In creating housing during past decades, architects and developers often had to comply with "Minimum Property Standards" promulgated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But frequently, "minimum" standards became "maximum" standards.
For any housing receiving federal assistance or insurance, HUD dictated minimum sizes and dimensions for occupiable living spaces within dwellings. It stipulated requirements for bedrooms, living and dining rooms, kitchens and bathrooms, closets and other storage space.
Rooms had to be able to accommodate appropriate furniture, and some dwellings had to provide access throughout for persons confined to wheelchairs.
HUD's "Minimum Property Standards" also set forth site planning criteria along with criteria related to environmental comfort, safety and construction. Naturally, they did not require things considered to be luxuries, such as dishwashers or air conditioning. And, of course, they in no way addressed aesthetic or stylistic considerations.
Subsidized housing for the elderly, like all low-income rental housing, always is constrained by strict construction budgets.
In fact, congressional statutes may establish specific dollar ceilings on the total cost per unit of such housing.
Thus, it is no surprise that so-called "minimum" property standards were transformed into "maximum" standards, and it is no surprise that architects often found themselves having to justify either to their clients or to governmental authorities why their designs for housing for the elderly exceeded "minimum" standards.
One result of this attempt to apply uniform national standards, coupled with stringent cost limitations, has been the proliferation of types of housing for the elderly that exhibit common architectural characteristics. Certain developments have a look that tells you that you are seeing federally assisted low-income housing -- the "project" look.
Begin with the dwelling unit itself. The majority are one-bedroom apartments with 8-foot ceilings; they contain one bathroom, a small kitchen and a combined living/dining area. Thousands of these dwelling units, regardless of location, are planned in the same way. A small entry foyer with a tiny coat closet leads into the kitchen/living/dining area that forms one-half of the unit or the bedroom/bath area that forms the other half.
Kitchens and baths almost always are next to interior corridor walls. The bedroom has a window, and the living/dining area usually has a bigger window, perhaps even a sliding glass door leading to a balcony or patio.
This pattern of repetitive fenestration stretching horizontally and vertically across building facades is one of the clues that is visually typical of any type of housing in which most or all of the apartment units are identical.
HUD-inspired one-bedroom apartments normally contain about 500 to 600 square feet. They can be assembled along both sides of a corridor and stacked one upon another to make buildings of almost any height. Most such buildings, and the units within them, are efficient, cost effective, yet architecturally quite banal.
Millions of elderly citizens occupy thousands of mid-rise and high-rise, double-loaded-corridor apartment buildings in American cities and suburbs. With few exceptions, these slab-like, flat-roofed buildings are faced with monochromatic brick, and some may have recessed or projecting balconies (optional, budget permitting) incorporated into their facades.
On the ground floor is a "day room" or lounge where residents can socialize or just sit to read, meditate, observe, or fall asleep.
There is a communal laundry, and perhaps a separate room for watching television. Outside, some kind of terrace and garden can provide a place for tenants to go when the weather is favorable, or a place where they can tend their own flowers or vegetables. Rarely is on-site parking provided for more than a fraction of the building's occupants.
Most housing for the elderly is designed so there are few or no stairs to climb. Security control and surveillance regulating entry into the building may be included.
In some buildings, occupants may dine communally, often with meals prepared elsewhere and transported to the building's communal dining space.
This is of special importance when proper nutrition becomes a problem for tenants. In effect, a housing project for the elderly can be like a giant "boarding house."
In contrast to this more urban housing model is a type of housing for the elderly found in suburbs, small towns or rural counties. These buildings rarely exceed two stories and often are only one story in height. They may employ the same apartment layout as their city cousins, but more design flexibility -- related to unit geometry, not size -- often is possible on such sites.
Dwelling units commonly are aggregated into small buildings that contain a few apartments, and these prototype buildings then can be clustered on their site to form a kind of village or campus environment. In many cases, each apartment may have its own entryway directly from outdoors. Sometimes, two or more apartments share a common entryway or stairway, as in garden apartments. Communal facilities may be housed in a separate building near the center of the site.
Again, the systematic repetition of the prototype apartments and prototype buildings gives a visual clue to the nature of such projects.
But the institutional image of this type of development can be alleviated through creative site planning and architectural treatment of clustered buildings. For example, small-scale prototype buildings, even while containing relatively standardized apartment units, can be designed to look like large, traditional homes with porches or bay windows.
Low-density housing for the elderly can employ a wide variety of exterior materials in addition to brick. Vertical or horizontal wood siding, plywood, wood shingles or stucco can be used.
Aluminum and vinyl sidings, with their attendant savings in cost and maintenance, sometimes are applied, as are fibrous composition panels manufactured to resemble some other material.
Of course, not all housing intended for the elderly is low-income housing filled with apartments shaped by HUD's "Minimum Property Standards."
Many conventional apartment buildings, large or small, high-rise or low-rise, are geared primarily to elderly tenants without necessarily looking like housing for the elderly. Retirement communities all over the United States reflect different architectural styles, along with diverse recreational facilities, that could accommodate any kind of resident. Many older structures -- housing, schools, commercial buildings -- have been rehabilitated and remodeled to create housing for the elderly behind their facades.
Fortunately, HUD recently decided that its "Minimum Property Standards" approach to housing design was too inflexible. It finally concluded that there was sufficient oversight by state and local building authorities, by the housing market and competitive building industry, and by design professionals to eliminate many or all of the federal regulations on design.
Unfortunately for many, it also decided that housing subsidies could be eliminated. Consequently, just as design latitude increased, the opportunities to explore it decreased.
NEXT: A special housing case.