamily TOD in Shoreline. These woonerfs not only create fertile retail and restaurant environments, they bring the foot traffic that translates to eyes-on-the-street security and the sense of community so essential for residential settings.
But retail isn’t the only ground-floor presence that can engage pedestrians. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that retail comes…and goes. In recent years we’ve learned that multi-family projects offering ground-floor live/work units—spaces with both commercial space and living quarters—can also activate pedestrian environments. Two of our Redmond projects, Milehouse and the Triangle, offer live/work units used by small businesses from wedding planners to accountant’s offices and more. The market appears to love these live/works, and we’re including them in more and more of our projects.
Nature is part of the design
Biophilic design—an architectural approach bringing nature into the built environment—has been around for decades, but in recent years multi-family architects are dialing it up. Perhaps as a counterpoint to increasing density in urban areas we’re seeing more interest in rooftop gardens, more square footage given to courtyards, more importance accorded to views. Conversely, where mass transit is making wilderness-adjacent suburbs more accessible, a project’s existing natural surroundings are right there to be integrated into the design.
Such was the case at The Spark, a Redmond multi-family project situated near a stand of mature trees. Inspired, we ran an “urban forest” of dense and lofty plantings right through the middle of The Spark’s two buildings, working with our landscape architects to create outdoor gathering areas, even a pedestrian skybridge, to enhance outdoor connections for residents. We used building aesthetics to amplify those connections, with a roofline subtly evoking hills on the horizon and building materials chosen to reflect and expand the urban forest.
Finally, we gave it a “front porch”: a deep deck along The Spark’s retail and restaurant spaces to provide the kind of outdoor seating the entire planet learned to value over the last three years. Yes, we have a decade’s-plus worth of data proving the benefits of outdoor connections on human productivity, creativity, and well-being—but the pandemic made them a requirement.
An architect’s most valuable partner is a visionary city
In our experience, municipalities are increasingly looking for developments with unique design elements and high-quality materials—particularly TOD which are deemed high-visibility gateways to cities. For that reason, cities like Renton and Redmond have allowed us the kind of creative freedom architects dream about, at times even writing into zoning codes a level of design innovation that rejects bland-box design in favor of eclectic visual interest.
As noted above, our most frequent municipal collaborator is Redmond—and it’s been a fruitful partnership. That familiarity has enabled our thorough understanding of their codes translating to fluidity in the permitting process—a benefit not just to us and to our clients, but to the entire city. Citizens reap the aesthetic benefits when architects enjoy relationships of familiarity and trust with a city’s design gatekeepers, and can design according to the city’s big picture.
That kind of familiarity and trust further enables the kind of public/private collaboration we see happening more frequently. The Spark, for instance, was granted an extra floor by the City of Redmond in exchange for highly sustainable development performance and its unique urban forest. Other projects might involve other kinds of public participation, as when the City of Everett helped prepare the site and develop the infrastructure at Waterfront Place, the destination mixed-use anchor of the Everett Marina redevelopment whose apartments Tiscareno recently won a prestigious NAIOP design award for.
The lines between “suburban” and “urban” developments are blurring
Because density is increasingly valued as the key to sustainable development, dense mixed-use projects are straying beyond their traditional home in the urban core.
Take Solera, a masterplan community in the suburb of Renton combining mixed-income housing with mixed-use commercial. On the one hand our recent design of 590 apartment units in two buildings presents a clear suburban identity, with plentiful parking, a location in a bedroom community with nearby wilderness, and a strong family orientation. On the other hand, its location on a state route in a recently upzoned neighborhood offers proximity to mass transit, walkable shopping, and a public library across the street—attributes which along with Solera’s multi-income status bring a definite urban flavor.
This kind of hybrid development will become more widespread as tech firms continue their investment in the growing density of the suburbs. Seattle’s urban core is amply stocked with multifamily units for singles or roommates—but painfully low on affordable units for larger families. Developments like Solera provide one blueprint for a solution.
Multi-family aren’t just developments—they’re communities
As Solera exemplifies, we are increasingly designing projects scaled more like small towns than multi-family developments. The reason? Firms are finding that larger projects (over 200 units) more readily attract investors.
From an architect’s viewpoint, projects of all sizes involve numerous design considerations. But these super-sized multi-family projects take us beyond design and into consideration of the holistic needs of an entire community. Take hybrid work, a new reality since the pandemic. A multi-family unit may start to feel uncomfortably snug when it’s both home and workplace, so co-working public spaces have become an essential amenity in multi-family projects. A smaller multi-family development might be able to get away with just a fitness room and a roof deck in a dense urban area like Capitol Hill, whose density of pubs and coffee shops provide all the co-working space needed.
But a larger multi-family development probably needs a community co-working space, and a large one at that. Its fitness room may additionally feature a climbing wall, its rooftop deck a solarium—and why not add a dog run, media and business centers, a BBQ patio, a demonstration kitchen…even a ground floor Whole Foods? (That’s the Danforth on First Hill, a 265-unit project we designed in Seattle’s First Hill.)
Find the value in odd-shaped lots
Many undeveloped lots are undeveloped for a reason—they’re “too small” or feature odd angles. But as density increases, so are developments on these misfit sites.
Knowing this, we have worked hard to develop a proficiency with these. At Pivot, a small diamond-shaped lot at the downtown edge of the historic Pike/Pine district, it was a puzzle working out how to maximize view corridors for the residential floors while maximizing site usage for the lower retail/commercial floors. The solution: a “pivot” of the upper floors, accomplishing the goal while creating a singular design statement.
Similarly in Redmond, a skinny-pointed triangular lot became The Triangle: a multi-use multi-family development whose “flatiron” corner has become a sought-after feature in the apartment market and an iconic Redmond landmark.
This ability to transform an oddity into an asset turns on a designer’s ingenuity—in vertical circulation, programming, systems, and much more. As we’ve learned in these and other sites—the tight lot high-rise Danforth on First Hill; the luxury condominiums, Infinity Shore Club, wedged between a hillside and the waterfront in West Seattle—the watchwords are deft design and constant collaboration.
Green design can pencil out
Sustainable living is becoming the new normal. Once-rare LEED Platinum designations are now almost mainstream—a welcome development for our cities and our planet.
But a pricey one, with up-front costs of green finishes and fittings creating sticker shock for designer and client alike. For this reason, we’ve been working hard to find ways to make green design pencil out.
Consider our multi-family project in Capitol Hill’s Pike/Pine district, The Cove, which eight years ago was the first LEED Platinum project Tiscareno worked on. We began with a stripped-down design parti—a simple mass on a highly transparent base—making this the only actual box in our portfolio. Visual interest came with the skin: a unique articulated façade of variegated panels and metal “fins” that lent the surface an undulating quality. This, along with sustainable design features—greenery-planted awnings, wood windows, solar panels doubling as sun shades—brought a bold articulation to the “simple box.” Further simplicity was enabled thanks to the Cove’s location in a densely urban setting, which reduced the need for larger gathering spots coffee shops considered required amenities in multi-family projects.
An award-winning visual success from day one, The Cove’s actual report card came with its quick lease-up and commercial performance—market success that makes other developers that much likelier to build green.
It’s all about respecting the community
Whether in a city or at the edge of a wilderness, a new development is only as successful as the respect it embodies for the community it joins.
For some projects, like The Spark in Redmond, that means finding a way to naturally integrate the neighboring forest into the project (see above). For others, like The Beam and Modera International District in the heart of Little Saigon in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District (CID), it means developing an historic site with deep respect for its cultural heritage. After several neighborhood meetings and layers of review, the Beam became a multi-use multifamily development whose apartments and retail reflect design that’s culturally appropriate for Little Saigon, boasting a unique “marketplace” passageway supporting the small mom ‘n’ pop shops the CID was built on.
This kind of respectful design begins with a design narrative that the neighbors can review in advance. At Infinity Shore Club, a luxury multi-family that’s the largest condo development ever built along Alki Beach, our design narrative underwent intense scrutiny from neighbors and stakeholders who were looking to ensure a project befitting the extraordinary natural beauty of their neighborhood.
Their pushback made Infinity Shore Club better. Thanks to their input Infinity offers wide, landscaped sidewalk setbacks that relieve crowding and bring a luxurious sense of space, along with high-end metal panel exteriors and other appointments signaling an opulence appropriate to both developer’s and neighbors’ expectations.
The lesson for us? Listening and hearing may be the most important skills an architect can bring.