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Elevating low-rise development—it’s a SWELL idea

July 27, 2021

By Terra Mazzeo and David Carnicelli

We’re investigating nontraditional methods for design and delivery of resilient urban housing

This article first appeared as “Elevating low-rise” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 12.

The housing affordability crisis is particularly acute in Denver, Colorado, where we live and work. More than 60% of Denver residents are cost burdened by housing. Denver is the second most intensely gentrifying city in the United States. Much of the city’s population faces displacement because attainable housing is in short supply. Many US cities are in the same situation.

With a desire to point our professional energy toward contributing tangible solutions to this housing crisis and with backing from Stantec’s Innovation office, we gathered a group of internal and external experts to develop strategies for reducing the cost of housing. Our focus has been on two approaches to make new housing affordable—factory construction (prefabricated components brought to the site for assembly) and nontraditional formats (new models of living including co-living and micro housing, both with shared amenities).

Rendering of a SWELL Community development, which features a variety of housing types.

Missing middle

For much of the 20th century, a focus on the single-family home in the American West has resulted in sprawling subdivisions. With climate change and extreme weather events in mind, the carbon footprint of the stand-alone home and the automobile-centric infrastructure required to sustain it is hard to rationalize.

Our research led us to low-rise housing, often referred to as the “the missing middle,” and defined as all housing typologies between single-family residential and mid-rise or high-rise. This includes single family plus ADU (accessory dwelling unit), “the plexes” (duplexes, quadplexes, etc.), three-story walk-ups, courtyard apartments, rowhouses, and townhouses. Outside of the East Coast cities like New York and Philadelphia, these housing types are somewhat rare.

The missing middle can be a crucial part of the solution to solving housing affordability in many cities. Missing-middle housing offers diversity in the market between the single-family home and the multifamily mid-rise and high-rise. They offer livability, walkability, and improved affordability—they’re often less expensive to build because they don’t require elevators or structured parking. These middle types have a lower carbon footprint and lower embodied carbon than other housing types because they are usually wood-framed.

A SWELL Community includes on-site photovoltaic, electric vehicle charging, accessory dwelling units, gardens, and more.

Process

We developed new concepts for affordable housing through a five-day sprint process—a quick way of collecting perspectives of experts and figuring out if our ideas were worth testing further. We brought in outside partners to capture varied and diverse points of view and expertise. We connected with the City of Denver for advice on economic development and urban sustainability issues. We consulted with some of Denver’s multifamily housing developers and fabrication advisors such as Simple Homes and Family Built Homes.

Panelized fabrication company Simple Homes will eventually be capable of automated production of panels for modular housing from a digital model. In our sprint, we prototyped three ideas and presented these to active, progressive real estate developers for comment. Their strong support for our concepts gave us the confidence to develop our ideas further.

The result of our research is SWELL (super and well), a name that hints at our focus on excellence and wellness, which also implies growth. SWELL is our team, a group of housing experts within our design studio.

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SWELL Community design can help provide more affordable housing options in cities.

The SWELL toolkit

SWELL is also a toolkit. The SWELL toolkit is comprised of three main offerings: SWELL Sites, SWELL Communities, and SWELL Homes. We imagine SWELL Sites as an app that allows housing developers to identify sites ripe for low-rise housing development based on parameters they can control, including favorable zoning, incentive zones, access to transit, and other equity measures. This tool addresses one of the most common problems identified by our development advisors during our sprint: difficulty in identifying sites suitable for low-rise development.

SWELL Homes are three standardized units, each targeting a different family size. These are rigorously optimized for factory fabrication, allowing us to deliver outstanding value to housing developers and a higher-quality home at a lower cost for potential homeowners. SWELL Homes are 100% electrified and include a small personal greenhouse bay window, optimized natural daylight, and natural ventilation. For a recent design competition submission for Los Angeles, our fabrication partners estimated that the 420-square-foot SWELL Studio single-module unit will cost about $60,000, the 600-square-foot SWELL one-bedroom, two-module unit will cost around $80,000, and the 850-square-foot SWELL two-bedroom, three-module unit will cost about $100K—all prices including fabrication, transportation, and installation.

SWELL Communities are collections of SWELL homes assembled in various low-rise building typologies to form a community: two-, four, and eight-plexes; accessory dwelling units; rowhouses; and three-story walkups. Once a developer or municipality has identified a site (ideally using SWELL Sites), our designers and development partners can use this proprietary parametric tool to quickly assess various development possibilities for a given parcel. This tool, based on an actual application we recently developed to automate the masterplan for the Park Hill development in Denver, lets our development partners visually play with unit configurations and delivers output data on the unit count, unit mix, parking spaces, and other planning metrics—all in real time.

Beyond this, SWELL Community features on-site food generation, water collection, and energy gathering, offering residents both security and community through self-sufficiency. SWELL Communities include shared hosting spaces that double as space for short-term rentals, shared maintenance and operations, and job creation. We intend SWELL Communities to be models for the resilient and sustainable future of urban housing.

The global pandemic has increased the need for affordable and resilient housing in nearly all US cities due to job loss and economic disruption. As a toolkit for delivering resilient urban housing and communities, SWELL is particularly relevant today. The SWELL team believes resilient urban housing is low-rise housing optimized for sustainability, affordability, and community.

The missing middle can be a crucial part of the solution to solving housing affordability in many cities.

Sustainability

Electrification of our SWELL Homes and Communities gives us an opportunity to connect to a cleaner energy source, consider site-wide micro utilities, fuel our communities using photovoltaics, and fuel our vehicles with plentiful electric vehicle charging stations. The prefabricated structures minimize waste and are designed with a highly efficient building envelope, optimized insulation, natural ventilation, and natural daylighting. Within the SWELL building typologies, each SWELL Home is connected to wastewater reuse systems and rainwater collection. Every SWELL Community meets or exceeds the WELL Building Standard’s prerequisites.

SWELL Communities feature regenerative onsite agriculture at a variety of scales, from the individual home (each home features a SWELL Bay—a private greenhouse), to the building (three-story walkups feature at least one upper-level greenhouse with vertical gardens), to the community (each block has opportunities for street-level community gardens). Beyond food, native plants, porous pavers, pollinator gardens, and plentiful trees connect urban residents to the wild systems that sustain them.

Affordability

Our approach to creating affordable urban housing is threefold: reduce construction costs, increase city incentives, and offer on-site income generation. Construction costs are reduced through factory fabrication, design standardization, wood-framed construction, small unit sizes (made smaller using shared amenities), and building typologies without elevators or structured parking. City incentives, confirmed through our conversations with the City of Denver, may include everything from reduced permit fees, expedited permitting, layered incentives for combinations of sustainability and affordability, density and height increases, offerings of cheap or free city-owned land, and waiving of parking minimums. On-site, income-generation opportunities include community-owned and operated ADUs as short- or long-term rentals, live/work homes, and in-community jobs. ADUs are often detached from the main house (either in place of a garage of above a garage) or attached with a separate entrance. They must have a dedicated kitchen or bedroom to be considered dwelling units.

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Low-rise housing is often referred to as the “the missing middle.” 

Community

SWELL Communities are made more affordable and joyful through shared amenities—with possibilities ranging from shared laundry and package-delivery lockers to community kitchen and gardens, shared gear storage, tool libraries, maker spaces, and coworking spaces. Other community-focused amenities within our SWELL Communities may include on-site childcare, job training, and recreation opportunities tailored to the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods including playgrounds, fire pits, and art.

Our plans for SWELL include advancing the conversation about financing, designing, and delivering resilient urban housing through building developer partnerships, design competitions, speaking and writing, and other forms of thought leadership. For now, SWELL is an ongoing effort to create tangible solutions to the housing crisis in Denver and beyond. This effort is both a humanitarian imperative, professional responsibility, and an enormous market opportunity.

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  • Terra Mazzeo

    Terra has more than two decades of experience in the mixed-use, hospitality, multi-family residential, and office sectors.

    Contact Terra
  • David Carnicelli

    Focusing on the residential sector, David designs sustainable and affordable housing projects as well as mixed-use developments centered in downtown Denver.

    Contact David
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