Designing Affordable Housing

Good design and affordability are not mutually exclusive, but finding help to bring these two together can be tough.

Good design matters. It matters particularly with respect to affordable housing, which not only should embody social and community objectives that go well beyond the mere provision of shelter, but also must overcome the stigma of its association with the hulking towers and barren blocks of many public housing projects. Good design, and its role in the development of affordable housing, however, has long been a matter of ambivalence and uncertainty within the CDC community. Many have never given serious consideration to design quality, while a few see it as a frill or an elitist issue, arguably in conflict with the CDC’s mission or the needs of its struggling constituents.

Design awareness in the CDC world has grown in recent years. Although some nonprofit housing developers have long been sensitive to the importance of architecture and good design in their developments, more CDCs and intermediaries have begun to place design issues on their agendas. Many CDCs, however, even the most sophisticated ones, are far away from having fully internalized the need for good design into their thinking.

It must be understood that good design is far more important, and far more complex, than simply a matter of visual attractiveness or “curb appeal.” Design addresses the livability and adaptability of the units themselves, their energy efficiency, the way their residents feel about their environment, the way social cohesion and interaction are fostered within a development and the way a development enhances — or detracts from — the long-term sustainability and viability of the community. But few CDC executives, housing directors or lay community leaders have the training or background to address these issues effectively. Good general information and detailed road maps that can help those involved with rebuilding neighborhoods to think more intelligently and creatively about the design of their buildings are urgently needed.

In this regard, it cannot be said that the architectural profession has been much help. According to a recent survey by the American Institute of Architects, fewer than 1 percent of architects (500 of 58,000 members) listed affordable housing as a primary interest. Reading the major books on American architecture and urbanism, one finds few references to affordable housing, with the exception of the occasional and obligatory denunciation of high-rise public housing in general, and St. Louis’ ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe project in particular. Architects such as Michael Pyatok and Sam Davis, who not only design first-rate affordable housing, but share a commitment to the social values it represents, are rare. The first substantial book devoted to the architecture of affordable housing, aptly if unimaginatively entitled The Architecture of Affordable Housing, by Sam Davis, appeared only in 1995, followed closely by Pyatok’s Good Neighbors: Affordable Family Housing in 1997.

These books, along with the two more recent books and two valuable Web sites, now offer something of a “design library” to people engaged in affordable housing and community development, providing them with the beginnings of an urgently-needed road map. Three of these books offer widely varying combinations of general discussion and specific case studies of built affordable housing developments. The fourth, The HOME House Project, however, is a “thought experiment” in affordable housing rather than a practical guide.

In many respects, The Architecture of Affordable Housing may still be the most valuable of the four books, with strong competition only from Good Neighbors, the bulk of which is devoted to 53 case studies of well designed affordable housing developments across the United States, although with a perhaps disproportionate emphasis on California, the authors’ home state. Each of the case studies contains photographs, basic information and a thoughtful discussion of the development, highlighting the design features that make it worth studying. In addition, the text includes half a dozen excellent pages of general discussion of design issues. While it is now out of print, the case studies are available, having been reproduced in the Affordable Housing Design Advisor Web site.

Of the newer books, Urban Land Institute’s Affordable Housing: Designing an American Asset largely reproduces an exhibit of well designed affordable housing developments that was mounted at the National Building Museum in 2004, with a number of introductory essays added. This book covers much the same ground as Good Neighbors, but with less success or coherence. The essays tend to reflect idiosyncratic — or self-serving — points of view rather than complement one another and, moreover, lack even a tenuous connection to the exhibit or the case studies. It was, however, interesting to read in a book entitled “Affordable Housing” that, “[developers] seldom use the word ‘affordable’ — not only does it scare off the neighbors, it creates a self-esteem issue for residents….”

Its 18 case studies do include developments targeting special needs populations as well as lower-income families, but offer little discussion of any larger design issues that might place these case studies in a useful context. The case study discussions themselves devote more space to the development process — and the funders — than to the architectural or design features that might make these projects worthy of attention. In the end, while a reader might pick up some ideas by leafing through the case studies and looking at the pictures, the book offers no guidance on what constitutes good design or how to bring greater design awareness to one’s work as a practitioner. Designed apparently to demonstrate to skeptics that affordable housing can be pretty, this is a book nominally about architecture put together, it appears, by people without much interest in architecture.

The HOME House Project: The Future of Affordable Housing, despite its grandiose subtitle, describes the result of a design competition for affordable single-family homes sponsored by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The competition challenged architects to come up with creative design schemes that met the criteria established by Habitat for Humanity for three- and four-bedroom detached houses, using green and sustainable materials, technologies and building methods. The winning entries range from sensitive adaptations of traditional vernacular building patterns to modernistic high-tech solutions. My personal favorite is a tree house concept by Michael Joachim, Lara Greden and Javier Arbona, where the house is created by “weaving together tree branches to form living archways, lattices and screens.” Unfortunately, as the book’s editor notes, “the construction phase for this unit is probably about seventy years.”

While it is doubtful that the detached single-family house, however cleverly designed, represents the “future of affordable housing,” The HOME House Project, although of limited practical utility, offers more than entertainment value. Such idea competitions challenge our sense of what is possible, a sense that is dulled by the constraints, frustrations and disappointments that are built into the lives of those who try to develop affordable housing and rebuild distressed communities. Even a solution that may not be practical in itself — and some of those in The HOME House Project actually appear eminently practical — may help us think more creatively about what we can accomplish in our own communities.

Another publication arising from a recent design ideas competition, the New Housing New York 2005 Competition Report is likely to be of more value to urban CDCs. The sites that were the subject of the competition — in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens — the design concepts of the winning entries, and the commentary all offer a rich array of ideas about the design issues involved in creating high quality affordable housing in an urban setting.

In contrast to Good Neighbors and the others, The Architecture of Affordable Housing is actually a book, in the sense of an extended, coherent work focusing on a specific subject by a knowledgeable, thoughtful writer. The text goes well beyond the subject of architecture, providing a well-written overview of the affordable housing development process and an exploration of many of the pressures affecting affordable housing in the United States. The chapter on design is outstanding and could be read with profit by anyone concerned with building affordable housing, while the section on cost-generating features and the effect of code requirements and other regulations is insightful and thought-provoking. The 10 case studies are followed by commentary on the design issues raised by each project and how the project solved those issues.

In the end, perhaps the greatest value of The Architecture of Affordable Housing is its voice. Unlike the bureaucratic tone of Affordable Housing, or the rarified academic language of The HOME House Project, Davis’ book presents, in clear language, the thoughts of an experienced professional who has been engaged in the design and development of affordable housing, and who has thought seriously about the issues it raises. It is well worth reading.

The Architecture of Affordable Housing is not a guidebook, nor was it intended as such by its author. Indeed, if it has a defect, it is that it is unclear what, or whom, it is for. Not really oriented toward practitioners — although containing much of value to them — and not systematic enough to be a textbook, it would appear to be too detailed for most lay readers, and not gaudy enough for a coffee table book.

The need for a more focused road map has recently been addressed by two partly complementary and partly overlapping Web sites. The Affordable Housing Design Advisor, funded by HUD during the Clinton administration, is housed at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. It provides detailed, well-organized information that enables a user, at any level of experience, to walk through the design process, beginning with tutorials on “what is good design?” and “why is design important?” and offers a detailed, downloadable, 126-page, step-by-step project book for use by CDCs and developers of affordable housing.

The Affordable Housing Design Catalog, funded principally by the Fannie Mae Foundation and housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago, offers only limited advice on design issues and the design process, but provides a far more extensive catalog of case studies organized in a way that permits the user to focus on specific design issues and offers valuable commentary on the architectural issues raised by each project. While one can only wonder why HUD and Fannie Mae chose to fund two separate sites, rather than pool their resources to create a single outstanding one, practitioners will find both helpful, with the Catalog principally useful as a supplement to the Advisor rather than as a primary resource.

Ultimately, books, Web sites and tutorials directed at CDCs can only accomplish so much. One of the most frustrating aspects of working in community development is the extent to which even the most successful CDC must constantly walk a tightrope between its community mission and the ever-increasing, often contradictory, demands of the host of funders, financiers and regulators. Although there are admirable exceptions, those entities, public and private, while imposing ever more stringent building standards — more parking spaces, larger unit sizes, more expensive fire suppression systems — are rarely known either for sensitivity to or interest in good design. It is critically important that they learn, not that affordable housing developments can be pretty, but how important good design, in all of its ramifications, is both for the people who will live in our affordable housing and for the future of our neighborhoods.

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Discussed in this essay:

The Architecture of Affordable Housing, by Sam Davis. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995, 208 pp. $32.95 (paperback).

Good Neighbors: Affordable Family Housing, by Tom Jones, William Pettus and Michael Pyatok. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997, 268 pp.

Affordable Housing: Designing an American Asset. Urban Land Institute, 2005, 126 pp. $29.25 (paperback).

The HOME House Project: The Future of Affordable Housing, David J. Brown, ed. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005, 127 pp. $24.95 (paperback).

New Housing New York 2005 Competition Report, Lance J. Brown, ed. New York: American Institute of Architects, New York Chapter, 2005. 28 pp.

Affordable Housing Design Advisor
www.designadvisor.org

Affordable Housing Design Catalog
www.uic.edu/aa/cdc/AHDC/website

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