In New York, the most glaring signs of the Great Recession are the stalled construction sites littering the city—boarded up, dusty, and desolate eyesores.
The architecture mega-firm Woods Bagot may have a solution, which they've just unveiled: Temporary, inflatable buildings that let the developers make money while they wait for their finances to shape up. "We tried to re-imagine how you could reuse those sites," Jeff Holmes, the partner in charge of Woods Bagot's New York office, told FastCompany.com. "But it had to be a real proposal. There's been a number of creative solutions in New York and Boston because of the number of stalled states. We took a hard-nosed look at creating something viable."
Stalled sites pose a problem for developers whose financing has dried up in the recession because even when sites lay unused, they wrack up huge tax burdens—as much as $2 million a year. And sites can easily go fallow for 2 to 5 years.
[Above: The stalled sites around New York]
The obvious solution is a "taxpayer building": A temporary structure that lets the developers collect rent money. But all to often, these have been a disaster. For example, New York's Lexington Avenue is littered with ugly temporary buildings, erected decades ago, which never were demolished or rethought.
"The biggest challenge is creating a quality scheme that can go in quickly, and be taken away even quicker," says Holmes. Moreover, it's hard for a temporary building to have a big, good-looking presence on the street—rather than being just a glorified drywall tent.
Holmes's team solved the problem with what they call an Iceberg. Made of modular units that can be added up for larger sites, the design calls for a steel structure wrapped in high-tech plastic fabric called EFTE (which was used most famously in the Beijing Water Cube and the gorgeous Allianz Arena). But that fabric also has "air beams" stitched into it—structural supports that are basically big balloons, and are usually found in high-end pup tents and airplane evacuation ramps. As a result, when inflated, the EFTE becomes a dramatic, faceted roof that turns the temporary building into big, dramatic piece of contemporary architecture. "The volume is almost nothing but air," says Holmes. "Which means there's a minimal carbon footprint."
Every inch of the structure can be disassembled in a week, from the plastic to the steel to the temporary concrete slab.
What's more, Holmes and Woods Bagot believe that simple economics make the Icebergs into a win-win solution for developers. Given construction costs of about $2 million, they estimate that an Iceberg could bring in at least $1 million in rent in the first year, and $2 million after that. (They figured a rental rate of $450 a square foot; Manhattan retail spaces rent for between $250-$2,500.) Moreover, because of the huge faceted planes on the Iceberg facade, they can become huge projection screens, drawing advertising revenues. (Although Holmes is at pains to point out that they would want to do this respectfully.)
According to Holmes, if placed in prime stalled locations, such as 440 Park Avenue at the old Drake building, an Iceberg could easily generate $10 million a year.
Currently, Holmes and his team are shopping the idea around to developers, having already opened up a number of "informal" conversations. Given the economic predictions of a soft recovery, and the ongoing, moribund state of real-estate financing, you might see these coming soon.