Walking past New York City construction sites may soon be a much more pleasant visual experience.
Unhappy with the current appearance of sidewalk sheds – the uninviting scaffolds that surround the city’s construction sites to provide protection from falling debris – New York’s Department of Buildings partnered with the AIA, Alliance for Downtown New York, New York Building Congress, Illuminating Engineering Society New York Chapter, Association for a Better New York, and other related organizations to host urbanSHED, an international competition for a better design.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced the winner on January 21 – Young-Hwan Choi, a 28-year-old architecture student from the University of Pennsylvania. Choi beat out 163 other entries from 28 countries with a concept named “Urban Umbrella.”
“I tried to simplify the sheds by following the structural logic of an umbrella,” he says. “The whole idea is to bring the structure, ornament, lighting, and experience altogether.”
After being named a finalist, Choi worked with engineer Sarrah Kahn and architect Andrés Cortés, the principals of Agencie Group, as well as a small team of assistants (Will Robinette, Zachary Colbert, and Todd Montgomery), to finalize his design. The resulting metal structure – they are currently undecided on whether to use steel of aluminum – uses curved arms to support the roof while creating an arcade-like quality below. Integrated LED lighting provides illumination at night. The structure is topped by translucent fiberglass panels, which Choi says could be customized with different colors and art while also allowing natural light through during the day.
“This competition is important because it addresses how people use the city and take pleasure in the city,” says Rick Bell, executive director of AIA New York, who helped manage the competition. “Sidewalk sheds came up by accident and overstayed their welcome.” In fact, there are about 6,000 such sheds currently installed in New York, covering more than a million linear feet of sidewalk.  
Choi was awarded a $10,000 prize, and the Alliance for Downtown New York will now fund a full-scale prototype at a construction site in Lower Manhattan. Contractors will not be forced to use the new shed design, but the city government hopes that many of them eventually will, pointing out that it should not only please pedestrians and business owners, but also have lower maintenance costs.
Richard T. Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, thinks the construction industry will generally be receptive to the design. “There will be some resistance from those who would like to use the equipment they have,” he says, “but if this design, and designs like it, can make building sites more attractive, then I think owners would be receptive.”