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  • Writer's pictureRaffi Arzoumanian

Pushing Boundaries: The Cross-Pollination of Residential and Commercial Design

Updated: May 2, 2023

By Raffi Arzoumanian

“If we are serious about pursuing new ideals for the home environment and higher standards for sustainability in commercial structures, we cannot continue to fall back on the usual methods and materials.”

If you’ve ever seen a new development of multiple single-family homes under construction, you’ve probably noticed a small sea of timber-framed, box-shaped structures, each one barely distinguishable from the next. Likewise, many commercial buildings start with a standard steel frame and end in the form of a familiar glass-enclosed box.

The visual redundancy of projects under construction is not a coincidence. It represents the status quo. From windows to roofing and other materials, many building types utilize a templated approach to design and construction that has worked for the average user, budget, and typical program for decades. But what would happen if we pushed ourselves to think outside of those proverbial “boxes?”

We would see that residential and commercial design have a lot to learn from each other.

When architects and builders rely less on established standards and more on innovation, there is a rich cross-pollination waiting to happen between residential and commercial methods, which can result in a better response to user needs and environmental concerns, as well as potential cost savings.

Commercial Thinking for Contemporary Homes

Open plan residential layouts started gaining traction in the 1950s and slowly changed our perspective of what a typical home should look like. Fast forward to the 1990s and into the 2000s, and open concept had become the norm; and today “open plan” is still the bar by which new modern homes on the market are typically measured or categorized. In the meantime, owners of existing homes, and those seeking custom builds, are inspired by what they see on social media or in design magazines and are looking for more creative approaches to space – more light, more customization, more space for entertainment, home working, or multiple uses within the same space.

As expectations change, the tools and approaches we use from our architectural toolboxes need to expand to accommodate new desires. By looking to building types in different commercial sectors and adjusting the scale for the task at hand, we can propose more creative solutions for both program and technical challenges within residential projects.

As homes become ever more open, structural solutions need a rethink. The same steel frame methods we use in commercial construction can be leveraged for greater efficiency in residential. Steel is lighter than timber, offers more flexibility in design, and as a recyclable product, can be a sustainable option. Steel framing enables the kind of radical openness homeowners are looking for in their homes today.

Other features of commercial design can enhance the everyday living experience. For our Peterson Park Residence project, we used commercial-grade windows of different shapes and sizes to achieve the level of light exposure the owner wished to have throughout the home. The result was something standard residential windows, often manufactured with bulky frames and sashes, could not have created.

Residential Tools for Commercial Buildings

Cross-referencing commercial and residential methods also comes in handy when we think about decarbonization. Commercial building codes in Chicago and across the country continue to be updated in an effort to make structures more energy efficient. I can vouch for the fact that my teams and I have spent much more of our time in recent years researching and adopting new technologies, tools, materials, and systems to create compliant and sustainable design solutions.

Instead of treating stricter codes as an obstacle, we should welcome these challenges as opportunities to innovate, and again, expand the toolbox.

Like residential design, commercial architecture also relies on a standard approach that could be improved by looking outward to other building types. One example is in structural roof materials. In place of typical steel trusses, we can experiment with using wooden trusses. This can reduce the cost of what is otherwise one of the most expensive components of a building. As a plus, timber is energy efficient with excellent thermal insulation properties, comes from a renewable resource, and provides unique design options, particularly when exposed, for commercial and institutional clients. This is a great example of going beyond the minimum of code requirements and utilizing a typically residential material to exploit multiple benefits for the design solution.

Embracing Cross-Pollination

As the well-known adage states: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Accordingly, if we are serious about pursuing new ideals for the home environment and higher standards for sustainability in commercial structures, we cannot continue to fall back on the usual methods and materials.

Re-adapting design and construction methods where processes are already well-established is not the easiest or fastest route to a design solution. But it is a guaranteed way to creatively address changing desires and requirements and deliver inspiring and original design.

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