Affordability is the freaking amenity

If you have an hour to fill and are interested in the intersection of design and affordable housing, you could do a lot worse things than watch this talk at Harvard’s School of Design’s Reframing Housing from a few weeks ago (below). The panelists represent some of my favorite designy, affordable projects of the last decade or so. Each represents a way to develop in a different urban (or non-urban) condition and all the considerations that condition entails. All are worth knowing about if you don’t already.

From Philly, there was architect Brian Phillips. His shop, ISA, has done of a ton of cool infill projects that incorporate a variety of cost-saving, energy-saving, design-savvy stratagems for affordability. ISA is the design force behind Postgreen homes, makers of the 100k house, a LEED platinum townhouse in Philly’s East Kensington neighborhood that was built for $100/sf. Postgreen—powered by ISA—has done a bunch of similar project with names like Awesometown and Avant Garage.

Phillips explained some of the ways he designs houses that are cheaper to build, yet have more curb and user appeal—creating large open ground-floors, using less expensive facades, and exploiting hard-to-develop lots when conventional ones disappear, to name a few. 


From SF, there was Michael Thomas, head of development at Panoramic Interests (full disclosure: PI is a former client). PI has been a pioneer of affordably designed housing, cranking out a portfolio that includes modular/prefab micro-apartments, an 11-story building with 2-3 bed micro-suites, and a proposed steel modular building system dubbed MicroPAD. The offshore-built MicroPADs are designed to conform to intermodal shipping container size, making delivery super cheap. They can be put up in about 40-50% less time than conventional construction with total project costs that are 25%-40% less.

In addition to prefab, Thomas explained some of their strategies for affordable design. They’re not big into pools, gyms, and doggie washing stations. “Affordability is our amenity,” he remarked. He talked about limiting design options and standardization of unit types. His boss and PI founder Patrick Kennedy likes to compare their design ethos to In-and-Out Burger, where you get one of three options—the simplified construction leading to fewer variables and related expenses.  

The last is to ditch parking. PI is currently working on a 1,000 unit building without a single parking spot. He said each parking spot would cost them $60k in development—money that’s reallocated to develop 17% more housing in the project.

While getting such a juicy parking exemption is a big win—one only possible in places like the Bay Area and NYC—Thomas explained they still see big barriers to affordability. One of PI’s big ones is labor. Specifically, MicroPADs are made in China, and local unions have shot down every MicroPAD project to date because the units are not 100% local-union-built. That same labor that can’t keep up with the existing regional pipeline.

Lastly, there was Andrew Freear, Director of Auburn University’s Rural Studio, a design studio that prototypes extremely inexpensive, high-design homes in poor rural areas—because not everyone lives in the city.

Freear’s environment is one that is rich on land and poor on resources—namely cash to construct buildings. In many cases, his studio’s designs are competing with mobile homes and their affordability. Working with budgets for hard costs around $16K, RS has designed a number of homes that can be constructed in 3-4 weeks with 3-4 guys, a GC, and a pickup truck.  

In all cases, the panelists avoid magic bullets for designing for affordability—each contends with the financial, regulatory, and labor climate of their respective sites. But each provides examples of possible pathways to build housing that is both cheaper and better than the cookie-cut crap that’s churned out by the housing development incumbency—housing that is neither interesting/beautiful nor affordable.  

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