When Interface Studio Architects (ISA) launched in 2005, its founders couldn't have known that after only a few years of operation, the housing market would plummet and the Great Recession would begin.
"Just as we really got started, the market crashed," says Brian Phillips, ISA principal. To survive, the firm had to sharpen its focus on the bottom line in addition to making great architecture.
"I think the result was a sensibility toward developing highly sensitive projects with energy efficiency and great design and all the fun stuff architects like to think about, but at the same time keeping within the very tight cost parameters that developers need to achieve," he says.
With those conditions helping to guide their design approach, ISA focused largely on infill and small multifamily projects to serve buyers looking for more moderately priced urban housing options. The firm works primarily in its native Philadelphia, but also has projects in other major cities such as Boston, Chicago, and Miami.
Flexhouse 2, a development of 31 modern row homes in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, is one embodiment of ISA's principles. The project, which provides practical and comfortable density in a desirable area and at an attainable price point, also reflects what builder and developer Ranquist Development Group has been working toward for the past several years, says sales and marketing director Karen Ranquist.
"It's kind of a natural growth from the projects that we've been doing and the neighborhoods that we've lived in and worked in for many years," she says. "You're getting a three-level row home with a 50-foot yard, a two-car garage, and a lot of amenities within this pre-made community."
ISA looked for innovative ways to do more with less and to turn pragmatic concerns into design opportunities, a skillset the firm honed during the downturn. Phillips cites the houses' slab-on-grade polished concrete floors as a prime example: The decision not only saved money during construction by reducing material costs, but it also provided a modern touch and allowed the team to easily install radiant heating, which residents love. "That's the kind of situation where by doing less stuff and spending less money, the impact of a space almost feels richer," he says.
The contemporary aesthetic carries throughout the interior, with an open plan designed for the flexible living concept that gives the project its name. The main floor features 10-foot ceilings and an open riser staircase—another affordable design element that provides a high-end feel, Phillips says.
Touches like the high ceilings, large back windows, and the luxurious master bathroom are a definite draw to the property, Ranquist adds. "It's a really great floor plan, and the way it's finished is so timeless."
On the exterior, the project team made it a priority to maintain architectural integrity and respond to the vibrant Logan Square neighborhood. To accomplish that, ISA used four different geometric façades for subtle variety, Phillips says.
"It creates visual interest as you're walking down the street without having every house be a different color or different materials, which can sometimes ... be too much and become overwhelming," he explains.
The strategy also saved money by keeping the units' materials and layouts the same—yet another example of ISA's value-driven design philosophy that has survived long past the recession.