When you look at a building built downtown in the past half century and compare it to an old building, the largest change you’ll notice other than the materials used is how they fill up space. Older buildings often are built from the sidewalk to the alley, from one property line to the other. Yet newer buildings generally take up a small amount of land and are surrounded by plazas. The reason for this was the introduction of Floor Area Ratios (FAR) in our building and land use codes.
FAR is simply the ratio of floor area to the area of the property. A 2-story building built out to the property lines would have a FAR of 2, as would a 4-story building built on half of the property or an 8-story building built on a quarter of the property. The theory behind limiting FARs is that a city can keep a large amount of open space (limiting height, width, and/or depth of a building) while allowing an architect some freedom to design their building as they’d like. The reason that open space is valued in a place like downtown Seattle is to let in sunlight, and to give developers an incentive to give future employees room to enjoy this sunlight on their lunch breaks.
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