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High-Rise Designers Challenged to Blend Brawn With Beauty

BY MARK LARSON

When high-rise designers and architects take on a project they’re typically working with a much smaller parcel of land than for the average edifice built closer to the ground.

High-rises require the structurally sound stacking of many stories containing a multitude of functions, such as electrical, mechanical and plumbing. Adequate parking is essential. And the design aesthetics demanded by the city must be satisfied.

Tony Cutri, principal architect and vice president of San Diego-based Martinez + Cutri Corp., is one of several architects and designers in this article to shed light on what makes their job a specialty in building design.

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Cutri jokes that because of the challenge of getting myriad pieces of a high-rise to work in seamless harmony, “You pray a lot.”

His company has designed the second tower of the Hyatt Regency Downtown, a 33-story building in San Diego; The Mark, a 32-story high-rise in the ballpark district on Market Street with residences and retail; and the 20-story Cortez Blu 67-unit condominium tower downtown. Others include the just completed 14-story Mi Arbolito, a luxury residential building on the northwest corner of Balboa Park, and Juhl, a 15-story downtown Las Vegas residential and retail building.

“Probably the biggest challenge is to get the maximum amount of density, and how to put in enough parking to satisfy Southern California’s need for the automobile,” says Cutri.


Parking Accommodations

Lenders on a residential high-rise project, he says, typically want one parking space per bedroom. Affordable housing requirements, however, are usually less than that.

A key structural challenge is to build parking at the base of a high-rise that is strong enough to hold the load of the building, along with providing a maximum amount of parking spaces. Beyond that, a tall building has to be sturdy enough to withstand earthquakes and high winds.

And from the outside, it has to have curb appeal.

“What the building does for the street and the city is really, really important,” says Cutri. “We like to have the verticality of the building extend all the way down to the ground. A resident seeing it walking or driving by should get a sense of its urbanity.”

A high-rise tower is typically designed so that it can be seen up to two miles away, says Cutri. But it also has to complement buildings that sit across the street from it. And the design has to ensure that any views aren’t blocked by the layout of the building.

Meanwhile, the basic materials for high-rises, such as glass, steel and concrete, aren’t cheap. While steel prices have come down, says Cutri, the challenge of minimizing costs is an ongoing struggle.

“The construction industry has to come to grips with costs,” adds Cutri. “They have to take less profit and build more efficiently. They need to learn how to be lean and mean in these tough economic times.”

The 27-employee Martinez + Cutri declined to disclose its 2007 earnings and revenue.

Nathan Ouren, a designer at KMA Architecture & Engineering in San Diego, is the project designer for a 40-story downtown high-rise called Grigio.

KMA, with 40 employees, also designed the 34-story, 500-foot-tall One America Plaza, the granite and glass building which encloses a light rail station.

In coordinating the downtown mixed-use residential Grigio project, Ouren says the sheer size of it, at about 1.5 million square feet, is a management challenge.

Twelve consultants and engineers are on the job, as are 10 on the architecture staff. Now, construction drawings are being drafted, and redesigns have been necessary due to market changes, he says.

For this project, KMA is using a 3-D modeling software called Revit Architecture, which Ouren says smoothes out a lot of the collaborative work between architects and engineers, be they mechanical, electrical or plumbing, by giving each a common reference point in the building model.

“It helps you find issues that are conflicting,” says Ouren. “It’s all new technology.”

The design element of the job is the most fun for Ouren, and he echoes Cutri in noting the street frontage of the building is a high priority of the project’s overseer, the downtown redevelopment agency Centre City Development Corp.

The project’s site requires building on a steep grade.

“It makes for exciting architecture to have such a dynamic site,” says Ouren. “It has the ability to give us an identity for drivers (heading) south down I-5 into town. We’re trying to make it clean, contemporary and timeless.”

Tom Anglewicz is urban studio director for Austin Veum Robbins Partners in San Diego, and Pablo Collin is the principal designer in the studio. The firm, which has 48 employees, does not disclose its annual revenue.


Stacked Buildings

Their firm has designed the 36-story Pinnacle Museum Tower on Market and Front streets downtown, and the 26-story, 201-unit Allegro Apartment Tower in Little Italy. It is also the designer of Sapphire Tower, which will be a 32-story residential project. It is under construction near the Sante Fe Depot downtown and is scheduled to be finished in December.

To Anglewicz and Collin, the challenge is the same as it is for their contemporaries: how to efficiently stack the building with the equipment it needs, providing the necessary support structure while wrapping it all with a slick appearance.

The most expensive elements of a high-rise, says Anglewicz, are the structural costs, elevators, the exterior skin and the mechanical systems. Budgets for each have to be closely watched to keep from overspending.

As for a high-rise’s design, “We want the building to look like it fits comfortably in its context,” says Collin.

An example, says Anglewicz, are the ground-level designs of high-rises in the former warehouse district in the East Village area. They have a warehouse look to them before changing to the look of their upper floors.

The Sapphire Tower high-rise, built on a narrow parcel, will have a colonnade facing the train station, says Anglewicz, decorated with tiles which will tell the history of transportation in San Diego, a feature to tie the building closely to its environment.

Beyond that, he adds, “It’s going to be one of the slimmest towers around. That’s going to set it apart.”


Mark Larson is a freelance writer for the San Diego Business Journal.

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