Illustrations by Jason Schneider

There’s no shortage of architects and developers who believe well-designed affordable housing can help solve social issues, but creating attractive low-income housing takes a lot of patience and hard work.

The reasons for this are many. Affordable housing is a subset of architecture with a complex development process and multiple clients—residents, developers, managers, and government agencies, among others. For over eight years, the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute (AHDLI) has worked to help stakeholders in this diverse realm come together to understand the challenges and create aesthetically pleasing projects.

A program of Boston-based Enterprise Community Partners, AHDLI connects developers and architects to improve the design, sustainability, and resiliency of affordable housing. Since its founding by Katie Swenson, vice president of design and sustainability at Enterprise Community Partners; Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, of Brooks + Scarpa; and Maurice Cox, FAIA, director of the City of Detroit Planning and Development Department, the institute has partnered with more than 70 nonprofit and community groups across the U.S.

“For many years, there wasn’t a spotlight on the design quality of affordable housing, and we are suffering some of those consequences,” Swenson says.

She recalls some sage advice she once received from New York developer Jonathan Rose: He or she who controls the pro forma is the ultimate designer of the project. “It’s hard for architects to hear,” she says, “but we want the people who are making the decisions to be the people who are fighting for good design.”

Leading by Design

AHDLI seeks to instill every stage of the affordable housing development process with an emphasis on design. “We call it the Design Leadership Institute because we want developers to become design leaders,” Swenson explains.

The designers involved with the institute include more than just traditional architects—they are landscape architects, resiliency experts, sustainability pros, and others. AHDLI runs yearly conferences and two-and-a-half day charrettes and workshops where leaders can share ideas and learn how to provide the best solutions for their communities.

“We don’t want them to tell us about 96 units on the corner of 7th and Main, but rather, what’s your aspiration for this project?” Swenson says. “Just asking that question changes the discussion.”

Designers share examples of their completed work in 10- to 12-minute sessions, which spark conversation, education, and camaraderie. “We’re trying to inculcate an attitude, a willingness, and an openness to work collaboratively to achieve the best design outcome,” Swenson says.

CAMBA Housing Ventures executive vice president David Rowe had never worked with a landscape architect until he got involved with the institute. He recently won an award for the CAMBA Gardens project in Brooklyn, N.Y., which was influenced by his time at the AHDLI. A charrette with design professionals helped Rowe recognize the need for a greater indoor–outdoor relationship.

“My background is not in architecture and design,” Rowe explains. “Learning how to work with an architect was a big takeaway.”

Rowe admits he’s had “many ‘aha’ moments” via the institute that have led him to make design part of his daily work, and it has helped him establish a network of colleagues. “It’s its own hive,” he says.

Looking Ahead

AHDLI’s next steps involve creating a rigorous design curriculum that can provide “design for developers” and “development for designers.” The online training will be available by the end of 2018, and the institute is also working on a one-day workshop model.

“Everybody within the ecosystem of delivering affordable housing needs to be on board to get to good outcomes,” Swenson says, which means bringing developers and designers together for honest—sometimes difficult—discussions. “We want to show what’s possible, to incentivize people to do their best, and to give them the tools so that they know they can get there.”

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