Love them or hate them, nobody seems to be ambivalent about the new AMP apartments on Frankfort Avenue on the former Ready Electric site. And, while its bright, colored siding panels attract the most attention and comment, they’re probably the least critical in assessing the quality of this impactful development.
AMP is one of few recent modern residential projects in Louisville. Most of Louisville’s residential developers in past decades have been a generic type of box-for-living — a proven model. Now they’re being challenged by a modern, urban approach, as developers from neighboring cities respond to a perceived market void. AMP’s team is even promoting in a different way. From use of overly-clever unit names that recall the site’s former use, to marketing Nulu hot-spots as in the “Frankfort Avenue neighborhood,” they’re pitching to a specific demographic.
Some people have complained AMP looks cheap. Many factors might lead to this impression, some consistent with the criticism, and some that run directly counter to it. Wrong or right, it’s an observation that resonates with some hard truths about the design of apartments.
Multi-family housing development has many competing requirements. From a real-estate perspective, the developer must understand the local market and a likely ceiling for unit pricing. This helps establish the number of each unit type, and the budgets for construction, finishes and amenities. Experienced developers like AMP’s Milhaus (Indianapolis) will have basic assumptions, but each project is unique.
One frustration for architects is the inventory that buyers and renters have been taught to expect — amenities the modern real-estate market has coached us to consider must-haves. AMP’s list, for instance, includes “designer lighting fixtures,” in-wall USB ports, pull-down kitchen faucets, quartz counters and sliding privacy doors — all additions that add cost without improving the quality of construction or design. More of these means less money for construction.
Though AMP’s architecture firm, DKGR, is young, its portfolio indicates that it has explored issues of multi-family housing before. Faced with considerations that chip away at the construction budget, it has delivered a well-considered, efficient project. The massing is appropriately tight to the sidewalk; varied in material, color and scale of details; and appropriately expresses that it is modern without being too aggressive about it.
Some will aver that modern architecture looks cheap, but either modern or overtly historically-referenced design can be done well or not, cheaply or not. Do the economies that DKGR found, or the building’s modernity, contribute to the criticism in this case? Probably not.
Ironically, the qualities that have made someone think construction looks cheap in the past are actually signs of improvements in industry standards. Building codes require certain energy performance, which improves construction quality. The insulated building enclosure, called the envelope, must be built tight enough to deliver the energy performance required by the state code. Unfortunately, tighter construction can make a building appear to be of lesser quality. In the past, when deep sills and walls of varying thickness were standard, flatness signaled cheap construction. In contemporary residential construction, however, highly-insulated wall construction, and high-efficiency windows in combination, can give the walls a flatter appearance than is familiar to us.
This flatness of the exterior wall surface, then, becomes a design challenge. How, knowing that flatness gives the perception of low quality, can architects arrive at a design solution to mitigate the flatness of the facade?
DKGR’s solution was to introduce variations in the street-facing wall, including addition of a free-standing structure at the north corner. The large gray frame, a completely separate column-mounted structure sitting a foot in front of the building, provides shadow play and layering of the facade. The ins-and-outs along the street face — suggesting vertical townhouse forms — distract from the fact that the windows are flush with the cladding. The changes in color, material and texture further break up the wall. All of these skillful maneuvers were part of the architects’ strategy to counteract the flatness of the construction.
Right now, AMP is new and bright, almost too clean. As it ages, it will gain some of the patina that helps other nearby structures marry with their site. It’s true that AMP doesn’t have the richness of detail that the storefront across the street does. Possibly because of its playfulness, it also doesn’t project the weight and permanence of Clifton Lofts.
What it does is bring welcome density of living spaces to a location that had been a hold-out, industrial use along the more refined Frankfort Avenue streetscape. This kind of density AMP provides will become increasingly necessary in our urban neighborhoods if we want to counteract metastatic sprawl into the Bluegrass. Everyone doesn’t have to like it for it to serve as a positive role model.