If a flat, empty plot of land is an architect’s blank canvas, designing a building around Boston is more like sketching in the margins of a tattered paperback while someone is turning the pages.
There are few blank-slate construction sites left in the Boston area, so architects routinely find themselves working around obstacles like steep grade changes, rocky ledges, tight confines, and overlapping layers of zoning and other restrictions — some of which can even change midway through a project. But for many of them, the challenge is half the fun.
“Having really unique or difficult circumstances can very often lead to really interesting design,’’ said Colin Booth, managing director at Placetailor, a sustainable design-and-development firm that builds to “Passivhaus’’ standards.
Indeed, celebrated architectural triumphs are often partly a product of their challenging settings. Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous “Fallingwater’’ house, for example, built atop a waterfall in Mill Run, Pa., “is what it is because of the site,’’ said Beth Lundell Garver, dean of practice at Boston Architectural College. “There wasn’t one good boulder to put a single foundation on, and so there’s sort of broken up plates of concrete foundations that are attached to the rocks like diving boards, and that is what makes Fallingwater Fallingwater — a really difficult site.’’
Likewise, the place makes the space when looking at the Regeneration Medicine Building at the University of California San Francisco, impossibly perched on a mountainous slopeside at the edge of a eucalyptus forest in a region known for earthquakes. “It’s a long, narrow sliver of a site that was essentially the last piece of vacant land’’ on the campus, said Garver, who worked on the project when she was at Rafael Viñoly Architects. Space trusses allow the building to hover horizontally over the forested hillside, and the team developed seismic base isolators — “kind of like ball joints in the ground,’’ she explained — to accommodate seismic movements.
Back in Boston, Placetailor completed a pair of projects on similarly challenging terrain in Roxbury — scraps of leftover land that, until recently, may not have made financial sense for developers to build on, Booth said.
Fort House is a series of five town houses built on a narrow ledge that slopes dramatically down and ends at a century-old, 30-foot-high stone retaining wall. The structure is nestled into the hill, with the foundation pinned into the ledge at various points — not an overly complicated solution for the foundation, Booth said, but certainly a precarious construction site. “It was really a bit of a nightmare to build on.’’
Residents enter the building from Fort Avenue, up on the hill, into the middle of three floors. And each living area is on the top floor — “so it has views, but also so it’s adjacent to the roof decks above that,’’ Booth said. In that sense, the site “forced a different layout that results in beautiful, grand views.’’
The firm also designed and built a single-family house on nearby Highland Avenue, again on a steep slope with an upper-level entry. But this time, the structure extends out from the ledge on steel supports, thrusting the living area into the treetops. “Having that slope, being able to enter, and then immediately be very high up amongst the trees, is kind of a unique thing in the city limits, to feel like you’re in a forest,’’ Booth said. Because all the foliage limits the amount of heat that can be harvested from sunlight, the windows are strategically placed to maximize views.
‘Land shape is, like, the least of our worries’
Difficult lots are the norm in the Boston area, said Dan Skolski, owner of DMS Design. “It’s rare these days to find an easy site. They all have their challenges — zoning, wetlands, brownfields, current buildings to remove, remnants of former buildings, waterfront regulations such as Chapter 91, ledge,’’ he said.
One of Skolski’s recent projects had a trifecta of issues: Not only did the site have steep grade changes, it also had a “ridiculously large gas pipeline’’ running beneath it. And to complicate matters further, the lot straddled city lines, with one side in Lynn and the other in Saugus.
Skolski’s team split the project into two buildings, one on each side of the pipeline, and then decided to fit the entire project on the Lynn side of the lot, “because to build in two towns means two sets of regulations and two sets of towns to deal with,’’ he said. “Then we had some clever grading and retaining walls to help with the topographical change and kind of use the elevation to our advantage,’’ he said, allowing cars to enter the garage at the lower level while placing the pedestrian entrance higher up.
Oftentimes, it’s not natural obstacles architects are trying to overcome — it’s the labyrinth of zoning, historical, and environmental restrictions that can vary from site to site. “The land shape is, like, the least of our worries,’’ said Marilyn Moedinger, founder of Runcible Studios.
She recently completed a project in Cambridge that required keeping the shell of an existing house just for zoning purposes. “It was in the worst shape,’’ Moedinger said of the house. But because its footprint was grandfathered in — what’s called a “preexisting nonconforming lot’’ — any new construction would have had to be much smaller to conform to current zoning rules, building codes, and setback requirements (or how far a structure is from the property line).
Working with the gutted shell, Moedinger maximized the amount of square footage they could gain on each level “by right’’ — that is, without applying for special zoning variances. The result is “kind of this funky box with all these sorts of bumps and carve-outs, and each carve-out is literally the exact mathematical restriction derived from zoning,’’ she said, adhering to both setback rules and height restrictions.
Moedinger also lifted the house off its foundation, raising the first floor by a couple of feet and deepening the shallow, dirt basement to create about 900 square feet of new living space below grade. It was a difficult and expensive job, she said, but with real estate averaging $870 per square foot in Cambridge, according to Redfin, such extreme interventions are financially viable.
Butz + Klug partner Jeffrey Klug also finds himself trying to overcome the man-made obstacles related to zoning, working on “lots’’ that are the precise size and shape of a historic brownstone. On a recent South End project, he was tasked with squeezing modern, suburban-style comforts into a 16-foot-wide shell. “On one floor, we had to have two kids’ bedrooms, a guest bedroom, a bathroom, a laundry room,’’ he said. “How do you get all this stuff into sixteen feet by thirty-five feet?’’
Klug tucked two small children’s bedrooms side by side along one wall, so each has a window, and installed a big sliding door between them. That allows for a more spacious feeling when it’s open, he said, “but if someone wants privacy, they can pull it closed.’’ The laundry room is a long closet in the hallway, and features a clothes-drying rod that can be hoisted upward and out of the way. “Some of the hardware just comes from boat catalogs,’’ Klug said, since they’re so good at fitting more function into less space. “There’s a lot of furniture that does double duty.’’
On a different project, a waterfront home in Gloucester, Klug had what should have been an easier lot to work with — but the owner really wanted an infinity pool. “Where it made sense to put the pool was inside the 100-foot buffer to the ocean, and there was no way the Conservation Commission would allow anyone to put a swimming pool in that area, and rightly so,’’ Klug said. But he noticed there were naturally occurring vernal pools on the lot, which reminded him of something he’d seen in Europe — an idea of which the Conservation Commission approved: naturally filtered swimming ponds, which mimic the biological balance of alpine lakes.
In an alpine lake above the treeline, there isn’t much organic matter — such as falling leaves —decomposing in the water, and that limits the production of phosphates. That allows tiny zooplankton to “kind of take over and keep everything clear,’’ Klug explained. To mimic that delicate ecological balance, a natural swimming pond demands more space than a normal pool: half of the area is devoted to plant- and gravel-lined filtration beds.
“The plants help to draw the phosphates out of the water, too, so it’s quite beautiful in the right hands,’’ Klug said. The result was breathtaking: While the homeowner was intent on having an infinity pool, he wasn’t sure he would like the view in the off-season. The natural pool, however, can simply freeze over like a pond. “He loves the aesthetic component of it being beautiful in all seasons.’’
Catherine Truman, founder of Catherine Truman Architects, is designing a home for a large, flat lot in Lincoln — but the seemingly inviting lot hid some challenges, she said. “Sometimes a lot that might look super, super easy may actually be more complicated, but not because of anything that you can see,’’ Truman said. “What made it super tricky is that the zoning requirements and a conservation requirement overlapped in such a way that meant you could basically, by right, only build like a ten-by-sixty-foot bowling alley.’’
Honoring the intent of both the zoning and environmental restrictions required “a very delicate dance’’ that proved every bit as difficult as building around a ledge, Truman said. The permitted home will be more narrow than square, if not quite the dimensions of a candlepin bowling lane. “We used kind of a simple barn inspiration, so aesthetically, it was appropriate to the context and appropriate to the site and the dimensions that we were navigating,’’ she said.
But Truman enjoys the challenges and problem-solving that comes with a tricky site. “When you see these things as limitations and problems, they become problems. And if you see them as just this is what I’m dealing with, they become part of the solution.’’
What lies beneath
In addition to zoning or environmental restrictions, many other hidden problems can plague a building site, from clay soil to excessive ground water. So Garver said anyone buying land to build on should invest in a geotechnical report — even if it’s not something on the mind of most residential homeowners.
“They’re looking for views and proximities, and they’re not necessarily thinking, ‘OK, let me get a geotechnical engineer on the phone so that I can run an in-depth analysis on the rock strata and the bearing capacities and slip stabilities and ground surface water,’’’ she said. “But that really is kind of the best bet, is at least knowing what it is that you’re getting yourself into.’’
That way, your architects will know what they’re dealing with, too. Designing around obstacles is all part of the job, architects said, and can sometimes result in even better work.
“When we have constraints, then we’re sort of forced to take a closer look at everything, and then you sort of naturally iterate more, and the end result ends up being better,’’ Moedinger said. “So working within constraints is fun and challenging, and I actually really love that.’’
Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.