October 16, 2019

Big Idea: Architects Aren't the Only Design Leaders

Charles Dabney of the South Florida Community Land Trust

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. 

Browse the Big Ideas Series

The South Florida Community Land Trust (SFCLT) is opening new pathways for long-term affordability in South Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties, two of the country’s fastest accelerating real estate markets, by applying the community land trust model. The team came to AHDLI in 2018 with an award-winning project design that due to increased construction costs from the impact of area hurricanes had become unbuildable.

Here Charles Dabney, SFCLT’s Director of Real Estate Development, shares how the team reconsidered their role and the community’s role in developing efficient and sustainable project designs.

Photo by Harry Connolly: The SFCLT team, Charles Dabney, real estate director, Mandy Bartle, executive director; and Jessica Browdy at AHDLI with their Rose Fellow team partners, Nicholas Forest and Leah Oxenhandler  

Carrie Niemy, Program Director, Initiative, Enterprise Community Partners: What was your biggest takeaway after attending AHDLI?

Charles Dabney: At the Institute, we saw how much value we were leaving on the table by recycling design ideas from project to project that didn’t leverage the community and site’s specific assets.  We saw that getting resident input on design early actually saves money and effort down the road. Applying this tactic, at our first community meeting after the Institute, our architect shared numerous façade designs and elevations with participants based on that idea.

We were surprised when we found that the designs personally favored by SFCLT staff didn’t resonate with local residents at all.  It validated our lessons learned at the Institute that it’s important to engage the community in the process when they can still impact big decisions, and not adjust things around the edges. We now see this early engagement process as essential to our goal of providing housing to low-income families without compromising on quality or location.
CN: After attending AHDLI, how do you see developers achieving better results with their architect partners?

CD: After our AHDLI coaching, we see that it’s important to take more of a leadership role in our project’s designs to get the outcomes we want. We work with talented architects and before the Institute we often deferred to their opinions because we hired them for their skill. We now see that it’s important to be assertive during the design phase; we understand that we can offer unique context, ideas and questions that allow the design team to elevate the project designs. It’s a truly collaborative process. SFCLT now starts the design with a project mission and works with the community to make sure that it achieves their goals. Thus, we are able to design with and for the communities we serve. 
CN: Investing in good design has a reputation for driving up costs. Have you made any changes to your development process that have made you a leaner developer?

CD: At the Design Leadership Institute, we saw that our existing Request for Proposals (RFP) for Architectural Services was too loose. Our team then took a very different approach to crafting our RFP for the Little Haiti project. The new RFP drew bids that enabled SFCLT to more clearly compare and weigh costs among the architecture firms.

Further, the contract negotiated between the selected project architect and SFCLT is much tighter and more definitive, providing clarity on the timeline and cost-containment of the deliverables. We saw just how much this process was in our control and we didn’t have to accept the status quo for RFPs, we could ask for more. Our lessons learned from AHDLI have given us a more collaborative, sustainable business practice, and we’ll continue to maximize our outcomes with these new tools. 

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

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