November 20, 2019

Wrap Up: 3 Takeaways: What We’ve Learned From a Decade of the Design Leadership Institute

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Lightbulb graphic by John Winowiecki from the Noun Project.

Ten years ago, in Minneapolis, twenty-five people gathered for the first Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute, with the radically simple idea that through collaboration and the development of a new type of leader, a developer “design-leader,” we might make well-designed affordable housing the norm.

The goal was to bring dignity, health, connection and access to opportunity to all people who live in or touch affordable housing.

Ten years later, quality affordable housing continues to be an essential element for creating diverse communities that work for everyone. With the process of creating affordable housing becoming ever more constrained, the 10th anniversary of the Institute and the “Ten Years, Ten Big Ideas” series provided a moment to pause and reflect on what we have learned about how to champion people-focused housing design, while complying with financial and regulatory constraints.

In this process of putting together the “Ten Years” blog series, we talked to ten of our program alumni, leaders in this industry, about what it means to design and develop catalytic affordable housing in this system. What did we learn?

  1. Leadership is foundational.
  2. We need to think bigger and smaller than we’re used to.
  3. The process always matters.

Browse the Big Ideas Series

Leadership is foundational.

While we started the Design Leadership Institute with an understanding that leadership was important if we wanted to accomplish more with housing, in speaking to our colleagues now, they echoed just how important it continues to be. There is a shared recognition that within the complexities of the affordable housing ecosystem, even the best ideas are only achieved when pushed for and protected by committed leaders.

Architect Amanda Loper kicked-off the series by championing the need for “Sustained Tenacity” in order to deliver buildings that go beyond the status quo. She makes the point, with gusto, that “These projects take years – sometimes decades. You have to remain clear and committed to your vision and not give up.”

Jane Carbone and Rebecca Schofield (HRI, Cambridge, MA) next brought to light one of the most challenging types of leadership: self-reflection. They remind us what is possible when we step back to question our own closely held assumptions.

And finally, developer Charles Dabney (South Florida CLT, Miami, Florida) focused on the importance of developers self-designating as design leaders, granting themselves permission to ask more questions of their architects and make more suggestions in acknowledgment of the deep expertise they bring to the design process.

None of these leadership qualities will show up in a project pro forma or even in a blueprint, but they make the difference between “business as usual” affordable housing and breakthrough developments that support health, well-being, community, access to opportunity and more. While leadership may be incredibly demanding, it is remarkably free in an industry where costs often drive what is possible.

We need to think bigger and smaller than we’re used to.

Beyond leadership, our interviews uncovered a valuable skill for our industry: a dual capacity to zoom out and look at the big picture of a project and what it might achieve, and the matched ability to look closely at the details and consider how the vision will materialize there. Often, both of these types of thinking are considered a luxury in the time-constrained affordable housing industry, but our series contributors shared how important these levels of thinking are in creating housing with catalytic potential for individuals and communities.

We heard about a few different practices for “zooming out” to bigger thinking. Sharon Lee, executive director of LIHI in Seattle, shared how LIHI has much stronger projects now that they make sure to leave space in their development process to “get creative, explore new options and elevate voices you might not have thought to include.” 

Architect Matthew Littell suggested looking at a bigger view when we take on projects and thinking about what is outside of our lot lines. He suggests considering that we are not just creating a product, but rather in producing housing we have the opportunity to work on the “fundamental building block” of city and community-building

Others then pointed to the equally important skill of thinking “small”: to challenge ourselves to bring the project’s bigger goals into the details. David Rowe (CAMBA, NY, NY) focuses his insights around one of the most overlooked “details” of projects: the landscape. He shares how much more effective CAMBA’s projects are in fulfilling objectives for the people they serve now that they holistically consider the environments their projects create.  

Both Matthew Littell and Amanda Loper also talked about how the design of elements that are often considered afterthoughts— laundry rooms, hallways, community spaces, etc.—and how they can completely change the impact of a building. After all, these are the spaces where people are carrying out everyday life and where they have the opportunity to connect with their community. 

The process always matters.

The final lesson we took away from this series is that the process, how we do things, matters in a big way. 

Amit Price Patel points to the impact of how and when we engage the community in the results we see in a development, viewing community feedback as a resource for better projects. Julie Eizenberg reminds us that despite a national push for more affordable housing at lower costs, how we provide those units matters; it is important to alter our course and refocus on building quality housing if we don’t want to repeat the past. 
And finally, as we wrapped-up the series and looked toward the future of innovation in affordable housing, Katie Swenson reminds us that how we convene people to ideate and create really matters.  

A thank you and an invitation:

The voices represented in the series represent a powerful community of more than 250 developers, architects, landscape architects, policy-makers, community leadership experts, public health professionals, and others who attended over 75 project charrettes, and offered feedback with thoughtfulness and consideration.

They have built connections across tables filled with markers and trace paper to better explore how to create the type of affordable housing developments that communities deserve. We would like to thank our ten contributors, listed below, and our entire family of participants over the past ten years, and our readers for being on this journey with us in the “Ten Years, Ten Big Ideas” conversation. 

In our next ten years, it is our goal is to grow this community of committed practitioners. We hope that you will join us on the journey to making good design common practice in affordable housing by joining our Design Matters newsletter or following us on Twitter, so that we can share opportunities and be more connected to your work.  Here’s to all the good ideas to come!  


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