October 29, 2019

Big Idea: Don't Develop an Island: Mastering the Balance of Public and Private Space

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Matthew Littell

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

Matthew Littell, co-founding principal of Utile, Inc., an architecture and planning firm, first came to the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute in 2017. Leading Utile’s affordable housing design practice from their commitment to intelligent and pragmatic solutions, he has worked closely with developers throughout the Boston metro region on award-winning affordable and middle-income multifamily housing. Through his career in affordable housing design, he has discovered that thoughtfully negotiating public and private spaces, makes room for diverse individual experiences and social interactions that can elevate a development’s impact for all involved. 

Carrie Niemy, Program Director, Initiative, Enterprise Community Partners: What do you love most about designing affordable housing?


Matthew Littell: Unlike market-rate housing, affordable housing is more explicitly about community building, both within a specific project and in its relationship to the broader community. Our practice includes planning, urban design and architecture, and we intentionally see housing not simply as an architectural product, but rather as part of a broader spectrum of concerns that extend beyond property boundaries.

Affordable housing developers are, by nature, in tune to the community impacts of a particular project. We understand that the dwelling unit is not an island or a consumer product, but the fundamental building block of good urbanism and city building. When we look through this lens, designing affordable housing becomes not just defining a single enclosure, but orchestrating multiple physical and social layers of public and private space. What’s not to love?

Photo by Flagship Photo/Gustav Hoiland: Utile worked with The Neighborhood Developers (TND) to bring 39 affordable senior homes to downtown Revere, Massachusetts. 

CN: What have you learned from your participation in AHDLI? 

ML: AHDLI has taught me that within my body of work, I really care about the design of affordable housing. It’s that simple! Our affordable housing work began opportunistically: we were building a practice and were offered the chance to design a 20-home development for a large community development corporation. We approached it like our market rate work, with attention to intelligent unit designs and appropriate and durable aesthetic expressions (in contrast to much of the suburban/traditional product that was prevalent at the time).

Twelve years later, and with the help of the reflective setting provided by AHDLI, I see that our affordable work has evolved into something much deeper and more rooted in the communities it serves, playing a vital role in neighborhood stability. 

CN: What is one of your biggest takeaways from a career in affordable housing design?

ML: Balancing the thresholds between public and private space is the most important thing I’ve learned. Market rate development typically is not concerned with if or how residents interact with one another or the public. In contrast, the success of an affordable housing development hinges on the residents’ ability to mediate between the privacy of their dwelling and common areas.


Photo by Flagship Photo/Gustav Hoiland: The entryway at One Beach in Revere, Massachusetts. All shared spaces at the development were designed with community in mind. 

Community rooms are social spaces, but so are laundry rooms, corridors, elevators, mail rooms and even trash rooms. Balconies, front yards and stoops are all critical semi-public spaces, ones that are important for residents to feel that they can “filter” their social life. 

At One Beach, a development for older adults that we designed in Revere, MA, for example, we located the laundry room and the fitness area immediately adjacent to the open space and the lobby. The confluence of these spaces allows residents the opportunity to observe the comings and goings of their neighbors. The specifics of the arrangement allow the residents to socialize, but also do not oblige them to. A successful project, one in which a stable social life and sense of community takes hold, provides a rich array of spaces for interaction that give residents the power to mediate those relationships.

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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