October 16, 2019

Big Idea: Expect More of Your Architect

Julie Eizenburg

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

Julie Eizenberg, Founding Principal at Koning Eizenberg, attended the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute in 2014 in Los Angeles, and was the keynote speaker in 2016 in Detroit. As a leader and teacher, she has raised visibility for the design value and potential of community-serving projects.

She and founding partner Hank Koning were awarded the 2019 Australia Institute of Architects Gold Medal and the 2012 AIA Los Angeles Gold Medal in recognition of a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture. Through her meticulous work and focus on people-oriented practice, she creates places of ease and generosity, and encourages developers to get even more value out of the design process for the people they serve. 

Photo by Eric Staudenmaier: 28th St. Apartments, Los Angeles, a 48-home affordable housing development designed by Koning Eizenberg  

Carrie Niemy, Program Director, Initiative, Enterprise Community Partners: What do you see as the most pressing issue in affordable housing right now? 

Julie Eizenberg: Right now, we’re seeing a push to address the deficit in housing production. While inherently not a bad thing, the result has been a huge shift in focus from the quality of the buildings to the production factors: how you can build it cheaper and faster. We are unfortunately moving away from that great period of invention where we tried to best serve the people who needed housing to a model of “How can we get this done as fast as possible?” That scares me, because it feels like we are moving back to the ‘60s. I think the quality can be higher and this generation has the tools and intellect to alter our course. 

CN: What surprised you the most about how developers see the design process?

JE: At the Institute, I watched developers become aware that they have a much bigger opportunity to create value than they may have initially thought – and that it doesn’t require a huge effort! That was eye-opening. Once developers see that design gives them an incredible tool to get better value for the people they serve, they look at it in a whole new way. 

CN: What advice would you give to developers for improving their design process?

JE: Expect more of your architect. Most developers don’t know that they can expect more, within reason. For example, have your architect do a furniture plan. Both indoors and outdoors. Sometimes you won’t get that furniture plan if you don’t ask. Creating a furniture plan signals both prioritizing the lived experience of the residents and that outdoor space shouldn’t be considered a throw-away.  Creating these plans demonstrates that your architect is tapping the proper resources to get it right for the people you serve. The other advice would be make sure you know what you are doing to positively impact the neighborhood. 

CN: Why is design important for affordable housing in particular? 

JE: If you want to design for people as if they matter, you have to design in such a way to make people believe that they matter. To make this clear, you have to make it personal. The idea of craft and care needs to be visible – if we over-abstract the environment so there is nothing left but the bones, you lose that personal touch. There is a lot of affordable housing that never reaches the “personality stage” because of the many other stressors put on a project. Unless someone is really pushing for design that shows that you care about the neighborhood and the people who will live there, you fall flat. You have to show that you care, or you lose the dignity in the work.

For architects, designing affordable housing can and should be an incredibly rewarding challenge. It is satisfying when you can see how your design improves someone’s life. If you consider a budget limit a design editing tool rather than a restriction on creativity, you create a lot of room for innovation. 

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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