The St. John site is 19 acres of land owned by the City of Austin that used to be a home depot and a car dealership, has since been abandoned. The city, in conjunction with the University of Texas’ architecture department, issued a Request for Proposals (RFP), to which The Geyser Group responded as the lead sponsor of the deal in partnership with Fisher Brothers.
In this case study, we will explore the site’s challenges and go through some of the design iterations that led to the final proposal.
The RFP specified requirements including:
- 50% requirement for affordable housing units
- Suitable for mixed use development
- The development needed to incorporate open space
- A minimum eventual purchase price of $11 million on the land
The crux of the challenge on the St. John site was fitting in as many affordable units as possible while being financially feasible, and creating a great community that everyone would enjoy, both indoors and out. The team also wanted to create a mix of ownership and rental homes. They needed to move quickly through multiple iterations to get the best possible development program.
In order to produce the best possible design, the team also needed to really understand the site and it’s unique challenges, including:
- A noisy interstate highway: As well as presenting access issues, being situated next to interstate highway 35 meant that the City of Austin required a buffer or setback next to residential areas.
- Access issues: There were some “macro” access issues from the city about where to exit from the highway to access the site, as well as some “micro” issues relating to access from smaller roads, and handling vehicle traffic within the site itself.
- Water detention: A big topographic change on the site meant a plan for water detention was needed. A decision was required on whether to have each parcel serve as water detention and quality for itself, or to take care of it on the larger grid, which would require a combined water quality and detention pond on the site.
- Demolition: Existing buildings to be demolished included a Home Depot, former Chrysler dealership and a few smaller buildings.
- Compatibility requirements: The site is located next to two neighbourhood streets as well as single family housing, which triggered compatibility requirements for the site such as building height graduation. The site is also in an area that requires high-mast lighting.
Typically, the process of doing a feasibility study requires a lot of back and forth over the course of 3-4 months, with each design iteration taking 1-2 weeks. Rather than limiting themselves to a certain number of iterations, the team needed a method of working that would ensure the best possible design and yield, while also responding instantly to stakeholder feedback.
The architect, Overland, used TestFit during the feasibility phase to assist with analyzing the site, and moving through a large number of iterations as The Geyser Group came up with the proposed development program.
Where TestFit really proved helpful was in allowing the team to rapidly go through different iterations to determine the most efficient way to build 50% affordable housing units, while doubling the size of the park and taking into account the height limitations due to compatibility requirements.
The Iterative Design Process using TestFit
The development team held a recurring weekly 2-hr meeting, to discuss ideas and raise things
that needed to be incorporated into the design - whether it was needing to increase density on
the site, or needing to make sure that the different areas met the height limitations, or needing to
change up the unit mix, etc. They would use TestFit to run design iterations incorporating the new
requirements, either live during the meeting or ready to propose at the next week’s meeting.
Here’s a walkthrough of the different iterations the development team went through in order to arrive at a final proposal:
1 - A Baseline for Efficiency
The first iteration started from a baseline of creating the most efficient, most profitable design.
What the team saw from this iteration was that it would put a lot of people’s homes very close to the highway, and didn’t make for a very desirable “destination” space, which was an important part of the architect’s vision.
Subsequent design iterations needed to improve on livability, while remaining competitive with
the numerical efficiency of this first design. The team went on to play with the units extensively,
maintaining density with the unit mixes while creating space for a generous 2-acre neighborhood
2 - Townhomes Layout and Walkable Streets
The second round of iterations experimented with the townhomes layout on the residential neighborhood side, and tried to create more walkable urban street sections.
3 - Park Relocation
Rather than getting rid of the neighborhood park, the development group was keen to make it a
core feature of the new site. In the third round of iterations, the team tried moving roads to increase the size of the park and locate it more centrally.
This was a successful move because it gained valuable space from roads without removing access, doubling the park from its original size of one acre to two acres. All the further design iterations were focused on interaction with that central park.
4 - Increasing Density
A big priority was increasing density, so the next round of iterations focused on the multifamily
buildings, experimenting with angled massing, the direction of courtyards, ground floor retail, etc.
The team thought through a number of different structures to use for the affordable housing developments, and ultimately landed on a five-over-two podium design that significantly increased
the density on the site and helped to hit the 50% requirement for affordable units.
5 - Further Design Iterations
In further iterations, they experimented with higher density townhome configurations, but the rest of the development team didn’t like having such high density close to the single-family home residential area, so they swapped one side back to low density townhomes.
They also worked hard to hit high enough parking ratios, using TestFit to try distributing parking in different areas, both underground and above ground. The team considered including other types of program, such as a hotel and retail area, and eventually the whole north side became an entertainment area.
6 - The Final Proposal
After around 40 iterations over 3 months, the team had reached a design iteration that could fit 872
multifamily units, as well as a range of other attractive programs to make the site a destination for
the surrounding region.
The final iteration had 819 units, compared to an early iteration with 728 units. TestFit helped them to find a 12.5% increase on units from their first iteration, without comprising livability.
St Johns by the numbers:
- 12.5% increase in units count, from 728 units on the 1st iteration to 819 units at the end.
- 2x the size of the original park from 1 acre to 2 acre.
- 6x numbers of iterations—more than 40 iterations over 3 months using TestFit, instead of 6-10 over the same period using traditional methods.
The final design successfully proposed solutions to the challenges of the site, including:
- Topography: The topography of the site was taken into account by deciding where to direct water on the site, as well as taking advantage of the existing slope for the multifamily garage.
- Parking ratios: The team managed to hit the required parking ratios, using TestFit to find the most efficient locations both underground and above ground.
- Access issues: The team solved tricky access issues, determining that the best solution was to have one access to a garage off St. John’s street, one off Blackson street, and another access point for the townhomes on the south-eastern corner of the site. Internally, the proposal included a road bisecting the site, as well as a “social boulevard” leading to a roundabout.
- Relocating the community park: Rather than getting rid of the neighborhood park, the development groups were keen to make it a core feature of the new development, and ended up relocating to the centre of the site and doubling it from its original size of one acre to two acres.
- Water detention: In the end, the final design proposed a water quality and detention pond in the NorthEast section of the site, with two storeys of parking on top.