David Graham is a principal and co-founder of Elness Swenson Graham Architects, a Twin Cities-based architectural firm that has designed hundreds of housing units in the metro and beyond. He’s a fellow in the American Institute of Architects due to his leadership in city building and bridging the gap between urban design and architecture. With thousands of new rental apartments being built in the region, there’s been a certain amount of criticism about the design of those buildings, namely that they look too similar. We asked Graham to share his perspective on the issue.


Q: Are you surprised by how many apartments have been built in the Twin Cities?

A: The multifamily residential sector’s return following the real estate collapse of 2008 has been astounding. The current market emphasis on urban and first-ring suburban residential is also gratifying, as it’s helping to create higher density in the cities, and more sustainable, walkable and transit-oriented cities. We do much of our residential work in Minneapolis where we’re guided by the Minneapolis Downtown 2025 Plan. The plan calls for the addition of 70,000 dwelling units by 2025 “as a catalyst for driving downtown’s next wave of business vitality, social improvement, and cultural renewal.”

Many former industrial buildings — mills, warehouses and factories — and areas near former rail corridors have already been renovated into apartments and condominiums. Surface parking lots and obsolete industrial sites are being repurposed as residential communities. Now we need to move further from the urban core, into neighborhoods and along commercial corridors where empty lots and vacant storefronts provide ample opportunities for higher density residential and mixed-use redevelopment. Fortunately, the Minneapolis Planning Commission recently lifted the minimum lot requirements, so we can create more and smaller units, which is a great step toward density.


Q: How does the size of a building factor into its design?

A: In today’s market, the size of residential developments is driven, in large part, by the investment capital parameters that fund the buildings’ construction and the expense ratios for managing the buildings. Today a residential development needs a density of 180 to 220 units to be financed and managed efficiently. To deliver these buildings in an “affordable” way, the buildings’ construction type limits the height to six floors. This large size within a six-floor limit presents a design and massing challenge.

Buildings smaller than 180 units are more aesthetically pleasing as infill structures, as their scale isn’t as overwhelming. But these smaller projects aren’t common in today’s market because they’re challenging from a finance and development perspective. Conversely, new high-rise residential buildings aren’t common in the Twin Cities because of the limited pool of institutional lenders willing to assume the risks associated with the higher construction costs that drive rental rates to unsustainable levels.


Q: Some critics complain that new apartment buildings look too similar to one another. Do you agree?

A: I generally agree. Let me explain the situation leading to this “sameness.” In most new residential buildings, the latitude and parameters given to architects are fixed due to the specific construction systems required to make the project relatively affordable to residents. As mentioned previously, these requirements — no more than six stories tall with larger footprints to create unit density — often drive the buildings’ design and massing. These requirements result in the “cookie cutter” similarity you’re referring to. In order to create design variety, architects must be extremely creative … while using a limited palette of affordable exterior materials. This isn’t an excuse for doing mediocre design. Rather, architects must push for design innovation within the rules of the industry. We also need clients willing to push with us.


Q: Anything you’d change about the way today’s buildings are designed?

A: Given what I’ve just described, I’d add that if the current escalation in construction costs juxtaposed with rising rents were not an issue, residential buildings could have budgets similar to iconic cultural or civic buildings. The option to use higher-quality materials and create taller buildings with greater flexibility in size and number of units could boost their design quality. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, most new residential buildings are limited to six-story “wood frame over podium” with a very limited palette of affordable materials. Again, this is not an excuse for doing mediocre design. Creating high-quality, innovative residential design within the parameters we’re given is a challenge we are committed to.

At the same time, if city leaders are serious about adding significant population density to Minneapolis, they need to change building requirements to allow for well-designed higher density residential structures. Neighborhoods outside the urban core often meet the prospect of new multifamily residential buildings with resistance, especially if they’re tall. Midwesterners are more comfortable with low-rise or horizontal buildings, but taller buildings offer greater density and a smaller, more sustainable building footprint.

Rebuilding the city’s population is a challenging task. City leaders need to collaborate with city planners and officials, developers, architects, and concerned citizens on finding ways to revitalize city neighborhoods with appropriate developments that allow for density, even it its means height in buildings. Balancing everyone’s agendas while creating good urban and architectural design requires patience, skill, openness and a thick skin.

If Minneapolis is going to compete with other cities that are adding density, the city needs the courage to plan for density and make it happen. The answer is high-quality, high-density buildings along corridors that run adjacent to established neighborhoods, but not at the cost of nearby single-family homes.


Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376