The Architecture of Affordable Housing

As affordable housing developers build in inclusionary zoning areas, cities and residents demand high quality architecture and construction comparable to market-rate housing


One of the challenges that frequently confront market-rate housing developers building in cities with inclusionary zoning ordinances is the requirement that a certain number of affordable units be built alongside market-rate housing to promote a more diverse community. The juxtaposition of affordable with market-rate housing also demands that the affordable housing features a higher level of architectural style to compete aesthetically with the market-rate housing.

The design quality of affordable housing can have a substantial positive effect on both residents and the surrounding community. Good design uplifts residents, helping strengthen social connections, relieve stress, and enhance a sense of safety and belonging. It also can help repair blighted areas, raise adjacent property values, and attract market-rate development.

A successful new building creates a sense of authenticity and uniqueness in the urban environment, giving people a place where they can feel at home and more effectively engage with the world. This does not have to add to the project’s costs. The following are design strategies that can enhance any housing, whether affordable or market rate.

Curb Appeal
Curb appeal is a simple phrase that carries significant weight in both the architectural and development communities. Any developer, whether residential, commercial or retail, wants their project to have curb appeal, which, according to Wikipedia, is “attractiveness of the exterior of a residential or commercial property, as viewed from the street.”

But it goes much deeper than that. Good curb appeal can define the essence of a successful development while poor—or worse yet, bad curb appeal—can be detrimental to a project. While no architect or developer strives for poor curb appeal, sometimes the lack of funding or a marginal building site can be major challenges that impact the aesthetics of a property.

Think Outside the Property Line
A building’s presence does not end at the property line, but instead plays an integral part in the surrounding neighborhood. An understanding of the orientation and nature of the nearby urban typologies is key—for instance, enabling the design team to orient views strategically, perhaps to a nearby landmark or public park, “borrowing” green space in the urban environment. Something as simple as giving passersby glimpses into an interior courtyard or placing the door to the community room on the street can make the pedestrian realm a better place for residents and neighbors alike.

Windows that overlook the street and residential entries can enhance safety, while wide sidewalks with plantings greatly improve the pedestrian experience and can aid in stormwater management. New housing can double as an amenity for the community by having a large ground floor offering neighborhood-serving retail space. When adding affordable housing to neighborhoods where no one walks, architects and city planners may find it counterintuitive to try to engage pedestrians. However, it is their responsibility to recognize the power of a development to transform an area.

Reweave the Urban Fabric
Affordable housing projects frequently are isolated from the rest of the city, and new development has often turned its back on these buildings. A better idea is to knit affordable housing into the urban fabric so residents have access to transportation, jobs, and all community resources.

Build the Bones
When designing affordable housing, focus on the massing of the building—the sculptural arrangement of the structure. If the design relies too heavily on costly materials, the design intent may be lost if those materials are downgraded for savings. Much of a building’s contribution to the urban realm happens with the massing­.

Be Welcoming
Using green space at the entry is highly effective. Biophilic courtyard entries set an inviting and peaceful tone for the building and serve as a decompression space where residents can relax as they make the transition from the street to their units.

Create Synergies
Placing complementary uses adjacent to each other or providing views from one to another can create beneficial synergies. Laundry rooms and mail rooms, in particular, pair well with other active uses; they should not be sequestered in a basement or other out-of-the-way space. Placing such facilities at ground level with plenty of natural light and near gardens, children’s play structures, or community rooms builds on the social power of everyday spaces. Residents doing laundry can sit in the garden or pull weeds from a vegetable bed while the wash cycle finishes, or they can keep an eye on kids at play while folding clothes.

Make Good Plans
It is best to design an entry space in each unit so that the front does not open directly into the living area or kitchen. Even in small units, an interstitial zone makes the entry more pleasant. One way to make room for such a space is to integrate the kitchen into the living space. A compact kitchen is sometimes the appropriate response in order to create an overall balance.

The same principle applies to windows. Though natural light and views are important, the sun can heat up small spaces quickly. Too many windows also can make it difficult for residents to place furniture against perimeter walls. Fine-tuning the amount of glazing for the size, proportion, and orientation of the room is essential. Even in compact apartments, it is possible to make space for residents to have guests. A “nested” unit design for example, in which a junior one-bedroom unit interlocks with a neighboring one-bedroom unit, takes full advantage of the living area and creates room for a bed nook that separates the sleeping area from social space.

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