September 1, 2009
by Jessica Sheridan Assoc. AIA LEED AP

Earlier this month, the NYC Buildings Department and AIANY launched urbanSHED, an international design competition to create a new standard sidewalk shed design. Other similar competitions have existed in the past: The Architectural League of New York’s Design in 5 committee held a charrette in 2007 to reconceptualize scaffolding (See “Designers Rethink Cityscape — One Scaffold at a Time,” by Bill Millard, e-Oculus, 08.07.07); the Downtown Alliance is currently hosting Re:Construction, a call to artists to use standard construction barriers as canvasses for public art. But never have three agencies — the Buildings Department, NYC Department of City Planning, and NYC Department of Transportation — come together to issue a call for designs that will change the face of the city, or at least the 189 miles of sheds that inhabit the NYC metro area.

“If you are a designer, why wouldn’t you enter this competition?” asked Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri, who presented the urbanSHED competition at a Not Business As Usual discussion at the Center for Architecture on 08.19.09. Sidewalk sheds are an inevitability in the urban landscape, and even though they are not permanent, they are constant. Every New Yorker is familiar with the current holding pattern in construction, and therefore come into contact with sidewalk sheds daily.

Besides addressing safety needs on construction sites, sidewalk sheds have other purposes. LiMandri listed the range of uses, from providing shelter from bad weather, to storage for bikes, to platforms for planters, and structures for exercise (i.e., chin-up bars). This competition wants entrants to take the design a step further, asking how these structures can affect the community and environment in addition to providing safety.

The best aspect of urbanSHED is that the winning entry will not only be constructed in Lower Manhattan (thanks to the Downtown Alliance), but it will become a standard accepted by the Buildings Department for construction sites citywide. After the finalists have been selected this October, they will receive $5,000 to develop their ideas further. A first, second, and third prize will be awarded, and the winning entry will be issued to the Buildings Department as a bulletin establishing it as an approved standard.

While I am very excited to see the results of this competition, and there is no doubt in my mind that the winning entry will go way beyond blue plywood, my question is why will there only be one finalist? I would like to see a few of the proposals built. Ultimately, I hope that this competition proves to be fruitful and inspires more such competitions in the future.

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