In the face of persistent housing shortages, how are architects making a meaningful contribution? Housing’s primary position in our lives makes it a natural site of intervention in the complex fight against lack of housing. “Housing First” policies acknowledge that the pursuit of a healthy, fulfilling life is possible only when we have a stable home, while a growing body of research demonstrates that people with affordable, well-designed housing lead healthier, happier lives than those who are rent-burdened or ill-housed. Beyond policies and data showing the generative value of housing, people universally seek a sense of dignity and identity through their homes.
Neither urbanization nor the “housing crisis” are new phenomena. As German philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote (1872) in “The Housing Question”, “The so-called housing shortage is not something peculiar to the present; it is not even one of the sufferings peculiar to the modern proletariat in contradistinction to all earlier oppressed classes. On the contrary, all oppressed classes in all periods suffered more or less uniformly from it.”
In our present day, market-driven investment in luxury housing combined with the withdrawal of public funding from social housing provisions have led to precarious housing conditions for wide swaths of society. Severe income inequality is again making housing insecurity impossible to ignore. In late 2017, a fire that started in a homeless encampment destroyed 160 hectares (400 acres), including six homes in Bel-Air, one of Los Angeles’s richest neighborhoods, while nearby San Diego experienced a hepatitis outbreak emanating from unhealthy conditions in growing homeless camps.
Supported by evolving research, policies, funding and collaborations, contemporary architects are working within existing housing systems while advocating to change them.
Some designers are attempting to increase affordability by cutting housing development costs, often finding that the most promising strategy is not to produce cheaper housing units, but rather to reduce or eliminate the cost of land. As an example, University of Michigan architect Marc Norman explores speculative projects adopting this approach to “designing affordability,” which create new units within existing buildings or on parking lots, and proposes policies to allow this type of development.
Similarly Dana Cuff, director of UCLA’s CityLAB has not only developed design prototypes and urban analyses, but co-authored the successful legislation that’s recently eased the way for backyard homes (aka ADU’s or granny units), throughout the state.
On another front, the thinker David Eisenberg, Director of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology, forcibly argues for a fundamental re-thinking of our building codes, arguing that their single-minded obsession on ever-higher standards of safety in turn fundamentally drive ever-higher construction costs. The trade-off between building safety vs. construction costs in the current paradigm, he argues, ultimately carries with it the penalty of reduced affordability and therefor, reduced opportunities to provide housing.
Some extremely innovative technical approaches have also been posited. One entails stacking prefabricated housing units vertically, facilitating higher housing density at lower cost. So-called “Vertical Urban Trailer Parks”, were pioneered by the Minnesota developer Elmer Frey in the 1960’s. More recently the Brazilian architect Felipe Campolina has advanced this concept, proposing high-rise structures in the form of urban skyscrapers containing mobile home units and resolving the aesthetic challenges which attended Frey’s original concept.
A more sophisticated and more probable version of this approach is that of stackable modular units. One of the earliest and most famous examples of this concept was that of architect Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, built for the 1967 Expo in Montreal. Since then, the type has become more viable and is approaching the mainstream.
One recent noteworthy example is Oakland’s Coliseum Connections Apartment complex designed by Pyatok Architects. Construction is underway, and in less than three weeks, the site will reportedly have been transformed from an empty foundation to a fully erected, five-story apartment building.
Shipping container housing is another arena in which strides are being made. Utilizing discarded shipping containers which would otherwise go un-used, shipping container housing offers the opportunity to utilize a resource which would otherwise go un-used to create homes. Whether on an individual basis by individual homeowners seeking to build a new home, or enmasse to create multifamily housing, shipping container housing offers the prospect of creating quality housing at reduced cost. In the realm of multifamily housing one exemplar is the Hope on Alvarado apartment complex designed by KTGY Architecture. Set to be finalized by January 2020, the project is envisions 84-unit modular units on a 4-acre site in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. The developer indicates the building system reduced the construction time by 54%, from 24 months to 13 months, when compared against conventional construction.
In these and other exceptional cases, architects are bringing their unique expertise to bear on complex housing challenges, addressing them collaboratively and head on. Architects as thinkers and designers are helping to reform building regulations, posit new financing models, promote creative solutions to community needs, and develop new typologies, all while creating beautiful buildings. Their ideas do not follow the typical, capital-driven model which often involves no architects at all.
Rather, they are helping us to envision a future with fair access to opportunities and resources. This out-of-the-box collaborative work — in partnership with stakeholders and allied professions — offers opportunities for meaningful participation by architects towards more affordable and equitable housing solutions.
For Further Reading:
• Article, the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2013/jul/06/architecture-housing-crisis-solutions
• Article, “The Architectural Crisis”, The Architectural Record: https://www.architecturalrecord.com/articles/13659-the-housing-crisis?v=preview