Big Idea: Always Question Your Assumptions
Ten years ago, the Enterprise Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute set out to elevate the status quo in affordable housing design and support the creation of housing that lifts-up individuals and communities. Over a decade, through nearly 70 unique conversations about the challenges and potential of real development projects, across a network of almost 250 developers, designers, policy-makers, public health experts and others, an incredible amount of innovation has happened.
Our goal in the “10 Years, 10 Big Ideas” series is to bring you the best of that innovation, making leading-edge design and development ideas open source and day-lighting the voices of leaders driving forward the state of affordable housing design.
Jane Carbone is the Director of Real Estate and Rebecca Schofield is a Project Manager at Homeowner’s Rehab Inc. (HRI), a Cambridge, MA-based developer with a focus on supporting mixed-income communities, and a leader in sustainable real estate development. HRI attended Enterprise’s Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute (AHDLI) in 2017 with its project “Concord Highlands.” Upon arrival at the Institute, the plan was late in the project development stage, and the team wasn’t expecting to make any major changes to the design. The fresh eyes and group of experts at AHDLI helped HRI completely reconfigure the project’s common spaces and landscapes to center around the group that mattered most: residents.
Carrie Niemy, Program Director, Initiative, Enterprise Community Partners: What perspectives does HRI bring to a conference like AHDLI?
JC: At HRI, we focus on design because it has an extraordinary impact on how residents experience their homes. Good building design also makes a valuable contribution to the surrounding community. We’re focusing much more on who we serve and how we can make a better life for them in their buildings. Central to our work is asking the question: “How we can improve this housing and create opportunities within it for our residents?”
CN: What were the most exciting ideas from AHDLI that you incorporated into your project?
JC & RS: We knew we wanted to maximize the energy efficiency and health benefits of the development. Having followed the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria, we had already really moved the needle in these areas, and weren’t sure what we might pursue at the Institute. One of the most eye-opening ideas was how to leverage our landscape, especially on a difficult site. The site was a long thin rectangle, which seemingly left little room for creativity.
The Design Resource Team at the Institute pointed out that there was actually enough space to convert what was planned as a strip of shrubbery into a meandering walking path around the edge of the site. Making this small shift completely changed the project, adding an important active design element for our older residents and making the housing much more connected to the open space and the surrounding community. We realized that while landscaping is often not considered by the industry as integral to design, landscape design becomes a critical tool if you have health and wellness goals for your project.
CN: What was your biggest surprise from attending?
JC & RS: We realized pretty quickly that we had a lot of hidden assumptions about what was possible. We came to the Institute with questions about how to optimize our existing solutions. The Design Resource Team pushed us to think bigger. The ground floor design plan is a perfect example. We saw the plan as locked-in due to extensive requirements for internal bike parking and the space needed for handicap accessibility. We saw these demands as mutually exclusive to a community space on the first floor and we were looking at how to increase use of a third-floor community room.
The design team at AHDLI challenged us to reconsider the benefits of a first floor community space, because residents are much more likely to use the room in that primary location. Through some creative suggestions for reconfiguration that we hadn’t even considered, we were able to recapture 710 additional square feet for ground floor community space, this included the addition of a seating area, providing 24/7 access to our existing conference room, moving the mail area to a more social space, and creating an exterior seating area. AHDLI helped us break out of our comfort zone on this design.
In addition to thinking about our residents, we realized our design could also better serve the surrounding community. We reworked the plans for exterior gathering spaces to be inviting to the larger community. We also made the ground floor a more accessible and inviting for community events. All the changes we made following the Institute moved forward our commitment to resident’s quality of life and connecting to the community.
CN: What do you think made your time at AHDLI the most valuable?
JC & RS: For any affordable housing development, it’s very challenging to incorporate design changes into the building after an initial design is approved by lenders. At AHDLI, we came away with innovative ideas that worked within the existing project constraints to make Concord Highlands better, reminding us that innovation is always possible whatever the stage of the project.
About the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute
For the past ten years, the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute (AHDLI) has brought together the leading-edge of development and design practitioners to share best practices and to take on affordable housing’s increasingly complex construction, policy and finance challenges.
In 2018, AHDLI was awarded the AIA’s Collaborative Achievement Award and was named a Hive for Housing Top 5 Innovator. The program’s core tools are now available on Enterprise’s Design Matters site.