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At Enterprise, we make well-designed homes affordable.


But why does design matter? Because where we live matters. Well-designed affordable homes provide a stable platform for people to thrive. Good design is design that meets resident and community needs.


Moreover, good design engages communities in developing project solutions. When people participate in the process of designing their homes and neighborhoods, they gain agency and create collective goals, fostering shared ownership and resilience.

Design doesn’t have to be at odds with the development process. In fact, good design in the affordable housing field must meet the complex financing and development demands placed on projects. To accomplish this artful balance between budget and big-picture goals, the design process needs a developer at the helm, equipped with the tools to powerfully advocate for better outcomes.


Affordable housing project plans are the product of not only a developer and their design team, but of a complex system of finance and regulation. Understanding and articulating the key barriers within that system, is essential to establishing people-oriented design practices as the norm.

Slide 1
Competing Priorities in the Development Timeline

Each phase of the development timeline, from conceptual design to occupancy, poses unique constraints on a project’s design. These constraints and outcomes are products of the larger affordable housing system, rather than of any one developer or designer’s process.


Click arrow to the right to advance the timeline and descriptions.

Slide 2
Concept Development

Projects are often developed on parcels that have a variety of stakeholders. Residents, neighbors, funders, policy makers all have important perspectives on a project, but these varying perspectives are difficult to unify and can limit a developer’s willingness to experiment with the project’s design. 

*Expert tip: Use the Project Mission Writer to map stakeholder influences on your project and define a clear vision that allows you to be a compelling advocate for new design ideas.

Slide 3
Funding Applications

Project designs are submitted to funding agencies with no guarantee of financing. This uncertainty can lead to designs that are quickly produced.

Slide 4
Dampened Creative Partnerships

Sometimes, developers request their architect to forego some or all of their predevelopment fees until a project has earned funding to make the project viable. With the design team operating on a shoestring budget, both parties can standardize their development approach and recycle thinking from previous projects, which might overlook opportunities unique to the site and community.  

*Expert tip: Use the Design Moves worksheet in the Design Principles Primer‘s to help recognize design opportunities to discuss with your design team early in the  process. The better questions you ask, the more your design team can support you.

Slide 6

By the time Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) funding is awarded, developers are frequently locked into some of the most impactful design decisions, which were made in their initial proposal. 

Slide 7

Even after a thorough predevelopment design process, project construction costs may come in higher than originally budgeted. Developers, working with their architect and contractors, then have to value engineer out the project’s most valuable and impactful elements. 

*Expert tip: The Project Mission Writer and the Design Principles Primer help you in clarifying your priorities in the value engineering process and sourcing design alternatives that still fulfill big pictures goals even when budgets are cut. 

Funding bar

Layers of Requirements

The typical affordable housing development uses eight to nine funding sources, sometimes more. With each funding source comes another unique set of requirements. That means a developer has many layers of expectations to meet. Sometimes these funder expectations complement each other, but they also may contradict.



Stakeholder web

Stakeholder Ecosystem

Responsibility for good design may appear to sit squarely with the design team (including the architect). However, the relationship between the developer and the design team is within a larger stakeholder network that influences all decisions made. The developer must negotiate these relationships constantly, so it’s critical that developers be design leaders in these conversations if they want to maintain key building features.


The Design Matters Toolkit was developed from learnings and research stemming from our Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute. Through interviews with developers, funders, architects and policy members, we identified key practices to yield a more people-focused development process that produces better projects for residents and communities.

What our research reiterated is that affordable housing is designed, financed, and built within a complex ecosystem that poses many constraints on design, therefore it will take new tools and leadership to interrupt the status quo.


No matter how thoughtfully designed a project plan may be, high-impact design features have little chance of surviving the development and construction process without a design-savvy developer advocating and advancing the project’s big picture goals all the way through to a project’s certificate of occupancy.


Three fundamental ideas emerged about the tools needed to support these talented developers in becoming design leaders:

  • Tools must be adaptable, given that every project’s design and development timeline is unique;
  • Resources must easily integrate into established development processes; and
  • Tools are needed to help unify stakeholder goals, as a shared vision can buoy a project’s overarching goals and align decision-making when deadlines and unforeseen challenges arise.

In response, we created a flexible set of tools to support developers in mastering their design process and quantifying the benefits of well-designed, quality homes.

The resulting Design Matters Toolkit trains developers to:

  • create a clear project vision that leverages site and community assets;
  • respond to cost constraints with innovative design solutions;
  • and advocate for design decisions using evidence of their impact.

It is our goal that these tools will begin making people-centered design common practice in the affordable housing industry, thus magnifying impacts for residents and communities.

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