The Housing Chronicles Blog: Building for the Future of the Automobile

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Building for the Future of the Automobile

Ask any architect of a high-density development what the biggest challenge is to make the overall design work, and he (or she) will probably answer “parking.” Whether we’re talking about condominiums, apartments or a project which mixes residential with retail and office uses, if the parking is confusing, inconvenient, expensive or offers too many compact spaces, the entire project can suffer.

What’s more, given the rise of transit-oriented developments in multiple cities throughout the U.S., introducing new ways to address the parking conundrum and getting people out of their cars is becoming one of the most important issues in the Green building movement.

Given the growing importance of the multi-family sector to the building industry, this is a problem that will only become more prevalent: over the last 20 years, the number of multi-family permits has regularly captured from 22% to 30% of the national total.

And, according to the Census Bureau, although 2009 will likely end up with less than 150,000 multi-family permits, near the height of the building boom in 2004, nearly 460,000 permits were issued. Fortunately, there are three major trends that will vastly improve not only how developers address parking, but can also increase building densities – and therefore potential revenues.

The first trend, in place for a decade, is the simplest: get people out of their cars. In late 2007, Zipcar merged with Flexcar to form the largest car-sharing service in the world, with 6,500 cars serving nearly 300,000 members in 49 cities. Reportedly capturing half of the current car-sharing market, the premise is to charge people by the hour (generally close to or under $10) and get them hooked enough on the idea to get rid of their cars.

Those who do claim to save an average of $600 per month, and studies in Europe show CO2 emissions reduced by up to 50% per user, in large part because members without their own cars simply drive less. Multiply that savings by the estimated 20 cars abandoned for each Zipcar, and it’s easy to see why the idea has helped the company sign up 8,500 companies, 120 colleges and universities and multiple governments. Not to be outdone, car rental companies including Hertz, Enterprise and even U-Haul are looking to leverage their existing infrastructure to the car-sharing market.

More recently, both new condominium projects and existing apartment owners such as Equity Residential and Prometheus Real Estate Group have began partnering with Zipcar to offer this new amenity to their residents – made even easier by the recently announced Zipcar App available for free on Apple’s popular iPhone.

The second major trend is targeted towards those developers who must plan for individual cars but are frustrated by the huge space requirements of traditional parking structures: automated parking systems that can boost building densities by up to 40%. Already used in Europe and Asia with over 12,000 spaces installed, California-Based Simmatec, USA argues that a variety of Green benefits (and capable of adding LEED points) include more open space, smaller building footprints, reduced storm water runoff and energy consumption to light and ventilate a structure, fewer emissions from cars seeking a parking space, and less noise.

For developers, additional benefits include lower expenses related to labor, liability, operating expense and security as well as a potential income boost from more parking stalls as well as from the nascent carbon credit market. Best of all, suddenly a project deemed infeasible due to a small lot can now – with the right parking system in place -- become a reality while simultaneously addressing environmental concerns.

The third trend is related to automobile design itself. With the structures of today’s cars largely regulated by the reliance on the internal combustion engine and its related parts to turn the wheels, a shift to all-electric cars with far better batteries could dramatically change how cars look and function. In the first phase, developers of both single-family and multi-family projects will have to increasingly offer charging stations – an advantage soon to be leveraged by car-sharing services such as Zipcar.

Yet down the road in the second phase, instead of a single engine paired with a drivetrain, each wheel could have its own electric engine, fostering in the most dramatic changes in car design in over a century. It’s quite possible that tomorrow’s cars could look strangely different than they do today, and in the process force us to completely re-invent how we plan for parking to serve projects of all shapes and sizes.

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