Practical Techniques for Urban Housing Design Back
To many architects and developers, the words
'affordable housing' and 'design' are mutually exclusive.
Once the goal of providing quality design enters the discussion, it is
generally assumed the price will automatically increase.
On the other hand when production techniques are developed to provide
genuinely affordable housing, effort is so often focused on the practical issues
that design is overlooked. It has
proven very difficult to strike a harmonious balance.
While recently there have been notable developments
in housing design that demonstrate our greater understanding of social issues
and construction techniques, there still exists a lack of quality design in
low-income housing. There have been many explanations given.
Most often it is first blamed on a lack of funding; there is not enough
money to produce quality architecture. However,
another underlying reason may stem from the public perception of what affordable
housing should look like. Some
well-designed projects "make people uncomfortable because the are ‘too
nice’. The underlying belief is that people who do not have a lot of
money do not deserve to live in nice housing".1 I contest
this notion because I feel good design is critical to instill a sense of pride
in the occupants. “It must also
bestow on its inhabitants a sense of dignity…To ignore this aspect of housing,
or to consider it a prerequisite for only those who can afford market-rate
housing, is to invite both social and financial disaster” 2. People
need to have a personal psychological investment in their house and are well
aware when asked to live in bland impersonal housing. Unattractive housing directly affects the self-respect of the
occupants. “All people want to
see themselves reflected, to express themselves on paper or canvass and in
speech, dance, and their choice of car, clothing or built environment." 3 If people are consistently told, through the kinds of
housing offered, that they are only worthy of a certain level of quality, they
may come to believe it. Quality
design gives architects the chance to create a sense of individual expression
and thereby pride. Although
hard to prove its benefit through tangible economic results, good design
none-the-less is a valuable tool for improving our living environment. "Poor design puts us in a no-win situation.
We have to establish a long-term set of standards that ensure that people
will not want to move out of the house as soon as they move in."4
will take time to change the public's opinion of an acceptable level of quality
for affordable housing. However, we can address here and now the first reason
given for poor design: low budgets. Some question the value of design in so
basic a building type as affordable housing.
When dealing with projects of extremely tight budgets, it is usually
assumed that very little can be done to improve the stark quality of low-cost
construction. Too often design is
thought of as extraneous and must be left out as a consideration.
“A common view is that design costs more, and that while architects add
value and quality to buildings, they rarely add economy.”5 This
paper provides a direct challenge to the notion that "there is no budget
for design". It was developed
from results of a Design/Build Studio I coordinate and teach at our university.
Our local Habitat for Humanity chapter served as the client and presented
our student teams the challenge of conceiving and building a single-family
rowhouse addressing the issues listed below. The following ideas were developed
through discussions with the students during the design process.
As you will see, many were incorporated in the actual building
construction of this project while the rest were contributed by other teams.
common thread between all of the proposed strategies is that they address the
challenge of improving the level of quality without substantially raising
construction costs. The basic
strategy can be generalized as "using what you've got".
In other words they derive from taking advantage of the inherent
materials and systems that are essential to the construction and cannot be
interpreted as unnecessary. Every
building employs a large amount of material just to provide basic shelter.
It is the way these materials are combined that determines the success or
failure of the design. By manipulating the proportion, size, location and scale of
walls, roofs, windows and finishes of a design, we utilize necessary elements
that can not be "value engineered" away when the money becomes tight.
By taking advantage of timeless architectural principles of proportion,
scale, color, solid/void, light/shadow, etc. we only bear the cost of
consideration. While some of the
strategies described below may increase the construction cost a modest amount, I
feel the improvement in design quality, and thereby human dignity, is
exponential in comparison to the monetary expenditure.
housing design, like any architectural design, is a complex process that
requires consideration of many factors at once.
Issues of codes, zoning, site, program, construction methods and so forth
all must be addressed. However this
paper never pretends to be a comprehensive guide to housing design.
(There are many excellent writings on the subject already.
The book "A Pattern Language", which influenced the format of
this paper, serves as one example.)6
Rather it concentrates on three major challenges of affordable
urban housing design and provides specific suggestions to increase design
quality without significantly raising costs.
Major Challenges of Affordable Urban Housing Design
housing comes in a wide range of building forms.
While defining these three challenges it is important to note that I am
concentrating on the housing type addressed in our Design/Build Studio: the
2-story urban rowhouse on a very small and narrow lot.
However, this is not an uncommon urban typology, so the basic concepts
behind these problems can also be applied to a range of affordable housing
types. Three major concerns of this housing type are:
LACK OF LIGHT – Most urban housing is tightly spaced together on
narrow lots to increase density. They
either are separated by a narrow alley or are joined directly by a common party
wall. Because of this arrangement
windows are often limited to the front and back facades.
Therefore central core spaces of these houses are often dark and
uninviting. But “houses…need to have virtually all major rooms on an outside
wall with access to light and ventilation. In fact the more rooms that have
plentiful natural light, the more livable the home becomes.”7
Getting light into the middle of the rowhouse is a vital issue.
SMALL SPACES - Most
urban housing is located on tight inner city lots, in our case fifteen feet wide
or less. These narrow sites create cramped rooms and hallways whose minute size
is exacerbated by the lack of light. Each square inch of floor space is at a
premium, not to mention each cubic foot of open space as well.
“Poor use of space, particularly awkward and inefficient circulation,
is the most recurring criticism of affordable housing.”8
BORING BOXES - Limited budgets lead architects to believe that
the house must be a simple unrelieved box shape to be affordable.
“Obviously the most efficient structure is a simple form without
variation, jogs or complex roofs”. 9 These
box shaped houses create bland massings, shallow exteriors facades and mundane,
unexciting interior spaces. “Even the simplest plan needs some relief from the
tyranny of minimal structure and cost concerns-it needs to ‘break out of the
Because of the need to use inexpensive construction materials, surfaces
are often overrun with the same finish material.
For example extensive stucco as an exterior finish can create homes
inappropriate to the surrounding context which often uses a variety of finish
materials. Another assumption is that all floor plates must be stacked
in a single plane like pancakes to save construction costs.
This creates rooms with very regular and unrelieved heights whose widths
vary in a way unrelated to the scale of the room.
Below are listed eleven problems and possible solutions
that each address one of the three issues listed above.
Addressed: BORING BOXES
cost-efficient rectangular box form creates flat unrelieved facades. In addition, thin walls require windows to be set flush
with the exterior skin. This has
lead to the disappearance of shadows. Buildings
that lack shadow do not successfully balance solid with void or light with dark,
and tend to be monotonous and often out of scale with the surrounding houses.
Another result of the bland box is an abrupt transition from the public
space of the street to the private space of the house.
With walls pushed out to the edges to maximize floor area, porches are
often eliminated from the design.
Approach: Every building must have walls but there
are no laws that require they all be flush with the property line.
Important shadow is added by carving into the building mass or
cantilevering over the edge while adding little material is to the construction.
-Slide walls back from the
street plane to create recesses that add valuable shadow to the massing of the
building. Recessed porches also
ease the transition from out to in and create a place for people to sit and
interact with their neighbors.
- Slide walls over the street
plane to create cantilevered overhangs. Bays are effective at breaking down the
scale of a long facade to suit the surrounding context.
Addressed: BORING BOXES
tend to be attracted to buildings with an abundance of visual detail.
When brick was the major building material there was inherent detail in
its construction system through the multitude of mortar joints. Bricks also
could be manipulated (angled, corbelled, etc.) to create shadow lines and
scale-defining banding within the confines of the construction method.
Budgets limit the palette of both exterior and interior finish materials.
There is rarely money available to upgrade to finer materials.
However the use of only one material can be monotonous and inappropriate
to the neighborhood buildings which often are composed of a rich palette of
Approach: Vary the types and treatment of exterior finishes to break
down over-scaled massings and highlight special features.
- Color is a key no-cost ally to break up large surfaces. A change of color is the least expensive method but it is more effective when combined with a change in texture and/or materials.
-Use medium-priced, texture-rich materials in smaller amounts as
highlights and set them off against inexpensive background materials over the
majority of the surface.
-To add texture and visual interest, use materials whose assembly joints
create smaller level of detail such as Standing Seam metal siding, Hardi-plank
(concrete clapboard) and limited areas of brick.
Criteria Addressed: Sliding Walls, Surface Variety, Window Patterns, Roof
Addressed: BORING BOXES
seems to be an assumption that to be affordable, windows must all be smaller, of
consistent size and operation, and located in the middle of a room.
Often the results are one-size, double-hung windows regardless of the
scale of the room. They are often too small in scale for the proportions of the
house and may float isolated in the middle of a broad wall.
Approach: Windows are vital to
allow for light, ventilation and egress. Often they require a minimum size by
code that cannot be reduced or eliminated by budget cuts. Therefore they are a major inherent design element on a façade.
-Use a variety of window shapes
and operations. Let them represent
the function of the room behind. Many
window manufacturers make windows to order as they do not want to maintain a
large inventory. Therefore they do not charge much more than stock windows for
-If you must use small windows
do not isolate them on a broad façade. Group
them together where possible and use the broad surface of the skin as a
background to a well-proportioned facade.
-Where appropriate, place windows where they can help reduce the massing
of the building, such as placing them next to a void to make it appear larger.
Addressed: BORING BOXES
roof has traditionally been a prime area for individual design expression.
“The roof profile of a house is frequently the most distinguishing feature of
a particular design signature”12
But the typical flat roof profile used on much affordable housing lacks
character and may not be the most appropriate solution in a historic
neighborhood with a rich collection of cornice design.
Approach: Beyond drainage, the
roof is relatively free of functional constraints.
Because no one typically inhabits the roof, it is the only horizontal
plane that can tilt off the horizontal; in fact to drain rainwater it must
-Slope roof edges to create a
distinctive cap to the house that helps the building mass meet the sky.
Coordinate the profile with roof drainage slope to make it less
susceptible to budget cuts. Sloped roof also benefit the rooms below by creating unique
spaces with high sloped ceilings.
Addressed: BORING BOXES
cost-effective materials, such as stucco, lack much detail or possibility for
manipulation. The meeting of
different materials is often clumsy and abrupt.
Approach: Every meeting of
materials is an opportunity for design. Express
the coming together of materials in the joint.
Do not assume that all details must be “standard”.
With limited opportunities for design, every joint should be considered
as potential detail. Make use of required objects with inherent detail that can
not be value engineered off a project.
-Railings, gutters, downspouts, expansion joints, etc. are all necessary
items that are sometimes treated as a nuisance or afterthought.
For stucco walls, expansion joints need not be blindly placed but can be
a design tool. New stricter
codes that require closer spacing of railing balusters increase the number of
members which actually helps increase visual interest.
Even a mundane electric meter can be located in a manner that helps
compose an elevation.
-Every time a wall material meets another system, like the foundation or
the parapet, is another opportunity for design.
Materials that are used to keep water out of the house can also be
fashioned to provide visual detail. “The
relationship between the roof and the balance of the home is another area of
detailing largely omitted in new homes.” 11
-The multiple layers of a window frame required to hold the sashes and
screens creates its own detail. When
combined with trim the window can be an area of concentrated detail set off well
against a broad blank wall surface.
Criteria Addressed: Expanding Upward, Ceiling Height Variety, Service
Addressed: SMALL SPACES
lots are confined there is no room to expand horizontally. The standard eight-foot high ceiling is too low for such an
already narrow room. Therefore to
increase the spaciousness of a room, “there is nowhere to go but up”.
spaces feel larger by increasing ceiling heights.
-Make ceilings significantly
taller than the standard eight-foot height.
The material costs for an extra foot or two or even three of height are
slight but pay off exponentially in terms of spatial rewards.
Addressed: BORING BOXES
and thereby cheapest, way to construct floor plates is on one continuous plane.
However this creates flat pancake stacked floors that offer no variety of
ceiling height as spatial relief. The
challenge is how to offset floor plates at various points to create a play of
ceiling heights without making the construction costs too high.
Approach: Instead of treating the floor plates as
single flat planes, think of the house as a series of boxes or voids that
‘slide’ vertically as well as horizontally within the framework of the
structure. Offset these ‘boxes’ to create a variety of spatial heights that
reflect the scale and function of the room.
Where two floors or roofs shift above the same level floor, nooks and
more intimate scaled spaces can be created under the lower ceiling.
- If the building is narrow the
floors will likely be supported only at the side bearing walls.
Floor joists can easily span these widths so that each room’s floor
plate can be thought of as an independent plane suspended at any height between
-Take advantage of how joists
bear on a supporting beam. If one
set of joists is side bearing on joist hangers and those on the other side of
the beam are top bearing, the result is a 3-step difference in height that adds
little to no additional material. This
shift creates a clear distinction between room heights and adds variety to the
- Slide rooms upward half a
story to form rooms that penetrate the roof to gather light which at the same
time create a one and a half story space below.
Addressed: BORING BOXES,
small lots, floor area is too valuable to waste on double height spaces.
Therefore houses lack the spatial relief belonging to rooms that extend
beyond a single story.
Approach: The stair is a naturally existing
two-story space which when configured in certain manner can open up into an
atrium space within the center of the house.
planning the stair as a straight run which creates a thin slot of double height
space, return the stair so that it doubles back to form a square. This will open
up a two-story atrium which when combined with an opening in the roof, can
become a major source of spatial relief especially when placed in the center of
Criteria Addressed: Expanding Upward, Ceiling Height Variety, Opening in
Roof, Borrowed Space
Addressed: LACK OF LIGHT
the lack of windows and/or direct sunlight, the central spaces of a rowhouse are
the darkest and light is at a premium. The quick solution to drop a skylight
into the middle of a ceiling may provide light but does not always relate to the
overall design and often floats desolately in the center.
Approach: Think of the roof as a third façade and
compose it as any other elevation. Create
roof windows that integrate with the spaces.
-Combine skylights with a stair
atrium to bring light into the lower floors.
-Place skylights at the edge of
rooms rather than in the middle to give the impression of walls and thereby
space flowing past the ceiling plane.
-Sometimes a skylight is
undesirable for financial or water penetration concerns.
However, clerestories can be created by simply raising one piece of the
roof plane above the other without much additional construction material.
Then standard windows can be installed in the gap.
Addressed: SMALL SPACES
area of narrow lots is too small to be broken up into cell-like rooms containing
only one function. Walls chop up
the flow of spaces and block off valuable light.
However certain rooms must have walls to maintain privacy.
Approach: Eliminate walls on all spaces except private bedrooms and
bathrooms. Open up the house by
combining two or more activities in one space. “Fluid space and good lighting
can make even a small dwelling seem free and open, rather than confined and
-Minimize corridors by using the edge of rooms as circulation space
-Open stairwells onto rooms by using railings instead of walls. This also
provides visual detail via the railing and light via the stairwell.
-Combine public functions into one space; kitchen and dining, dining and
-Enclose basements with walls at the bottom of the stair rather than the
top. This eliminates view-obstructing walls on the main living
Addressed: BORING BOXES
floor area is at a premium, architects need to maximize the square footage of
every living space. Therefore
utilities such as ducts and drain pipes often are not assigned their own space
and end up protruding obnoxiously into rooms.
Approach: Create service zones
that group utilities together in a compact area.
-Group kitchens and baths in or near the service zone to saves pipe
material costs and create clear order to interior spaces
-Include closets and bathroom that can afford lower ceilings to conceal
design: Tyson Chamberlain, James Chambers,
While these proposed solutions reflect a specific rowhouse form, they can easily be translated into other types of housing. Even though there is a great variety of housing around the world, all could benefit from more light, space and beauty. These are basic shared human needs regardless of the income level of the occupants. Many of the proposals above are not new to the problem of affordable housing. However this paper is a first step in developing a practical and comprehensive set of guidelines and techniques to address the three particular aforementioned challenges of designing affordable housing. I intend to refine these ideas, and others developed by students from future Design/Build studios, into a practical booklet that can assist designers of affordable housing, especially those untrained as architects. Hopefully it will encourage them not to abandon the quest for quality building design when the budget ax falls.
Laurie, New Urban Housing; Fresh Thinking
from the Pittsburgh Design Competition, Community Design Center of
Pittsburgh, Inc., 1994
2 Davis, Sam,
The Architecture of Affordable Housing, University of California Press,
Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995
Richard, Housing Ourselves; Creating
Affordable Sustainable Shelter, McGaw-Hill, New York, 1998
Christopher, A Pattern Language,
Oxford University Press, New York 1977
James, Designing a Place Called Home,
Chapman & Hall, New York, 1995