Low-Income Housing With Emphasis on Design

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 6, 2005

In June, I served on the jury for the first John M. Clancy Award for Socially Responsible Housing, sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects, that city's chapter of the American Institute of Architects. I wondered about the term "socially responsible" housing. Does it mean that all other housing is somehow socially irresponsible?

Setting aside semantic questions, this long-overdue national award program was established to recognize outstanding new examples of low-income urban housing or urban housing for special, disadvantaged populations.

The program is named in honor of the late Boston architect whose firm, Goody, Clancy & Associates, has a distinguished record of designing urban housing that is architecturally noteworthy yet also affordable.

The jury reviewed 56 projects submitted by architects or organizations from 20 states. Many of the projects were in California, in part a reflection of the size of that state's population and workforce.

Inventive design is also more achievable in some California regions because of relatively liberal zoning regulations, hospitable climate free from freezing and thawing, nearly year-round use of outdoor spaces and courtyards, lower labor costs, looser urban fabric and a freestyle architectural culture less constrained by history and tradition.

Entries were diverse in context and site conditions, functional programs, size, architectural language and types of occupancy. Among the submissions were multi-unit clusters for nuclear families, federally financed HOPE VI developments to replace aging public housing and transition housing for abused women and the homeless.

Building types also varied, including single-family detached houses, rowhouses and low- and mid-rise apartment buildings. Some of the submissions involved both new and rehabilitated structures. Some included amenities such as landscaped open spaces, protected play areas for children, day-care facilities, communal laundries, counseling centers and on-site parking.

In a few mixed-use, mixed-income complexes, "socially responsible" housing was but one component of a larger menu of other functions: market-rate rental and for-sale housing units, stores, restaurants and fitness centers.

Nevertheless, most entries were workforce housing initiatives developed through collaborative, public-private sponsorship, with extensive community participation in design and development. And most were financed by a mix of debt and equity funding, subsidized partly through low-income housing tax credits available to private-equity investors.

The jury selected eight entries for awards -- four are in the West, three are in the Northeast and one is in the Midwest. The winners have not yet been announced.

Narrowing the field to eight was difficult. Most of the submissions merited consideration and about a third of them made the next-to-last cut.

In most AIA-sponsored design award programs, juries are expected to focus their attention and base their judgments almost exclusively on aesthetic qualities. That entails assessing attributes of form and composition visible only in photographs and drawings. Other considerations tend to fall by the wayside. Think of design awards as beauty contests.

In Boston, while the jury did evaluate, admire and reward aesthetic achievement, it also took into account other attributes. Among those were degrees of difficulty associated with the site and context, program complexity, resource and budgetary constraints, sustainability and realization of community benefits.

Jurors were especially impressed by submissions that skillfully interwove new construction with recycled, nonresidential buildings that had become obsolete.

We liked how some architects created modest, inexpensive dwellings that nevertheless were pleasant, light-filled, functional places to live. We saw imaginative reinterpretations of vernacular architecture and great examples of beautifully composed modernist architecture. And we appreciated the aesthetically sophisticated design of large, high-density inner-city buildings.

Whatever you call it -- socially responsible housing, affordable housing, workforce housing, housing for special populations -- such development projects rarely get widespread public recognition or win national architectural awards.

Only occasionally are such projects featured in design journals, which usually prefer to show the trendiest, most idiosyncratic and, above all, most photogenic edifices. Low-income housing is a bit of a stepchild in architectural practice, even though designing really good housing can be more challenging than designing a visually striking library, museum or skyscraper.

By launching the Clancy award program nationally rather than just locally, the Boston Society of Architects not only is inaugurating a new award program, but also is telling the public as well as professionals that "socially responsible" housing can be designed as artfully as any other buildings.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company