Single Speed Design: The 2004 Next Generation® Winner

At a ceremony May 6 in Boston, Metropolis named Single Speed Design as the winner of the magazine’s first Next Generation® Design Prize. In front of their peers and colleagues, the members of the architecture firm—John Hong, Erik Carlson, and Jinhee Park, along with their collaborator, developer Paul Pedini—were honored for their proposal to transform remnants from the Big Dig, Boston’s $15 billion public works project, into beautiful, sustainable housing. Their story follows.

As a freeway expands, it gulps space, gobbling up town and country. But an elevated freeway—disassembled—is surprisingly compact. Here in this salvage yard outside Boston, one particular former freeway lies in neat piles. There are stacks of steel “piers,” the 26-foot-long support columns that once held up the elevated roadbed; and slightly contoured, 8-inch-thick prefabricated reinforced-concrete panels, called “inverset panels,” which were placed on top of the piers creating the highway. There are also other miscellaneous materials lying about, such as precast concrete tubes—used to reroute traffic—placed in tidy rows.

“It’s like the highway has been tamed,” says John Hong, principal of Single Speed Design (SsD) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as he stands and looks over the yard full of debris. What the firm and their collaborator Paul Pedini would like to do is put the freeway back together again—as apartment buildings or perhaps public housing.

For this bold plan SsD has won Metropolis’s first Next Generation® Design Prize, capturing the award out of more than 200 entries. The competition brief asked for a “big idea” encompassing sustainability, universal access, and beauty; it also requested a business plan detailing how the winner would use the $10,000 award as seed money to further develop the concept. SsD’s scheme beat out 17 finalists whose ideas—breathtaking in their range and originality—included a “soft house,” a portable swimming pool, solar-power collectors, a waterfront redevelopment plan, and a better chair design. The annual competition seeks to blur the lines between industrial design, architecture, interior design, and planning.

The pieces of freeway in question come from the infamous Big Dig in Boston. At about $15 billion, it is the largest transportation project in the country. For the past 12 years, workers have been tunneling beneath the Central Artery, which was cut through the middle of the city in the 1950s. Last year, when the first part of the tunnel opened, they began removing a stretch of the elevated highway.

Modern Continental Construction of Cambridge, a firm specializing in heavy infrastructure work, is doing a large part of the job. Pedini, a vice president supervising the firm’s Big Dig work, had the inspiration of using some of this mountain of materials to make a building. “We were having a meeting about disassembling these temporary bridges,” says Pedini, a 48-year-old civil engineer and Boston native. “They turned to us and said, ‘Let’s break them up and throw them away.’ This didn’t make much sense to me. These are fantastic materials. I said to them, ‘Do you mind if I grab them?’ Then I jokingly said, ‘Maybe I’ll build a house out of them,’ and they all laughed. But it got me thinking.”

Thus began the seeds of collaboration between Pedini and SsD. Although he had offhandedly mentioned a house, Pedini had at that point only the vaguest of ideas. He went looking for architects who could help him figure it out. While jogging one day in Cambridge he came across SsD’s Valentine Houses, a three-unit apartment building whose clean contemporary lines stood out amid tradition-bound Cambridge. “I thought it was the prettiest house in town,” Pedini says. He e-mailed the company on the sign, which happened to reside next door in a low-slung building that once housed a Model-T engine factory. Pedini asked two other architecture firms to come up with plans as well, but gradually dropped them as he bonded with SsD.

The firm Pedini clicked with is young and small. Its four members are all in their early- to mid-thirties. Hong, who grew up in McLean, Virginia, assembled the firm out of family and friends. It includes his wife, Jinhee Park, a native of Korea who like Hong is a graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design; his brother Andy, an MIT Media Lab alum; and Erik Carlson, the firm’s project manager, who has been close friends with John since they met on their first day as undergraduates at the University of Virginia. Besides the architecture firm, the building includes a professional music studio that Andy runs, which gives the design studio a vaguely rock-and-roll ambience. During a conversation in SsD’s central meeting room, a battered 12-string Gibson leaned against one wall.

The process for what would eventually be called the Big Dig buildings began in late spring 2002 when Pedini and John Hong walked a section of I-93 called Leverett Circle, a kind of no-man’s-land crisscrossed by train tracks and encircled by off-ramps. The materials for the project are coming from a curving freeway off-ramp here, erected to handle traffic during the construction. When they first visited together, it had just been taken down. As they examined the debris, Pedini educated Hong about the material possibilities, and Hong educated Pedini about the design possibilities.

“I would ask Paul, ‘Can you cantilever this beam out twenty feet?’” Hong remembers. “And he would say, ‘No, but you can cantilever it seventeen feet.’ It was a fun process.” If there is an ideal relationship between architects and a structural engineer, this is it. Given Pedini’s background and interests, it is not surprising. A painter and sculptor, he still talks with regret about his decision not to study architecture. He is married to a painter from Barcelona, whom he says converted him from “a Gambrel-loving shingle guy to a steel-and-glass guy.” In working with SsD, Pedini communicated to them his love of the heavy steel and concrete of bridges and freeways. “To him the aesthetics of these materials is inherent in what they can do, so we were always trying to maintain that,” Hong says.

As SsD collaborated with Pedini, a creative process emerged. Often Hong came up with the basic concepts, Park refined the designs, and Carlson researched materials and systems. “I would do the broad strokes, Jinhee would make it look good, and Erik would make it work,” Hong says. “That’s typical with a lot of our projects.”

As the design progressed, their attention focused increasingly on the idea of an apartment building. Pedini began looking for a site. He found one—a prominent triangular lot shaped like the prow of a ship on Massachusetts Avenue, a central thoroughfare in Cambridge that leads into Boston. For this property SsD designed the two “Big Dig” apartment buildings that were the principal focus of the Metropolis competition entry. The larger building runs along the avenue, and has 14 condominiums and a café at the pointed apex of the lot. Because the smaller building faced a different street and had single-family zoning, it consists of four townhouses. An underground parking lot with 23 spaces serves both buildings.

What’s so startling about the design is that it doesn’t merely incorporate materials from the freeway but essentially reconstructs it using the roadbed as the roof of the main apartment building. The steel columns that once held up the road are now holding up floors. The floors are made of inverset concrete panels from another former road bed. The entire building curves in the same arc as the original freeway off-ramp. Other materials from the Big Dig—such as marine-grade plywood used for concrete molding and ancient timber beams dug up from the bottom of the harbor—are used for cladding. Pre-cast concrete panels are placed at off angles on the facade of the buildings to create balconies and dramatic living spaces.

According to Hong, the major conceptual breakthrough came one day when he stopped “resisting” the idea of copying the core construction techniques and form of the elevated freeway, which they called “the bridge”: “Paul gave us the original working drawings of the bridge. I was looking at it, and all of a sudden it looked like a building to me. And I said to myself, ‘Why am I resisting this? Why not just use the existing technology?’ We were trying to resist just putting the bridge back up. And the more we resisted, the more technical hurdles came up. Finally we just accepted it.”

Ironically this concession is probably what makes the concept viable. Building (or rebuilding) freeways is something large construction companies know about. “For infrastructure guys, this would be so easy,” Hong says. “This is one-tenth of what they do in a day. They are expensive to hire on a per-day basis, but they will work very quickly.” SsD estimates that it would take a trained crew only 14 days to erect and frame the 30,000-square-foot apartment buildings, versus two months for conventional buildings. The combination of quick assembly and salvaged materials make the cost substantially below a standard building.

Since the National Defense and Interstate Highway Act of 1956, federal highways and bridges have all been required to be strong enough to carry military vehicles. So the Big Dig buildings would literally be robust enough to drive a tank on (or more practically, put a swimming pool on top of). Carlson says it’s the stretching and breaking of conventional boundaries that make the project so exciting. “It’s about more than just architecture and the Big Dig,” he says. “It’s about how we approach the labor force and economy. It’s a conceptual shift, using perfectly good materials in another realm than what they were intended for.”

But will these buildings be constructed? Like most real estate ventures, it depends in large part on factors that Pedini and SsD have little control of. They are negotiating with the owner of the property and have begun what promises to be an arduous community-review process. Somewhat predictably, the largest hurdles are not technical but cultural. Cambridge, ultraliberal politically, is extremely conservative aesthetically. Getting the Big Dig apartment buildings through the design-review process will be tough. “The more real this project got, the more resistance we got from people about how it looked,” Hong says. “People our age were incredibly excited, saying, ‘Man, you have to do this.’ But it’s a very challenging design to others. We had a meeting with a developer from New York who liked it but asked us to clad it in brick.”

As negotiations for the apartment buildings slowly proceeded, the team began a second project almost as an afterthought—a high-end home for Pedini, which uses the same materials and techniques as the Big Dig structures. It is now under construction in a neighborhood called Six Moon Hill, in Lexington, which was founded by the Architects Collaborative with Walter Gropius, head of the Bauhaus and dean of Harvard’s Design School during and after World War II. In this small subdivision home builders are actually required to construct Modern homes. But even there Pedini and SsD felt pressure to make their design tamer to win approval. “It was, ‘No exposed structure; it can’t look like a bridge; it has to be sober,’” Hong says. They would have accepted a home on stilts or pilotes à la Corbusier, he adds, but visible steel highway girders were resisted.

While its projects continue in the Boston area, SsD is exploring the idea of exporting the highway concept. Park recently returned from Seoul, where the city is also taking down an urban freeway put up a few decades ago. She hopes to convince officials there to plan in advance for reuse of the highway materials. And Pedini wants to interest state officials in building public housing in Boston from other Big Dig materials.

Despite these ambitious plans, it’s still too early to tell how far the concept can travel. But they have already proven a lot in Boston and aim to prove even more by using the prize money to respond to an RFP as a way of testing the concept’s economic viability. Often design competitions award prizes to fantastical ideas that have little chance of getting realized. Here a prize has been awarded to a fantastical idea that is very real. This is no idle daydream.

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