A Deep Dive Into Affordable Housing Design
Ariel Aufgang of the prolific Aufgang Architects firm sheds light on the sector’s key trends and challenges.
The COVID-19 crisis has made it evident that the quality of housing is crucial to people’s well-being. Therefore, it is not surprising that health and safety have become top priorities for architects and designers. When it comes to affordable housing, designers must address everything from HVAC systems to the need for access to internet and a workspace, noted Ariel Aufgang, principal of Aufgang Architects. Since 2000, the company has designed more than 20,000 units of new and preservation affordable housing.
In the interview below, Aufgang sheds light on shifting design trends in a post-pandemic world, but also talks about challenges and expectations in affordable housing design, with a focus on the New York City area.
What were some of the most popular affordable housing design trends before the coronavirus outbreak?
Aufgang: Affordable housing architecture and design trends we were seeing before the pandemic included increased amenities and more common areas with facilities for use by residents, as well as more emphasis on improving energy efficiency to help meet sustainability goals. Overall, we have seen the design features, amenities and materials found in market-rate residential buildings increasingly utilized in affordable multifamily designs. In many instances, our market-rate and affordable designs are increasingly difficult to distinguish in some of these aspects.
What are the major changes the pandemic has brought to the affordable housing sector in terms of architecture and design? Which of these changes are here to stay and why?
Aufgang: Safety in a public health crisis is a top architectural design priority. Starting with the air we breathe, HVAC systems must be specified to provide sufficient air volume and flow in residential spaces and air should be filtered and treated to mitigate the threat of airborne microorganisms.
Families and individuals have been forced to spend more time at home during the pandemic, with schools closed and people working remotely. So affordable housing design must also address the need for access to the internet with sufficient broadband, along with devoted workspace that’s better than the kitchen table. Also, where feasible, design should include access to outdoor spaces, in individual units as well as common areas.
Many of these newly important design considerations will probably endure after the pandemic, as businesses see advantages to continue to rely on staff working remotely from home, and consumers realize the convenience of online shopping and having food delivered.
How has the pandemic impacted your approach to architecture and design in affordable housing?
Aufgang: The impact of the pandemic has us focusing on the needs of residents spending much more time at home as a result of lockdowns. Design details such as the number and placement of power receptacles, robust and fast broadband connections and the need to maximize cellular connectivity have become much more important. As a result of the surge in e-commerce with families doing a lot of shopping online, multifamily affordable housing designers must also find solutions to ensure efficient, safe and secure package delivery and handling.
Your portfolio includes projects all over New York City. What are some of the architectural and design challenges specific to the city, especially in the context of the pandemic?
Aufgang: New York City is unique in its intensity of the proximate nature of living, with your neighbors on all six sides of you. This density, evident in the lobbies and elevators of multifamily buildings, is a fundamental architectural design challenge posed by the pandemic. Successful design in such limited and crowded spaces requires greater utilization of technology—automated touchless door and elevator controls, the use of antimicrobial surfaces and systems that automate the regular cleaning, and disinfection of common areas such as hallways, lobbies, entry doors, elevators and laundry rooms.
The economic challenges of designing and building affordable housing in New York City have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Historically, everything costs more in New York—site acquisition, materials and construction. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic has shrunk state and municipal budgets, reducing the public funding through loans, grants and tax abatements needed to finance the development of affordable housing.
The new administration in Washington, D.C., will hopefully initiate programs to increase affordable housing development which has never kept up with demand. The situation is worse now with more and more families threatened by the loss of their homes as a result of income reduction and job cuts caused by the pandemic.
Affordability has nearly become synonymous with sustainability in recent years. How do you see this trend evolving considering the current push for safer and cleaner communities?
Aufgang: Sustainability in architectural designs is now expected and increasingly required, both in market-rate and in affordable residential projects. New codes and regulations specify greater energy efficiency in order to reduce carbon emissions. Deadlines have been set to end reliance on fossil fuels under federal, state and local regulations that often mandate the use of renewable energy sources in our lifetime. But a creative architect stays ahead of environmental codes; good designs can show what can be achieved by actually pushing the envelope on sustainability to encourage more ambitious regulatory metrics and objectives.
Can the affordable housing sector prepare for future crises when it comes to architecture and design?
Aufgang: It’s difficult to anticipate the next crisis, as COVID-19 has unfortunately demonstrated. Will future crises be economic? Will they involve technology or energy, ranging from availability and supply to threats to our electric power grid? Future crises could be environmental or meteorological catastrophes.
We don’t know what the next emergency will be. But as architects, we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and from past crises. Affordable residential designs should feature redundant building systems that are protected from natural threats by elevating key components such as boilers and elevator motors and controls, for example. Building systems that can be monitored and managed off-site could be crucial to protecting lives and property in the next crisis. The technology exists today to control residential building systems remotely.
What are your expectations for the affordable housing sector in New York City in the year ahead?
Aufgang: Demand for affordable housing will continue to increase in New York at a greater pace than pre-pandemic growth because of job losses and income reduction. On the supply side, we will see developers increasingly shift their activities from market-rate/luxury projects to affordable multifamily housing as changes in demand reduce market-rate opportunities. Also, affordable development provides them with access to tax credits and grants, and other financial incentives that enhance the profitability of affordable projects.
We can also expect demographic and related economic changes in the year ahead to impact affordable housing as we emerge from the pandemic. We’ll see more marriages, couples marrying younger and babies being born, as people look for family stability after the COVID-19 threat subsides.