August 17, 2017

Bringing Design into Affordable Housing: PUSH Buffalo, A Case Study of the 2017 Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute 

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What do the developers who participate in Enterprise’s Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute (AHDLI) learn?

Hopefully, it is that there is always room for better design. No matter the constraints, which we know and understand well, developers of affordable housing can and should be empowered to make better designed buildings that are able to meet the needs of their residents.  

We also know that this isn’t easy. That’s why the model for AHDLI is to bring leading designers from across the country and different disciplines together for closed-door charrettes of affordable housing development projects in the pre-development design phase.

Take for example People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), one of the seven developer organizations who joined us last week in Boston. Based in Buffalo, New York, PUSH brought to AHDLI a project involving the rehabilitation of two buildings—one residential and one mixed use.

“I came in thinking this is a small rehab project, there’s likely not a lot you can do to its design. But through this process, I realized there is a lot you can do, and we’re excited about the new ideas that got developed” said Jenifer Kaminsky, Director of Planning and Community Development at PUSH’s Buffalo Neighborhood Stabilization Company.

PUSH’s project was already quite innovative, merging a commercial laundromat with a much-needed community art space, while also leveraging a key corner location to catalyze further revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood.  Members of the Design Resource Team provided input to further amplify this innovation. 

The team’s feedback included the following recommendations:

  • Shift the ground floor window placement in order to create a more gracious and accessible entry, as well as to achieve better visual connections between the ground floor and the street. “Reworking the commercial space to integrate it with the street actually makes it better for our commercial tenants,” added Kaminsky.
  • Simply the façade and window materials and placement for a more elegant and eye-catching design, further optimizing the corner location and catalytic project intentions.
  • Accessibility expert Josh Safdie suggested changing the accessibility requirements for this and the other residential building in the portfolio. Instead of making each building partially accessible, as was the original plan, he suggested doubling down and making just one of the buildings fully accessible. By pooling the resources that would have been spent to make both buildings accessible into just one building, building access could be improved for all the residents. Not to mention the costs saved on development and ongoing maintenance of both interior and exterior elevators.

As Matthew Littell, principal at Utile in Boston and one of this year’s Design Team Resource members said that AHDLI helps developers “find that sweet spot where it’s not too late or too early to find a design opportunity to make a project excellent. But if you don’t cultivate the self-awareness to find that moment, you will wake up in construction documents and you’ve missed it.”

After eight successful years, AHDLI continues to strive to ensure all developers of affordable housing are equipped with that self-awareness and the tools to find that sweet spot.

Check out below a rendering of PUSH’s project from before AHDLI and a sketch created during AHDLI, outlining some of the proposed improvements.

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