Architectural concept showing a modern concrete finish on the building’s interior and exterior.

The Importance of Unbuilt Architecture

The Importance of Unbuilt Architecture

6 Ways our Team is Advancing Architectural Concepts through Design Exploration

September 28, 2023
Amy Collins, FSMPS, CPSM

What is Unbuilt Architecture?

Unbuilt architecture represents architectural designs, concepts, or projects that were conceived but not built in a physical form. These ideas and visions exist only on paper, in digital renderings, or as 3D models. While unbuilt architecture hasn’t been realized for reasons such as budget limitations, site conditions, regulatory issues, or for their exploration of ideas, these designs play a valuable role in the field of architecture—pushing boundaries and serving as a source of inspiration.

Why is Unbuilt Architecture Important?

Unbuilt projects allow architects to explore innovative and experimental ideas without real-world constraints. This architectural design exploration is a testing ground for new design concepts, materials, and technologies and an opportunity to dream big. A design project can facilitate creative exploration, educate client organizations, promote resilience and adaptability, and provide a springboard for important cultural and social conversations.

1. Exploring Ideas

For Gannett Fleming’s Architectural Practice Manager Steven Knaub, AIA, LEED AP, the hypothetical Subarctic Training and Research Center in Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve is a perfect example of unbuilt architecture furthering design exploration. He revisits and refines unexecuted projects periodically, adjusting them based on experience, new standards, and innovations.

This design solution considers the center’s remoteness and imagines unique forms of dedicated transportation, such as electric-assist mountain bikes, to reach nearby observation sites on the mountaintop location. The project would also require unique design and construction techniques to prevent sinking or differential settlement caused by building heat melting the permafrost. Climate change presents challenges where passive measures may become insufficient, adding special materials and technology, such as refrigerated foundations, to the thought process. Finally, harnessing wind for electricity and solar for passive heating helps avoid emissions that change atmospheric chemistry.

“The research happening at facilities like this one, in Earth’s extreme environments, serves as proverbial canaries in coal mines. They are at the heart of understanding the delicate balances and thresholds important to environmental health and species preservation. Unbuilt projects like this training and research center design can serve as a platform for architects to envision and propose sustainable, resilient, and adaptable designs that address the challenges of carefully building in unique geographies,” explained Knaub.

2. Generating Adequate Density and Vibrant Diversity to Create Thriving Communities

“One of my favorite unbuilt designs was inspired by my master’s thesis during my studies at Boston Architectural College. Mixed-use development is an important element of community-building— allowing people to live, work, and play while enhancing their neighborhoods through a sustainable and diverse economic base. Architects can influence mixed-use, transit-oriented development designs to promote physical health, mental health, and sustainability, generate density, and balance privacy and proximity,” shared Isra Banks, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, a senior project architect at Gannett Fleming.

This Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority-centric concept centered around developing guidelines for connectivity and creating a walkable environment. Diverse environments offered a range of dwelling units while providing transitions and safe havens between public and private spaces. At the same time, in-depth studies focused on building envelope and integrating natural light, solar heat, and natural ventilation.

3. Inspiring Concepts to Support Growth

As the largest statewide transit agency in the U.S. and a valued Gannett Fleming partner for more than four decades, NJ TRANSIT sought innovative design concepts to move public transit patrons between Secaucus Junction, MetLife Stadium, and the American Dream entertainment and retail center. The Gannett Fleming team partnered with more than 15 firms to propose a mobility-as-a-service solution, reimagining the customer journey by new and old forms of transportation, including ferries, gondolas, people movers, and electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.

“In an ever-changing world, architects, planners, and designers must adapt to evolving technological advancements and changes in the communities’ transportation needs. These crucial conversations need to be held as part of the early stages of planning and design,” said Gannett Fleming’s Ashwini Karanth, AIA, LEED AP, ENV SP, urban designer/planner. A staggering number of people visit these facilities, and the transportation experience is important. As a multidisciplinary designer, I appreciated the opportunity to collaborate on this design concept as we reimagined what the future will look like.”

4. Informing Client Decision Making

As organizations look to share resources, consolidate assets, and increase operational efficiencies, conceptual designs help lay the groundwork between what is and what could be. As one state agency client looked to centralize more than 2,000 personnel, they called upon Gannett Fleming.

“In this process, we analyzed the needs of key stakeholders, end users, and the facility’s functional requirements. We established architectural concepts for the building’s interior and exterior, including space and adjacency requirements; equipment and technical facets; and exterior considerations like materials, style, and access,” said Stephen Lis, AIA, CID, Gannett Fleming’s architecture operations manager.

While the project did not progress, the feasibility study and conceptual design were critical in the client’s evaluation and decision-making.

An architect’s rendering of a new public agency headquarters building.
As visualized in this new public agency headquarters, feasibility studies and conceptual designs can communicate a project's vision for key components to building organizational consensus.

5. Restoring Notre Dame

On April 15, 2019, a massive fire severely damaged one of the most beloved landmarks in Paris, the Notre Dame Cathedral. Michael Snyder, AIA, a senior project architect at Gannett Fleming, teamed up with a former Penn State University classmate, Jennifer Cole, to enter an international design competition to propose a new spire for the historic structure.

“Following the Notre Dame cathedral fire, our architectural conceptualization of Notre Dame de Paris infused religious symbolism with traditional forms, modern materials, and construction techniques to provide an accessible and sensitive design to the existing architecture and spirituality the cathedral represents,” said Snyder. The duo landed second in the contest.

6. Conceptualizing the Future

As firms like Uber and Joby Aviation reimagine the future of aviation with concepts such as eVTOL aircraft, a multidisciplinary team at Gannett Fleming designed a revolutionary urban intermodal hub to serve as a departure and arrival point in response to the Uber Elevate Skyport Challenge. The team’s modular approach, SKYPORT by Gannett Fleming, centered around PAW, an optimized configuration for landings, takeoffs, drone charging, and passenger comfort.

“While the design might seem like a futuristic concept or abstract idea today, we are passionate about solving the complex infrastructure challenges that face our communities now and in the future. Our PAW design is a key piece of the infrastructure necessary for transforming passenger movement and providing an integral connection point between passengers and transforming urban mobility,” said Director of Architecture Huzefa Irfani, AIA.

Unrealized architecture projects influence, inspire, and connect us to the future and highlight how, together, we can shape a more resilient, functional, and sustainable world. View our architectural portfolio to learn more.

Amy Collins
Amy Collins, FSMPS, CPSM
Senior Marketing and Communications Manager

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