Innovation District?

411 D St., South Building, Innovation Dist., rendering by Elkus Manfredi architectsThe BRA last month approved the design for a 197 unit housing project at 411 D Street, which has been lauded as a renewed concept of design excellence to the Seaport Innovation District.

During the time this project was approved, I had the pleasure of being one of two scholars at the AIA Committee on Design Spring Conference hosted in Columbus, IN, with a goal of identifying what defined architectural design excellence. As I have begun to analyze this theme upon returning to Boston, I find myself obsessing over a question from one of the conference speakers, Ed Feiner. He asked the question during the opening symposium, is the term “excellence” overused?  Since then, I have been constantly viewing the Innovation District in this context. This is partially because a large percentage of building in Boston is within that district, which puts a strategic advantage on those architects and developers to define excellence for that neighborhood.

One project in particular, 411 D Street, has been applauded by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the Boston Globe, and more recently Metro News, for the incorporation of “innovation” and “shared space” units, which are meant to create smaller, more affordable rentals for Boston’s most up-and-coming neighborhood.  The question that is on my mind is, what is so innovative about these units?

Are they truly a new unit type, as these other news outlets have claimed? Or are they just marketing spins?  Are they innovative in their sustainability features, which make their utility bills significantly lower and more affordable than traditional market rate apartments? Are they technologically innovative with the latest means of connectivity, or shared work spaces? According to what I have read so far, what they really mean by innovative is just a tiny apartment. And what would the layperson call an apartment with” compact units for sleeping, [that] have shared space for living and dining,”  as reported in the Metro? We’d call that a 3-bedroom apartment.

Now don’t get me wrong, as an architect, and a resident of Boston, I would love to see this project introduce new models for housing, whether it be the layouts for the units themselves, sustainability features, or the leasing strategy. Unfortunately, all I  have seen so far has been the same exterior rendering on every media outlet. So before we all jump out of our chairs, lets think about what the potential is for innovation and excellence in this up-and-coming neighborhood.

Rendering: 411 D St., South Building, Innovation Dist., rendering by Elkus Manfredi architects, from Boston Redevelopment Authority under Fair Use Doctrine (commentary re public item)


Profile photo of Aaron Trahan About Aaron Trahan

Aaron is an intern-architect in downtown Boston, with experience on projects ranging from single family affordable housing to master planning and large scale developments. He received his Masters in Architecture from Northeastern University in 2011, with a thesis focus on thermally active surfaces in architecture, and affordable housing renovation.

Aaron is extremely passionate about sustainable philosophy being successfully integrated into practice and design, and is a strong advocate for sustainable affordable housing, community development, and urban agriculture.

You can typically find Aaron riding his bicycle around Boston, looking for a quiet place to read and catch up on work. He believes in using architecture to improve the quality of people’s lives, and is currently a member of the BSA Housing Committee.