These days, more and more people are moving to dense metropolises like New York and San Francisco seeking the amenities and opportunities found in large cities. But as city populations increase, so does the cost of living, leaving low-income residents with fewer choices for affordable housing.
Historically, affordable housing complexes started to be constructed in the mid-20th century — mega projects that were conceived of as a modernist, progressive solution to provide adequate and economical living quarters to large groups of people. Unfortunately, while architects may have had the best intentions when designing affordable housing, their preference for imposing, towering concrete structures devoid of human scale often led to complexes that discouraged strong communities and felt unquestionably isolating in appearance.
While a shortage of affordable housing options continues to plague our cities, we have seen a growing interest by architects designing decidedly alternative solutions to the outdated models of the modernist era. Today, affordable housing seeks to do more than simply create decent spaces for living. Instead, new affordable housing models incorporate sustainable features that reduce the cost of construction maintenance, technologies that help empower residents and connect them to outside resources, and greater reverence for human scale and connection to the street — beneficial features that we can only hope to see more of in the future.
The Black & White Twins mark a noted effort to merge contemporary aesthetics with affordable solutions. Conceptually divided into two parts, the building contains an outer black skin perforated with windows and voids that wraps around the inner part of the building, while open air spaces are painted white. Casanova + Hernandez architecten’s refreshing design provides 29 affordable units set within a compact structure that maintains the human scale of low-density projects.
Unlike the banal housing of the surrounding area, the shingle-clad Hannibal Road Gardens were conceived as a continuation of the timber garden fences of the existing housing blocks. A series of stepped and notched south-east facing garden terraces, the housing strip provides eight 100% affordable units, with four marked as socially rented. The units were designed with the residents’ quality of life in mind: each house has a minimum of two large courtyards or roof terraces, while the notched layout creates a variety of amenity spaces and outlooks.
Located on a reclaimed brownfield site in the South Bronx, Grimshaw’s stepped 222-unit affordable housing complex manages to achieve both LEED Gold certification and exceed the NYSERDA Multifamily Performance Program and Enterprise Green Communities guidelines for environmental responsibility. Championing sustainable and affordable living strategies, a display in the main lobby shows energy statistics, such as the solar panel outputs in real time, while a 6,000-square-foot ground level courtyard that spirals upwards creates a promenade of social spaces and 34,000 square feet of green roofs that offer active gardening, reduce storm water run-off, and enhance building insulation.
When designing an affordable housing building in a city with sky-high rents, Fougeron Architecture rejected outdated models that would have patronized the elderly low-income residents of Parkview Terrace through a false image of quaintness and sterile, lifeless amenities. Instead, the 101-unit concrete and glass building aims to engage residents with the larger city context, and includes a community room, health club, beauty salon, therapy center, and social services center. The slight undulation of the horizontal windows increases floor space at no extra cost.
Part of the Parisian suburb Saints’ urban renewal plan, Bondy replaced an outdated high-rise housing complex that created an isolating environment in the neighborhood. Guerin & Pedroza’s design was the result of a need to de-densify the area, and reintegrate social housing into the urban fabric. The timber-clad building has a natural feel, and was thought of as a residence divided into three forms to engage residents with neighbors. Each unit has its own terrace, balcony, or garden, while building features, like solar arrays and rainwater collection systems, emphasize sustainability and keep costs low.
Designed for residents employed in Toronto’s restaurant and hospitality industry, 60 Richmond Street aims to be a model for affordable housing that goes beyond simply providing an economical place to live. Not only does the urban infill project use reclaimed materials and energy-saving strategies to keep a low cost of maintenance, but it also features a resident-owned and operated restaurant and training kitchen on the ground floor. Vegetables, fruit, and herbs grown on the sixth floor terrace help residents hone their professional skills and supply the restaurant with food. Not to mention, the dynamic cut-in façade makes a nice contrast to the typical bland aesthetic of condo buildings.
When the city of Paris purchased the former site of a music and dance school to construct 10 affordable housing units, Avenier Cornejo Architectes designed a dark steel perforated façade that gives 13 Rue Legendre a distinct appearance from the neighboring masonry buildings. The metal panels act as full-height shutters that enable the flexible management of sun and light, helping to reduce thermal bridges and maintain low-energy requirements.
With its horizontal orientation and extensive glazing, Kanner Architects’ design for 26th Street Affordable Housing building draws inspiration from Southern California’s famed tradition of modernism. The 44-unit apartment building incorporates dual-glazed and laminated windows along both street-facing sides to eliminate traffic noise. Living spaces are organized in a linear fashion to facilitate cross-ventilation, a passive natural cooling technique that eliminates the need for energy-intensive rooftop air conditioning.
The Ginkgo project explores the possibilities of providing affordable housing for different income groups through a design that aims to integrate the complex with an adjacent park. Designed for low-income families and people over the age of 65, Gingko looks at affordable housing from a design perspective: The glazed façade boasts a print of Ginkgo Biloba tree leaves that react to the changing light of the sky, creating very special effects, reflections, shadows, and silhouettes, depending on the time of day and the season.
Aiming to create a stronger community feel, Fillmore Park’s 32 affordable units—meant for working residents who earn between 70 and 100% of the area’s medium income—congregate around an open central courtyard. With private terraces and extensive landscaping, Fillmore Park feels more like a peaceful village than a housing complex located within the highly dense and busting Fillmore District of San Francisco.