As design director of BSB Design in Des Moines, Iowa, my focus on small, affordable housing has been a guiding light for me since the mid-90s when I noticed a need becoming more prevalent for affordable housing with the same dignity and comforts expected in larger, market-rate offerings.
Several years ago, my firm conducted a charette that centered around developing real-life scenarios that addressed the issue of affordability, aesthetics, livability, and community—four factors that I feel are imperative no matter the price. We invited local builders and developers, along with city commissioners, and members of the affordable housing and zoning departments for a round table discussion on how to best address the need. These entities need to all work in harmony in order to develop a solution that can be accepted by the locals, NIMBYs, and those we expect to live in the community.
The builders and developers all expressed the same concern: a need for housing that’s at least 1,000 square feet, has four corners, and is priced below $200,000, and city officials agreed that—just like present day—the major hurdle is the ability to rezone and rethink sites on a case-by-case basis. For example, a 6,000-square-foot lot minimum isn’t a good fit for a 600-square-foot footprint. Realistically, four homes could be placed there, resulting in a more efficient pocket neighborhood. Combine several such lots together, and you have a community.
There are a few elements that can make a small home live larger: volume, daylight, colors, and livability. Another important feature is connectivity to the outdoors in any form of expanded outdoor living areas, such as a porch, patio, balcony, or rooftop, or even a nearby walking trail or park.
In 2007, I developed a series of homes called the Shelter Series, which focused on those previously mentioned tenets. Ranging in size from 300 square feet or 1,200 square feet, the homes could be modular, panelized, or built on site, and were economical, open, and livable.
More recently in 2018, we introduced a design competition among BSB’s 11 offices across the nation. The basic guidelines were to design a systems-built home with a minimum size of 160 square feet and a budget of $2,500. Our charge was to design and develop a home that could replace existing shanty housing in South Africa.
The winning team developed a prototype based on the most basic of concepts—four corners, 4-foot increments, a single sloped roof, and a front porch, starting with an 8x20 footprint and at 160 square feet. The model starts with just a base shell, then features a range of add-ons, including bunks, a small kitchen, and a small bath. The functional criteria were met. As for the budget of $2,500? That’s a work in progress.
We are also working with a group in Des Moines on small affordable homes that start at 384 square feet and can expand to twice that size. These will all be ADA approved with the primary residents being low-income veterans including those with disabilities. We are running into the same zoning issues as many other well intended projects: regulating a 6,000-square-foot minimum lot size is counterproductive for a 384 square-foot house; at least eight (or more) homes could comfortably fit within those parameters. The conceptual project is currently seeking city approvals.
The need for small, affordable, and well-designed housing has never been in more demand—not only for low-income housing, but also for backyard ADUs, retreats, and even a second or third home in a desired location. The market for small homes ranges from first-time or low-income buyers, to baby boomers like me, that just want a small home that’s less invasive of time, maintenance, and money to live in.