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From the Design Quarterly: Housing design that keeps the city within reach

May 07, 2019

By William Ketcham

Innovative approaches to urban housing for mixed-income, artists, and young professionals

According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects Report, more than 55% of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, but that number is expected to grow to 68% by 2050. And in North America, city-living dominates, with 82% of the population crowded into urban settings where their long-lasting appeal now spans generations.

All this interest means investment. But, the boom in urban real estate comes with rising housing costs.

This global trend toward urbanization puts greater pressure on designers to realize innovative approaches to housing. Cities are desirable and vibrant places when they’re economically diverse. If our housing solutions are to enhance city life, they must succeed at making urban communities that are inclusive across all income groups.

In this context, the term “affordable housing” takes on new dimensions. An expanded understanding of how residential projects can meet the needs and price points of niche markets while achieving harmony with the urban context is changing how we approach housing in cities.

Considering these pressures, it’s worthwhile to examine three current approaches to affordable living—housing for families, artists, and young professionals. In each instance, the design balances cost and quality to achieve affordability, aesthetic appeal, and, most importantly, livability.

Park Boulevard in Chicago, Illinois. By design, it’s impossible to distinguish between subsidized and market-rate housing in these buildings.

Mixed-Income Housing

Chicago public housing developments of the mid-20th century created a large volume of housing, but it was often disconnected from the city’s vibrant urban fabric. Today, at Park Boulevard, Lake Park Crescent, and elsewhere in Chicago, we are realizing new approaches to mixed-income, socially conscious housing. We’ve emphasized design priorities that result in desirable residences that connect to the community. 

Connect to the urban fabric

By reestablishing the city grid destroyed by CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) high-rise construction decades ago, and designing buildings at scale to their surroundings, we can reweave the urban fabric that was frayed. The master plan at Park Boulevard reestablishes Chicago’s street and alley infrastructures. The plan places buildings at the edge of blocks with facades that adhere to the development’s building setback lines. This creates a welcoming neighborhood streetscape that brings people and activity back to the sidewalk. At the street level, the buildings on major arteries feature offices, tenant recreation space, retail, or job-service programs.

Create a variety of architecture

If we’re interested in creating a vibrant, livable city, we need to vary the scale, height and architectural expression of these mixed-income buildings so they integrate seamlessly. We vary the type and scale of housing from contemporary rowhouse-inspired dwellings for single families to sleek modern mid-rise residential buildings.

If our housing solutions are to enhance city life, they must succeed at making urban communities that are inclusive across all income groups.

Make it last

We favor long-lasting, high-performing materials in these residences, like insulated windows and masonry veneer cast-in-place concrete structures, so that they integrate into their historical context and last for decades to come.

Amenities that suit modern lifestyles

The new units feature desirable amenities typical in contemporary market-rate housing in the city: from individually-controllable HVAC to energy-efficient kitchen appliances and assigned parking.

Fill with natural light and views

We opt for significant floor-to-floor heights, large windows, rooftop terraces, and vegetated roofing whenever possible to achieve an airy feel and make connection with the outdoors. Bay windows connect to the local vernacular and offer views up and down the street.

Breaking social stigmas

This planning and design approach’s most potent feature is nearly invisible, by design. It’s literally impossible to distinguish between subsidized and market-rate housing in these buildings. Both typologies look like the places where people of all walks of life want to live in the city, because they are. They are designed and built to standard that makes them widely attractive and desirable places to live.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 05 | Smart and Livable Cities

Housing for Artists

It’s not uncommon for the artists who found an affordable work/live space years ago to find themselves victims of gentrification—priced out of a now hot neighborhood they helped enrich. Can housing nurture the cultural diversity that make the neighborhoods unique and desirable?

Recognizing history

Chicago’s Pullman District, now a National Landmark district, was once a company town for railway car manufacturing. Pullman artists are under pressure from rising housing costs.

Artspace develops affordable residences for artists. Its Pullman project will be the first new housing in the area in 60 years and feature three residential buildings (two landmarks and one new building which replaces a building torn down in the 1930s) to fill the gap for Pullman artists.

The Pullman District in Chicago, Illinois. The housing for artists features three residential buildings with ground-floor shared studio and gallery spaces.

A sensitivity to the historic and neighborhood context is always important but in this residential project, it was paramount. Projects financed by the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) receive investment tax credits for their historical components. The buildings are stylized with details (masonry, colors, window forms, and brick) that evoke historic Pullman. Artists and residents can network on the building stoops, which are emblematic of the neighborhood.

Balancing functionality and affordability

At Pullman, we’ve designed 38 units in total with flexible, durable spaces that click with creative residents. Concrete floors and unfinished drywall can be customized as needed. Bedroom closets are movable, to allow for greater workspace. And the ground floor features shared studio and gallery spaces. The result, opening in 2019, are high-quality places for artists to live and work that will ensure that the neighborhood’s creative culture remains vital for years to come.

Young Professionals

Today’s young professionals or aspiring professionals want to live downtown while they work their way up. But soaring real estate costs in cities like Boston and Chicago have pushed many standard apartments and condos within city centers well out of reach. Coinciding with this is a trend in millennial and Gen Z toward an appreciation for city experiences, entrepreneurial work, and a car-less lifestyle.

The city is your living room

Developers—and designers—have already recognized that urban residences that feature smaller units with greater shared amenities have a potent draw across generations while achieving an affordable housing option.

Co-living—shared rental apartments in residential buildings with common amenities—takes this trend to the next level. The co-living movement has flourished in Europe in places like Copenhagen, Denmark—valued for its mix of community, affordability, and ability to deliver that urban buzz that so many of us crave. Now, the North American market is starting to embrace similar ideas.

TROY Boston in Boston, Massachusetts, features 378 rental apartments and is helping reinvigorate Boston’s South End.

In Chicago’s Fulton Market district, Quarters, a new co-living concept, offers compact housing for this emerging market with a mix of private one-bedroom apartments and private rooms in apartments where kitchen and baths are shared with up to five residents.

In addition to residences, it features large public spaces on its upper floors (social space and dining) with commercial co-working space on the bottom floors.

Quarters is suited to urban dwellers that aren’t ready for the commitment a lease entails and want their paycheck to go to a city experience, not an unused dining room.

Making the city our home

It’s clear that for many of us, the desire to live in cities is so potent that it’s generating interest in new types of housing and lifestyles. Designers will continually be challenged to deliver residences that exceed the expectations of urban dwellers on a budget. One thing is clear, the allure of cities is not going away. compact 

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