Affordable Housing by Pat Birch, AIA, LEED AP

There are many developers who are working to increase the supply of affordable housing even though federally-supported funding is a challenge to receive. We are fortunate to have some of these kind-hearted people as our clients. They have hired us recently to design units for low-income seniors and families, and to design transitional housing for homeless veterans.

Since funds are so limited and the need so great, it is increasingly important that we design affordable housing which thoughtfully considers how construction dollars—and future operating dollars—are spent. Our strategies to achieve this include:

  • Simplicity of form: complicated building shapes are more expensive than simple ones.
  • Use of color and materials: a palette of diverse materials, texture and color creates interest and identity, and costs no more.
  • Plentiful daylight: an appropriately placed window brings in natural light to reduce dependence on artificial lighting—and makes the living environment just that: livable.
  • A well-designed thermal envelope:  high R values for the design of walls and roofs, and low U values for windows will result in less energy used for heating and cooling.
  • Size: build only enough square footage to meet functional needs. Higher ceilings and a lot of daylight (windows) make rooms feel larger.

Here is an example of how Schemmer transformed a 70s-era apartment building for seniors through the use of materials and color. The building had worn-out vinyl siding.

We replaced it with James Hardie siding and trim in a variety of colors, along with new roofing and windows.

When money is scarce, we will always work with our clients to achieve a balance between quality and economy, and those three tenets of architectural design so well established by the Roman architect, Vitruvius, some 2000 years ago: firmness, commodity, and delight (modern day translation: sturdy, useful and beautiful). Affordable housing can be as beautiful, functional and durable as market-rate housing—it is often even better according to our philosophy of design and client service.