"Well, somebody's got to do it." This is a refrain I have heard over the years from many architects in reference to my firm’s choice to design supportive housing for special needs individuals: the mentally ill, the frail elderly, the chronically homeless, the working poor, among other marginalized groups. The comment is meant to suggest that while perhaps a noble and laudable pursuit, this type of work is gritty, unglamorous and underpaid, and ultimately not worthy of an architect’s design interest.
While the work certainly has its frustrations and challenges, especially on the budgetary and bureaucratic side, I would like to suggest that the building type presents design opportunities that are richer and more satisfying than commonly understood.
Our firm is now completing the last two of six new ‘supportive SROs’ (Single Room Occupancy) built throughout Brooklyn and the Bronx. This type of hybrid housing, widely considered to be the single most successful solution to homelessness for individuals, blends studio apartments with congregate spaces like community rooms, exercise areas, library, counseling offices, and laundry.
One of the primary challenges, and perhaps the greatest design opportunity, lies in the sites we find. With the current scarcity of inexpensive lots having wide street frontage, the majority of building sites which have been left to not-for-profit developers and their architects have been the irregular “left-over” parcels: narrow on street frontage and deep in proportion; curved, triangular, or trapezoidal in shape; sloping from grade or with rock outcroppings. The high density of the SRO housing program requires that these buildings be ‘shoe-horned’ onto their sites, and the result is a great variation of building forms in spite of a similarity of program. We see it as a ‘case study’ in urban-remnant infill.
The solving of the program puzzle within as-of-right zoning and a budget of less than $300 per square foot can be used as an opportunity to innovate and invent. And this sometimes leads to unexpected results. As an example, our 72-unit HUD-funded Domenech Residence designed for Common Ground in Brownsville (Gold LEED pending) is a U-shaped building wedged into an 80-foot wide and 155-foot deep lot. The narrow and deep dimensions of the lot precluded a typical double-loaded unit organization: instead single-loaded corridors along both side lot-lines allow abundant natural light to be brought into the public corridors at every floor. By running the bearing walls parallel to the street as opposed to along the courtyard length, the 30-foot wide court could then be skinned by seven-story checkerboard surfaces of Kalwall. This 2-3/4-inch thick material with high thermal value solves the simultaneous design problems of envelope efficiency, usable space and light in the units, and large-scale patterning of the courtyard facades.
Other sites presented different challenges and opportunities. A massing play was presented on the trapezoidal site across from Bronx Park. Here, the narrow street frontage facing west towards the Park was used as a means to privilege the common rooms as a program-stacked “entry pavilion.” A figured court mediates the splayed site geometry while differentiating the public spaces from the taller double-loaded unit mass behind.
While each site condition came with its own puzzles and pleasures, in all six cases plans and sections were constantly refined for maximum efficiencies and spatial effect: variegated ceiling heights compressed and then raised within the unit entry sequence, double-loaded configurations pierced at strategic moments to allow natural light into public corridors and waiting areas, and larger scale “collective” figures carved into punched fields of regular openings. Environmentally progressive systems and elements were employed in each building iteration despite their low budget, including high performance exterior envelopes with central heating and cooling fan coils, green roofs, gearless elevator, energy efficient lighting and appliances, re-cycled and recyclable materials.
Beyond the design, problem-solving and technical strategies remain the often-ignored social and political implications of this type of public housing. Contemporary architects sometime overlook the fact that the Modern Movement, while often associated with a particular style and use of materials, was also one with a strong social agenda, especially in the area of multi-family housing. Until the 70’s, many architectural practices included housing as a fundamental part of their repertory, and it is only in the last few decades that this type of work has slowly disappeared from the mix, replaced in part by luxury housing marketed as brand-name architecture on the one hand and on the other bare-bones “match-box” low-budget housing often produced as back-office bread-and-butter work.
It does not have to be this way. Now, in fact, might be an excellent time for architects to reconsider how their talents could be stretched and exercised by expanding their range, embrace the Modern Movement’s social imperative to reverse the inequalities we see in our world, roll up their sleeves and get gritty.