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History on a Budget

Traditional design is changing the face of affordable housing.
By Eve M. Kahn

AIA awards juries typically lean Modernist, promoting a narrow and purportedly progressive stylistic palette for clients rich and poor. The latter, however, have made terrible patrons of Modernism for decades, and in fact have often ended up Modernism's victims. The poor, as architecture critic David Dillon recently noted in The Dallas Morning News, "don't want to be part of some architectural experiment in which theory trumps living."

AIA juries, at last, are starting to recognize the virtues of non-Modernist alternatives for affordable housing. Of the 19 awards that the institute gave this spring in its annual Housing Awards competition, fully a quarter have traditional architecture that blends into existing streetscapes. They also foster connections to street grids, go easy on ecosystems and are easier to maintain than anything avant-garde.

The 2007 jury did not specifically, or at least not consciously, discuss style. "Talking about style for the sake of style is old hat," said juror LaVerne A. Williams of Environment Associates Architects & Consultants in Houston, TX. "We looked for projects that don't warehouse people – that create communities and quality of life while being green." Juror Lisa Stacholy of LKS Architects, Inc., in Dunwoody, GA, said that the jurors "set aside personal stylistic preferences," but she added that "maybe traditional architecture has been around for a long time because it works." The prizewinning submissions, she said, "are wonderfully homey, they felt like home. They totally flipped my conception of what affordable housing looks like." The projects had impressive quantities of recycled and recyclable components and resource-saving technology, and the traditional forms varied even within a single site: "There were no cookie-cutter formulas plunked down, everything was so well thought out."

The battle for affordable traditionalism has not quite been won. In New Orleans, LA, for instance, well-meaning deconstructivist-leaning architects keep proposing jauntily angled roofs and skewed porch posts for post-Katrina recovery zones. But, meanwhile, these five AIA Housing Awards winners, representing hundreds of acres of quiet and deferent buildings, are quickly filling up. Middle-class homeowners like the diverse communities and low-income renters are grateful to finally live somewhere that doesn't draw attention to itself. Here's how the architects have helped rebuild communities on constrained budgets, while even saving some salmon streams:

Project: Bridgeton HOPE VI, Bridgeton, NJ

Architects: Torti Gallas and Partners, Inc., Silver Spring, MD

Seven years ago, Torti Gallas and Partners started strategizing to replace 160 units of public housing slated to be razed – the site was a floodplain – in Bridgeton, NJ, just north of the Delaware border. The firm ended up weaving 200 detached or twin houses into Bridgeton's Victorian streetscapes. "The town has great architecture, but it's fallen on some hard times," explains Torti Gallas principal Murphy Antoine. "We took advantage of empty factory sites and parking lots for the infill, and we took our design cues from the contexts." The resulting low-maintenance gables, peak ornaments and porch parts are mostly molded from urethane, fiberglass or PVC, and the bright-colored siding is cement fiberboard. Antoine said he was slightly surprised to receive an AIA award for such low-key interventions: "You don't usually see these kinds of ‘non-object' buildings recognized. But the residents have been thrilled to live somewhere that's not immediately identifiable as public housing and to live somewhere with a sense of place. And because the impact of the project is spread out, it sets the stage for more redevelopment nearby. The rising tide can raise all ships."

Project: Danielson Grove, Kirkland, WA

Architects: Ross Chapin Architects, Langley, WA

Most developers eyeing this 2.25-acre site were envisioning 10 typical suburban tract houses, each fronted with a two- or three-car garage. A forward-thinking developer called The Cottage Company, LLC, in collaboration with Ross Chapin Architects, offered an alternative: size-limited homes around garden courtyards (the design was made possible through the city's Innovative Housing Demonstration Projects Ordinance). Chapin's plan called for 16 cottage-like houses of 800 to 1,500 sq.ft. apiece with a shared garden and preserved stands of old hemlocks, cedars and firs. Residents cross the garden to reach their garages and have a chance to greet neighbors en route. "It's about people, community and place," explains Chapin. "We wanted to emulate the lower-scale, fine-grained architecture in the older parts of town." Porches are large enough to serve as extra living rooms, and the exterior palette is lively. "There are subdued greens and yellows, some rich barn red and one house in Scandinavian yellow," says Chapin. Danielson Grove sold out quickly, and a resale recently fetched 20 percent above the original purchase price. The gabled community center is regularly booked for meetings, potlucks, movie nights and teenagers' exam cramming sessions. Below the building lies a 30,000-gal. rainwater retention tank, which protects a nearby salmon stream.

Project: High Point, Seattle, WA

Architects: Mithun, Seattle, WA

During World War II, the U.S. government filled a Seattle, WA, hillside with 716 prefab houses for shipyard and aircraft-plant workers. After the war, the local housing authority took over the 120-acre site, named High Point for its views of downtown. "The housing authority tried valiantly to maintain and patch up these houses that were not designed to last and never had amenities like lawns or even parking spaces," explains William H. Kreager, principal at Mithun. "They were getting moldy, leaky and unsafe." The firm has spent seven years so far transforming High Point into a sustainable, sought-after neighborhood. Mithun's mixture of cottages and semi-attached houses (half rented to low-income households, half rented or sold at market rates) can accommodate 4,000 people, double the original capacity. Sixty houses are reserved for asthma sufferers; the finishes are low-VOC and the plentiful supply of fans and air filters includes HEPA filters for vacuums.

Most of the pre-Mithun tenants have returned. "They've shown great loyalty to the location and their neighbors and friends," says Kreager. Dozens of recently arrived ethnic groups, including Cambodians, Vietnamese, Somalis and Ethiopians, coexist at High Point. "During the planning phase," says Kreager, "I wondered, ‘do they want to live in old-fashioned American architecture?' But it turns out that an American-looking home is what they want most of all." Their gardens are already abounding with exotic produce, and the grounds are also lush thanks to vest-pocket parks and narrow, slanted streets that send rainwater into bio-swales disguised as roadside planting beds. High Point contains, and vigilantly protects, 20 percent of the uplands watershed of a salmon creek.

Project: Salishan Neighborhood HOPE VI, Tacoma, WA

Architects: Torti Gallas and Partners, Inc., Silver Spring, MD

A decade ago, when Torti Gallas and Partners executive vice president Tom Gallas first toured the Tacoma Housing Authority's 250-acre site in Tacoma, WA, he was "appalled by the conditions, but amazed at the energy of the residents, the strong sense of community and the potential of the place, which has spectacular views of Tacoma and Mount Rainier." In the 1940s, the U.S. government built 855 temporary cottages there for shipbuilders. "There were basic clapboarded bungalows on cinderblock, getting leaky and moldy, and some of them had already been abandoned when we started work," says Gallas. The inhabitants are mostly recent immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Russia, among other countries: "What they have in common is that they're focused on moving up, achieving, finding their American dream, and they were thrilled during the planning process that we asked their opinions." The architects designed 1,180 units in freestanding or semi-attached houses, for rent or sale. Wood and Trex wood-composite trim ornament the HardiePlank exteriors. "The rental and ownership housing are indistinguishable," says Gallas. "The renters who have moved back in are amazed to be paying the same price for housing of such higher quality, and some of them are buying at Salishan – they're moving up without moving away." Torti Gallas has also provided habitats for wildlife; while laying out 3½ mi. of new roads, the firm protected a salmon creek's feeder gulch with bio-swales that absorb 90 percent of rainwater.

Project: Shirley Bridge Bungalows, Seattle, WA

Architects: Ron Wright & Associates/Architects, PS, Seattle, WA

"We've totally integrated this population into the fabric of the neighborhood," says Ron Wright, principal of Ron Wright & Associates/Architects, PS, describing a six-unit compound for low-income AIDS patients in West Seattle. On surplus land purchased from the Seattle Housing Authority, Wright designed one-story rental bungalows, each with its own porch facing a communal garden. He had to wangle some zoning variances; the code called for two-story townhouses onsite, each with its own costly elevator, private lawn and 2½ parking spaces. The neighbors at first fought the Shirley Bridge project (it's named after a local philanthropist and AIDS activist): "There were tense, packed meetings, with tempers flaring," recalls Wright. But the community eventually embraced it, partly because the architecture, with its exposed rafter tips and generous brackets, honors the nearby Craftsman-style houses. To keep maintenance costs low, Wright specified some whiteboard and MDF trim and fiberglass porch columns. A gracious arbor on Doric columns marks the compound's gateway. "The people who have moved in have been overjoyed," says Wright. "The porches are especially important. Everybody can watch out for each other, and see which regular hasn't been sitting outside for a while and may need some help."  

 

 

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