October 29, 2019

Big Idea: Harness the Value of First Impressions

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Sharon Lee Seattle Low Income Housing Institute

Ten years ago, the Enterprise Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute (AHDLI) 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

Sharon Lee is a Seattle-based developer and executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), one of the largest affordable housing developers in the Northwest. She attended the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute in 2012 with the project The Marion West. The original building design didn’t fully leverage the building’s historic and bustling surroundings, and designers at AHDLI were able to recommend unique, yet achievable ideas to help LIHI develop the best possible community for homeless young adults and low wage workers. 

Carrie Niemy, Program Director, Initiative, Enterprise Community Partners: It’s been nearly 10 years since you attended your first Design Leadership Institute.  What ideas still stick with you?

Sharon Lee: I’ve learned that first impressions are very important. The number one selling point we highlight to the community when making a presentation on a new building is the exceptional architectural design. It makes a difference when people begin to see that affordable housing can be attractive and an asset to the community. We make sure to dispel the stereotypes of uninspiring design, cheap construction and buildings that will bring down property values.  On the contrary, we showcase buildings that have a lot to offer the community. Those initial interactions with community members have shown time and again how much first impressions matter, and that you should take the time to craft a thoughtful presentation that will challenge any misconceptions.


Photo by Harry Connolly: The Marion West was brought by LIHI in 2012 to AHDLI, where it was recommended that the upper portion of the building be put on a diagonal to leverage the historic façade next door. 

CN: What have you learned at AHDLI that allows you to continue to grow as a developer?  

SL: Whether you are starting your first project or your twentieth, having advice and feedback, spending time exploring multiple design options, and hearing from the community will always result in a better outcome.

It’s a simple fact that the first design developed during the mad rush to get a project funded is not always the best. I learned through AHDLI that taking the time to get creative, explore new options and elevate voices you might not have thought to include, will help you keep the momentum going. 

For example, the design of our now award-winning project, The Marion West, was substantially changed after attending AHDLI. We brought the project when it was in pre-development and thought it was pretty good. By opening ourselves up to different perspectives, we realized we weren’t leveraging important assets outside of the lines of the site.

Photo by Harry Connolly: The rooftop garden at the Marion West 

The design resource team suggested that we set the upper portion of the building on a diagonal to give some relief to pedestrians on the street. They also suggested we reference and acknowledge the historic Carnegie Library located next door. The diagonal design created other important resident benefits as well, including private outdoor decks for the homeless youth that the building would be home to. 

The building went on to win the Gold Nugget Grand Award for “Residential Housing Project of the Year,” where we competed against for-profits, luxury housing and non-profit developers. It was also awarded the Affordable Housing Finance Readers’ Choice Award for Best Mixed-Use Project.

Taking a step back and questioning our assumptions helped create a better product for the youth we serve and the entire community, and it’s an honor to have the power of the project’s design recognized. When people move into The Marion West, ready for a new start, it’s a special moment for everyone involved. 

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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