November 15, 2001

Preserving affordable housing by design

  • Reworking facades and landscaping can make low-income housing look upscale



    While affordable housing is becoming scarcer, especially in the Pacific Northwest, housing prices in America have never been stronger.

    Population growth and limited open land for new housing developments set competitive market conditions that make renovation a viable solution to preserving moderate and low-cost housing in our region.

    In most American communities, public housing is visually recognized as less than desirable places to live or live near.

    To be from the “projects,” with its concentration of low-income residents and indistinctive architecture, has become an American qualifier. It signifies a segregated environment and typically bears the stigma of negative social status.

    Density in high-rise public housing blocks within Eastern U.S. cities has often been blamed for their deplorable condition. The sprawling low-rise “garden communities” of the West have not fared much better.

    However, since ground-related housing is widely considered appropriate and healthy for families, enlightened housing authorities now realize that these townhouse apartment complexes have great potential.

    The challenge is to creatively work within the policy-driven design of the existing public housing stock built since the mid1970s, re-designing it to positively contribute to the social enrichment of residents and encouraging upward mobility by creating environments that embody ideals of the American dream of homeownership.

    The architects and planners at DKA believe sensitive design can transform housing elements that make up the tarnished typology of sprawling public housing developments. Saving and renovating affordable public housing also extends the usable life of a development.

    low-income housing
    Photo by Tom Jodan
    DKA and SvR Design Co. are redesigning this low-income housing project in north King County.

    DKA’s current work with a local public housing authority demonstrates that public housing design can look and feel more like desirable market-rate housing without displacing low-income residents.

    The consultant team of DKA and SvR Design Co. is providing architecture and landscape design for the physical image conversion of a local suburban public housing community. The 1970’s development has a pleasant arrangement of ground-related townhomes, mature trees and generous open grounds.

    DKA was asked to produce cost-effective design recommendations to improve the housing development’s function and stark appearance. To accomplish this, team members selected visual design elements that clearly communicate a sense of home versus institution, adding decorative details to the building facades and variation to the landscape. The goal is to make these homes complementary to the surrounding private suburban housing.

    Most market rate suburban developments create a positive identity at the main entry. At our site, the existing entry experience is rapid and lacks a sense of arrival.

    Several changes are being made to create a more welcoming entry experience. The old entry sign will be replaced with fresher graphics and be relocated to be more visible. The entry drive will be narrowed to slow drivers and provide space for a new pedestrian walkway. The existing sidewalk that enters the complex will be widened to allow room for more comfortable pedestrian movement. The entry site fence will be repainted with a bright, welcoming color such as white, cream or yellow and a perennial garden will be planted in front of the fence to add seasonal color.

    Together these traditional residential design details will create a harmonious message of care to anyone passing or entering the site.

    The typical large public housing site is noted for its expansive common areas, creating a “no-man’s-land” owned by everyone and no one. This type of landscape planning is contrary to the American norm of defined territorial areas in private developments and reveals an immediate clue indicating institutional ownership.

    The project site suffers this image problem with an unbroken flow of open land from the site entry to parking lot to front door, with few defining features to show where public outdoor space stop and private space begins.

    Rendering by DKA
    New gables and other elements give the enhanced project a more attractive

    SvR offered several options to improve this bland anonymous landscape. To gain a sense of enclosure and arrival, shade or accent trees are planned near building entrances. Public walkways will be moved away from front doors and rear yards to increase privacy.

    A visual division in the rear yards will be created by dividing them with plantings and dry streambeds that follow existing drainage ways between the buildings. Low shrubs or low fences will be placed where back yards abut community open space.

    Small planting beds next to the buildings will allow residents to plant individual flower or vegetable gardens, with smaller P-patches located throughout the site. These clearly defined semi-private territories will give residents a more normalized sense of responsibility and ownership of personal space.

    Traditional private housing design includes a distinct hierarchy of public to private spaces through the use of stoops, porches or patios often detailed to exhibit a celebration of individual entries.

    The townhouses on the project site are devoid of clear formal entries and, in some cases, lack differentiation between the front and back doors. A shared fenced service yard for refuse cans, clothes drying and outdoor storage is adjacent to the main entry of two housing units types.

    The opposite side of each townhouse has a plain concrete slab patio. Exterior finish trim is minimal and paint colors are neutral and uniform.

    The DKA design team recommended enhancing the formal entry by adding a gable above the stoop supported by columns. A new enclosure will prevent views into the service yard from the front door.

    Trellises at rear patios are proposed to partially enclose patios and provide screening from nearby roadways and parking areas. DKA suggested increasing the rear patio slab to provide more useable area for entertaining, children’s play and other outdoor activities.

    New siding, trim and traditional accessories like shutters will be added to heighten the sense of market-rate appeal. A variety of colors and arrangements for separate buildings will augment the sense of individualization, and reduce the impression of mass housing.

    At its best, public housing should strengthen community through the use of support facilities as gathering places for social events, educational classes, childcare and other social services. The existing community center occupies a significant location at the development’s axis. The building, however, is remarkably non-descript and is not distinct from the housing.

    DKA is enhancing and elevating the community center to “town hall” status with its own village green by reconstructing the entries and upgrading the exterior finishes with livelier colors. The surrounding landscape will be designed to make softer connections to outdoor activities. The revitalized center will invite active use, and instill each resident with pride in community involvement.

    The intent of the DKA team’s orchestrated set of architectural and landscape elements is to preserve affordability and transform the image of public housing by integrating it into the mainstream of the American aesthetic.

    Sociological studies have proven that improvements to one’s environment result in an equally positive response in behavior. “Normalizing” these housing developments will impart the beneficial effect of lifting the self-esteem of its residents and increase social acceptance by their neighbors.

    Through a thoughtful and cost effective revitalization, the DKA team has endeavored to enrich the lives of public housing residents and achieved a higher public ideal.

    Prior to forming DKA in 1986, Donald King, FAIA, worked with Donna Brown, AIA, designing new scattered site prototype housing and renovating existing affordable housing for the Housing Authority of Los Angeles.

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