Architects designed a five-story structure and an overhaul of a 1926 YMCA building in Los Angeles to provide 49 affordable housing units for youths leaving foster care. (Courtesy of Eric Staudenmaier)

Earlier this year the American Institute of Architects and the Department of Housing and Urban Development selected four projects to receive 2014 AIA/HUD national awards for excellence in affordable housing design.

Curiously, all four projects receiving awards are in California.

What’s up with this? Is there something about California — its architects, developers, zoning regulations, building codes, housing market, climate — that we in Washington and elsewhere in the United States should know about?

Each AIA/HUD award represents one of four design categories: overall design excellence; design fostering community connections; design contributing to community revitalization; and design optimizing accessibility.


Architects designed a five-story structure and an overhaul of a 1926 YMCA building in Los Angeles to provide 49 affordable housing units for youths leaving foster care. (Courtesy of Eric Staudenmaier)

The overall design excellence award went to a project in Los Angeles, a five-story, 49-unit structure added to the rear of a historic, 1926 YMCA building. Another YMCA building, a classically styled 1909 edifice in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, won the community connection award. The historic YMCA’s adaptive reuse yielded 174 affordable micro-units.

Scattered on five sustainably designed sites in Kings Beach, on Lake Tahoe’s north shore, nine LEED Silver buildings containing 77 workforce units earned the community revitalization award.

The design excellence award for accommodating the disabled was given to the Sierra Bonita Housing project in West Hollywood. On a 13,000-square-foot site with a 50-foot height limit, 42 accessible units surround an open courtyard bringing natural light to apartment bedrooms, with living spaces facing the street. Passive solar techniques provide energy for power and hot water.

National design awards won disproportionately by housing projects in California is not new. In the 1960s and 1970s, when my firm focused on designing housing projects in the Washington region, multi-family projects in California received the lion’s share of architectural awards every year.

I have served on a number of juries convened by sponsors of competitive housing design award programs. Multi-unit housing projects in California have continually dominated jury award choices.

Likewise, national design and building trade journals published California housing projects more frequently than housing projects built in this or other regions of the United States.

Shaun Donovan, who was HUD secretary in May when the AIA/HUD awards were given out, said that “this year’s recipients are shining examples of how the latest innovations in design, materials and building techniques are not just for high-end housing, but can also offer lower-income families exceptional homes they can actually afford.”

The most significant words in Donovan’s comment are “latest innovations.” Compared with Washington, California has long been more receptive to architectural invention, non-traditional styling and cutting-edge aesthetic experimentation. In Washington, the prevailing real estate market and design culture are relatively conservative, while California’s are much less so.


Architects designed a five-story structure and an overhaul of a 1926 YMCA building in Los Angeles to provide 49 affordable housing units for youths leaving foster care. (Courtesy of Eric Staudenmaier)

Californians aren’t infatuated with historicism. Aesthetic tastes, especially in California cities, are more modernist and eclectic than in the District, Maryland or Virginia. Historic architecture and architectural traditions, much of which derive from Spanish colonial styles going back centuries, are plentiful in California. Yet Californians are more comfortable embracing what’s contemporary and even exceptional.

Other factors help explain California’s housing design award success. Jurisdictional zoning laws affecting site planning and architectural design are more flexible in many of California’s cities and suburbs than in Washington. Although building codes in earthquake-prone California are more structurally demanding than here, their codes don’t constrain design innovation.

But among the primary factors most strongly influencing California design and building is the warmer, drier climate typifying much of the state.

Keeping moisture out of buildings, always a major technical challenge here in the East, is less of a challenge out West. Many Californians don’t need to worry about ice and snow, or about structurally stressful cycles of wintertime freezing and thawing that plague East Coast architecture.

Consequently, West Coast architects can choose from a greater variety of exterior building materials and finishes. Wood can be sealed or stained instead of painted. Real or synthetic stucco, affordable and applicable to almost any shape, can be used rather than brick or stone. And thanks to milder weather, designers can compose housing with more openings and extensive areas of glass, freely interweaving indoors and outdoors.

California cities also have a fair number of aging commercial and institutional real estate, like the YMCA buildings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, that work well for aesthetically creative, adaptive reuse as affordable housing. Fewer such buildings exist in metropolitan Washington.

California’s housing award sweeps may diminish as new construction technologies and zoning reforms enable architects to design innovative housing throughout the country, including Washington. But that still might not be enough to correct the bicoastal imbalance if our real estate market and aesthetic tastes don’t change.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and a regular guest commentator on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi show.