Creativity Unleashed

Lessons learned from affordable housing.
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Affordable housing has come a long way. In many cases it’s generating new ideas regarding sustainability as well as a setting to test these ideas. And, since low-income developers and designers work with limited resources, when a best practice emerges it’s usually cost-effective to roll it out to market rate projects. In this Special Report, MHN talks to an East Coast developer and a West Coast architect who are among those leading the conversation about the new breed of green, affordable and certainly healthy multifamily development. Les Bluestone is principal of Blue Sea Development Company based in New York. Amit C. Price Patel, AIA LEED AP is a senior associate at David Baker Architects in San Francisco.

MHN: Affordable housing has been an incubator of creativity for multifamily architects and their developer clients. Why is this? When did this trend start? Is it in danger of ending anytime soon?

Les Bluestone: I can safely say that in New York City, government has been a good partner when it comes to innovation. While needing to be fiscally prudent, elected officials to city agency heads are willing to listen to new ideas and where possible, support them financially. Pretty much all municipalities are facing affordable housing shortages across a range of income bands, and by default, they need to be creative in crafting and encouraging solutions wherever they can find them. The “problems” are not always just about increasing production, they have and continue to be about increasing energy efficiency, indoor air quality, durability and overall quality. Sometimes the solutions can be just about allocating more resources, but in an era where they are dwindling, the solutions need to use all the tools in the toolbox, which includes “process” as a large one. When I began in affordable housing 35 years ago, only the federal government was building it. In New York City, The New York Housing Partnership ushered in an era of public/private partnerships that has changed the face and quantity of affordable housing development, not only in New York City, but across the country. The premise being that government had the land, the funding, and the need while private developers had the expertise but were adverse to risk and capital outlay. The trick was in allowing both to move about freely enough in the partnership, so that each side could get what they needed out of it. The real trick for government over time in my mind, has been in not killing the goose that laid the golden egg, while trying to respond to ever increasing fiscal, labor, and regulatory pressures. Unfortunately, this is something that has occurred in the past.

Amit C. Price Patel: Affordable housing, or social housing, is an architectural typology that has been a forum for experimentation and creativity since the dawn of modernism, for both good and ill. After the urban renewal disasters of the last century, a more sensitive incremental approach has taken root, and we are all the better for it. It is an approach based on repairing the American urban fabric, listening, and representing the communities in which a project is built.

We think of our affordable projects as civic buildings: an expression of social good and expenditure that has to be as—if not more—durable, purposeful and elegant as any privately funded building.

Since affordable housing is not driven by a profit motive and is, by its very nature, a vehicle for community building, there are a lot more opportunities to be creative with design and programming than with a typical market-rate housing project. Our wonderful developer clients truly care about fostering a sense of community within the project and support the creation of shared spaces like common rooms and generous outdoor spaces. These kinds of spaces really set the tone and character of the project, and we spend a lot of energy to make them great. Having done a lot of affordable housing projects and doing successful experimentation over 30-plus years gives us the credibility and client trust to continue taking chances. Creative opportunities also come from great partnerships with artists, makers, community stakeholders and residents.

MHN: What are some of the most innovative features your firm has incorporated into affordable housing?

Bluestone: We’ve tried lots of things over the years, with varying degrees of success. We developed the first affordable Energy Star and LEED homes in New York State; we have experimented with many different construction types and systems; and now we focus much of our attention on the metrics when they are available. We’ve installed PV systems, rooftop wind turbines, co-generation in our affordable developments and have shifted over to panelized construction as a way for us to insure quality and durability. Our most recent development Arbor House included a rooftop hydroponic farm greenhouse that produces fresh healthy produce year-round for distribution in the community and to other areas where fresh produce is not regularly available. This would not have been possible without the financial support of our local elected officials.

Patel: We have an 80-20 guideline when it comes to finishes. We recognize that it’s critical to have durable and cost-effective materials throughout affordable housing, but we reserve some luxury for the most visible and most shared spaces. It’s important to spend both time and money on great common spaces, which are what create the character of the project—a sense of identity and place for the building that residents and neighbors both respond to.

In designing common areas, we are guided by this structure: Cross-Connect-Commune. That is, create places for people to cross and experience a chance encounter, such as a gracious entry lobby or mail area, interesting hallways, or an open-air stair. Create places for people to connect within a context, such as the library in a resident lounge or shared urban agriculture plots. Create neighborhood places where people can commune, such as a senior center or a corner café that anchors the building and offers an amenity to the area.

We provide gradients of open space that take advantage of the California climate and bring a layered depth to the project. From the outside-in, these include ample street plantings, “decompression gardens” that ease the transition from outside to inside, courtyards visible from the street, urban agriculture plots and shared gardens, open-air green stairs that encourage walking, and windows in corridors. We also design private stoops and patios that connect directly to the street or courtyard and balconies that overlook larger outdoor spaces for active building edges.

In senior housing, we use a series of complementary strategies that combine to make independent living a little easier. We build very wide corridors so that two wheelchairs or walkers can pass easily. We line stair towers and corridors with pop-out bays lined with seating, so seniors can stop and rest on their way around the building or spend time together outside of their units. We use a “nested” plan in which a pair of interlocking units are each able to have separated bed nooks, which creates a more flexible space and allows people to have guests without effectively hosting people in their bedroom. We add a “memory shelf” at the unit entry, which give residents the chance to personalize their door and also creates space to set belonging so they don’t have to juggle everything when opening the door. This personalized space also helps seniors who can’t necessarily remember or read unit numbers.

We incorporate a series of simple green strategies to maximize the sustainability of a project. A lot of non-“sexy” moves can add up to big savings, such as compact units, limited parking, daylighting, natural ventilation, low- and no-VOC materials for healthy interiors, low-flow fixtures, drought-tolerant plantings, rational floor-plans, and more. Even if an expensive move like photo-voltaic arrays isn’t available, we will design for the eventual inclusion of the panels to encourage and facilitate the investment.

MHN: How have these features improved quality of life for residents?

Bluestone: About five years ago, we developed and built the first affordable LEED Platinum building in New York State called The Eltona, located in the Melrose section of the South Bronx. We believed that we had created a building that was going to be healthier for our tenants based on the materials used and the systems we had chosen, but really had no way of knowing for sure. The South Bronx at that time, had the highest incidence of asthma hospitalizations in the entire country, but how much would our building make a difference? We approached the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and asked if they would be willing to use the building as a subject of such a study, which they agreed to do. The study recruited volunteers from our list of future tenants, and studied their current living situations and followed them for a couple of years after moving into The Eltona. I am happy to report that the results could not have been much better, with the incidences of asthma attacks and hospitalizations dropping precipitously, which was documented in a paper published by Mt. Sinai.

Seeing that the built environment can definitely have positive effects on peoples’ health, we began to design with physical fitness and anti-obesity measures in mind, as developed in the Active Design Guidelines, a publication issued by New York City a few years ago and which is regularly updated. Arbor House has been built to these guidelines and in addition to the local availability of fresh produce, it encourages physical activity through stair use and by providing physical fitness opportunities through its multi-generational indoor fitness center and outdoor fitness path. Mt. Sinai is continuing its study from The Eltona here, but adding a fitness and obesity component to the study. We’re hopeful that we’ll see similar positive results after the study ends in a few years.

Patel: We think that the most important job for our buildings is to provide stability for residents and help them form connections with neighbors, friends, and families. Treating people with respect and offering them a home that can be a place of pride is profound too.

MHN: How has innovative affordable housing design impacted the bottom line in a positive way? How has it improved return on investment?

Bluestone: Affordable housing design used to be almost a federally “mandated” issue. I can travel through any area of the country and point out those buildings from a distance. Unfortunately, the available learning and technologies that the designers had at that time did not provide for the quality of affordable housing that we are now seeing produced today. A few years ago, we renovated an occupied 20-story, 260-unit S.236 building in Harlem where in the first year after completing our work, the building saved more than $130,000 in their fuel usage, and this in a period of dropping natural gas prices. The answer is yes to its positively impacting the bottom line and return on investment on an immediate basis, although most of the programs for affordable housing that I’m aware of do not allow for much, if any, upside to the developer or owner over time. This alone is what distinguishes a market-rate development from an affordable one over time.

Patel: Our designs are exuberant, but there is a strict logic to the organization of the plans. By creating efficient layouts for the units and using simple and straightforward building massing, we can maximize density and minimize costs for building systems and infrastructure. This approach frees up space and resources to upgrade finishes, make beautiful common areas, and utilize elegant exterior elements and materials like metal panels and wood.

Since people take care of things that they like and value, a badly designed building is destined to fail. By providing high-quality design that respects and supports the users, a building is much more likely to succeed as a place and as an investment.

MHN:  Do innovations in affordable housing design tend to go hand and hand with green design? Has it influenced market-rate product as well?

Bluestone: Absolutely, yes. This wasn’t always the case, but with the bottom lines becoming tighter and tighter, anything that can help to reduce M&O costs is a tool that needs to be utilized. I think it has influenced the market in a sort of perverse way. Anecdotally, I know of more green affordable buildings than I do of green market-rate buildings. Some of this is obviously driven by market forces, but I think there is an increasing pressure on market-rate developments to include what is commonly found in affordable buildings, built at a lesser cost, and for an income population that can afford them less.

Patel: Absolutely, yes! We all have an interest in making healthy buildings that minimize resource use and costs for the long term. The greenest strategies you can possibly employ are maximizing density and limiting car use.

The space and money that would typically be used for parking cars could be used for additional homes or for balconies, ground-floor retail, or courtyards. Not only is it expensive, it includes an additional opportunity cost. Even when the parking is underground, the ramps, gates and garage doors detract from an engaging, active streetscape. Building livable density through creative design is essential to making urban, transit-oriented living attractive.

MHN: Is there something exciting on the boards that you’d like to share with us?

Bluestone: Right now, we are working on a few large-scale developments in the New York City and Long Island area that continue much of what we’ve been doing recently. These include pre-cast concrete panelization, modular bathrooms, cogeneration, active design, rooftop farms and improvements to our overall efficiencies and durability. One thing that I am trying to promote/incorporate in our low income buildings, is a local career development/job placement office in each building, as part of the city’s overall workforce development efforts. We funded and ran a small pilot for one year at one of our buildings and the results of this small sample were outstanding. Our thinking is that we concentrate on the health of our tenants, vis a vis the building structure and operation, but financial health in a low-income population is just as important. We want a stable population that hopefully thrive in our buildings, and if we can provide workforce development services where people fall out of bed and can take advantage of them, rather than by giving directions by bus, car or train to the nearest facilities, how great is that?

We are also working on a development where we are super-insulating the buildings with the goal of reducing the heating and cooling loads to a point where we can guarantee annual energy usage and electric bills to the residents!

Patel: We just broke ground on the Dr. George W. Davis Senior Housing and Senior Center, which is the first phase of an aging campus in the Bayview District of San Francisco. This is a great project, on transit, that will be a wonderful space for seniors rooted in the community. It has integrated fitness, medical, and arts spaces and on-site services to help with finances, health care, and other challenges. It has community rooms and garden space for growing food. The housing is one- and two-bedroom units, and the services, amenities, and activities are also available to seniors aging in place in their homes in the neighborhood. This is going to be a vibrant, robust hub for seniors in the community.