For changing the way we remodel. In 2010, after a frustrating ordeal trying to remodel their house, Palo Alto-based husband and wife Adi Tatarko and Alon Cohen launched Houzz, an online community that connects homeowners with design professionals. And in five years, it has developed a passionate audience of more than 25 million active monthly users and seemingly endless opportunities to shape the $300 billion global design and decor market to its taste. Houzz has capitalized on that attention with clever revenue streams: Any of its 60 types of design professionals, including general contractors and landscape architects—many of whose small businesses are growing overnight thanks to the site—can pay several hundred dollars for premium listings. Big-brand advertising is limited to design-minded retailers. And in the fall of 2014, the listings site also became an e-commerce platform (its still in beta), selling that reclaimed-wood dining table or soapstone countertop that users saw while browsing, and taking home a 15% commission.
For bringing starchitecture to the drab world of storm resilience. Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a firm that once proposed and built a ski slope on top of a waste-treatment plant, continues to devise playful ways to solve serious problems. BIG’s winning proposal for Rebuild by Design, a design competition launched by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, marries extravagant design to pragmatic storm protection. This is not your average flood wall: The 10-mile loop of parks and community spaces is designed to shield Lower Manhattan from devastating floods, but during calmer times, the berms become places for people to sunbathe, socialize, and even garden. An artist-decorated flood wall placed under FDR Drive, a highway along the eastern shore of Manhattan, folds up when not in use to create an esplanade that will house a winter market.
For creating truly temporary architecture. Last summer, The Living, led by principal David Benjamin, was chosen as the winner of the Young Architects Program at the Museum of Modern Art. Benjamin’s architectural installation at MoMA PS1, Hy-Fi, harnessed biodesign to create a temporary tower that was built with almost no waste. The Living teamed up with Ecovative, a New York startup developing more sustainable building materials. The tower was made of a living fungus root called mycelium, which can be combined with agricultural waste (chopped-up corn stalks) to create self-growing bricks. Once the exhibit closed, the entire structure—minus the molds for the bricks, which were returned to their manufacturer—returned to the earth as compost. Last year, software giant Autodesk acquired the studio in an effort to create next-generation building materials and design processes.
For recognizing that designing for better health isn’t just about hospitals. Perkins+Will is one of the nation’s leading firms in health care design, but its work has moved beyond the standard definition of health care. It’s working in several cities to plan “health districts,” combining urban planning with health care architecture to foster healthier outcomes for patients while they’re in the hospital and after they leave. “Health is about physical, social, and economic well-being,” explains Perkins+Will principal Robin Guenther. For hospitals, “their success and viability is tied to and integral to the success and viability of the community that they sit in.” That means creating more walkable streets and economic development around health care centers. In 2014, the firm’s health care design won awards from the American Institute of Architects, the Design & Health International Academy Awards, and the Boston Society of Architects.
For rethinking high-rise living. Urban areas are growing faster than ever, and the World Health Organization (WHO) projects that six out of every 10 people on Earth are expected to live in a city by 2030. For the majority of us, the future, by necessity, will be vertical. C.F. Møller is rethinking not only how we build residential towers, but how we use them. The firm is currently in the planning process for the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper. The 34-story Stockholm residence promises to be both cheaper and more sustainable than steel and concrete alternatives—one reason the U.S. government invested $1 million in a wooden skyscraper competition last year. C.F. Møller is also solving residential skyscrapers’ other weakness: social isolation. For a 24-story Antwerp tower, the architects grouped apartments in mini communities of similar residents, like families and students. Ample communal space, including a communal dining area, balcony space, and winter gardens, ensures people have plenty of reasons to bump into each other.
For turning design into a science. NBBJ’s new fellowship program, launched in 2014, brings in expert researchers to work alongside the firm’s design practice. The first recipient, developmental molecular biologist John Medina, studied the links between neuroscience and the built environment. He worked with NBBJ’s corporate and health care designers to apply the science of how the brain works to their work, optimizing spaces for the comfort, productivity, and creativity of the people who use them. “It’s been fascinating for us,” says Ryan Mullenix, a partner in NBBJ’s Seattle office. “For one of the first times in our profession, we have proof of concept. We don’t have to wait until people move in and then assess [our design].”
For designing a safer school that doesn’t look like a prison. Rebuilding Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which was torn down after the horrific shooting in 2012 that left 20 students and 6 employees dead, was not your average school commission. Part of the process involved meeting and holding workshops with local townspeople and victims’ families about their concerns and desires for the site. While security was a top priority, “the most important security aspect is for it to feel like any other school,” as partner Jay Brotman says. As a way to make visitors more visible, for instance, approaching the school requires traversing thin paths across a rain garden. It’s a subtle security wall with an educational component, helping the kids learn about stormwater management. The firm is teaming up with the University of Connecticut to do a long-term study on how its security measures affect daily users. Other schools will no doubt be looking to the new Sandy Hook for their own security measures. “Every school is looking to do security enhancements,” Brotman says.
For thinking outside the big box. Walmart’s first store to open in downtown Washington, D.C. is no strip-mall wasteland. For one thing, the store, located in the neighborhood of Brightwood, has windows. Designed by New Jersey-based MMA Architects, this Walmart manages to fit into its urban surroundings—parking is located underground, and doors open straight onto the sidewalk. The building, built with salvaged elements of the original early 1900s car barn that stood on the site, features a worn brick interior facade, arched entryways, and ample glass. As Walmart struggles to break into urban markets (political and community opposition has kept the retailer out of New York City, for instance), better architecture can help convince cities that a Walmart won’t ruin their walkable neighborhood.
For taking modular homes luxury. Prefabricated homes, which are manufactured off-site and can be easily shipped, have long been touted as an easy way to provide affordable, environmentally friendly housing. In 2014, architect David Rockwell teamed up with appliance titan Fred Carl to design the first luxury prefabricated homes. The 2,400 square-foot house contains four rectangular rooms arranged around a 500-square-foot interior courtyard. The kitchen comes complete with professional-grade appliances, and in order to make the design more customizable, Rockwell is hoping to offer interior additions, like prefab wine cellars. The exterior can be customized to fit the aesthetic of the local landscape, ensuring that each home doesn’t look factory-made.
For reimagining green space. In Abu Dhabi, Heatherwick has redesigned the grassy 30-acre Al Fayah Park to contend with the country’s desert climate. The new facility features 65-foot-high canopies that from above mimic the look of cracked desert terrain. The garden underneath becomes a sunken oasis shaded from the hot sun by these canopies, which reduce the evaporation of the resource-intensive desalinated water used to keep the plants alive. Meanwhile, in London, plans are moving forward to build the firm’s $290 million Garden Bridge. The design, a lush forest spanning high above the Thames, is essentially London’s answer to New York’s High Line. The brainchild of actress Joanna Lumley, the bridge project has its own charity, and has already gotten financial backing from London’s transportation agency and the U.K. Treasury.