The Nimble City: Strategies for 21st Century Housing

by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

In his book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, author Stewart Brand examines architecture over time. “Almost no buildings adapt well,” Brand writes. “They’re not designed to adapt; also budgeted and financed not to, constructed not to, administered not to, regulated and taxed not to, even remodeled not to.” And yet buildings adapt anyway. The 19th century sailcloth factory becomes a bottling plant and then an artist’s live-work space and then a mixed-use development with apartments and retail. Walls come down and the floorplan of the rowhouse is modified to accommodate 21st century open living. Culture evolves, real estate values fluctuate, needs change, and this change is writ large on our built environment. “Function reforms form, perpetually,” Brand writes.

A complex combination of market force, financial savvy, design creativity, and community determination and planning drives the restoration and modification of buildings. Reinventing a structure’s function or bringing it back to life is not an easy prospect (making symposia, like this one, valuable.)

Our homes are perhaps the most constant adapters, prey as they are to the intimate and evolving desires of domestic life. Humans are a peripatetic bunch, constantly shifting both aesthetic desires and physical addresses. So what does it take to keep a city nimble and alive? How do we restore and adapt? Here we take a quick look at some of the trends influencing urban home redevelopment and a few of the programs, policies, and people developing inspired visions of city living.

The Responsible Rental

A recent Galllup Poll revealed that only 62 percent of Americans own homes, down 11 percentage points from 2007. Renting is on the rise in our post-boom economy and so is the need for a mix of market rate and affordable rental options. One of the best examples of smart urban redevelopment exists right here in Baltimore. Seawall Development is a socially-minded company with a unique business plan: renovate abandoned historic structures in transitional neighborhoods to foster additional investment. Historic and New Market tax credits help finance the restoration and each project includes non-profit office space, apartments, and a café. The apartments lease to city teachers at a significant discount. “The goal,” says Jon Constable of Seawall, “is to create a supportive living environment that keeps teachers in the city.” The Seawall model has now been exported to other cities with a project underway in Philadelphia and plans to move into additional cities in the near future.

The Hybrid Design Approach

Design technology is turning formerly intractable urban challenges into redevelopment possibilities. Using a mix of prefab, off-site modular construction with on-site customization, for example, helps renovate troublesome structures and repurpose vacant lots.

In Paris, architects tackled the mid-century public housing highrise to prove that even the most maligned of building types could be rehabbed. The Bois-le-Prêtre housing tower includes a prefabricated, modular exterior shell with glass balconies affixed to the existing exterior while interior apartments were expanded and connected to the new facade. The redesign gave residents what they asked for—a reprieve from the cloistered, dark apartment interior—while saving an existing resource from demolition.

In Philadelphia, the company Postgreen has developed a business model combining hybrid design and construction to create affordable, green homes on awkward infill sites, including some as narrow as 13 feet. The most notable project to date is the 100K House built to LEED Platinum for just $100 per square foot. By bringing contemporary and sustainable design to vacant urban land, the company not only repurposes the property, it also helps repopulate the city.

The New Sustainability

LEED Platinum is no small feat, but the next wave of sustainability in urban homes is beyond LEED. Postgreen is one of several design firms to employ Passive House standards, Germany’s high efficiency building method that constructs virtually airtight buildings heated via passive solar gain. The Living Building Standard goes even further, asking buildings to achieve net-zero energy. Living Buildings not only measure success on energy savings and environmental stewardship, but also on the effect the building has on inhabitants and the surrounding community. The standard recognizes that individual buildings are but a taproot to a much bigger ecosystem, both literal and cultural. Cities, like Seattle, now have tax incentives that reward buildings meeting this standard.

A Home for Life

Sustainability isn’t just about energy. It’s also about the longevity of the building’s function and its ability to support occupants over a lifetime. By 2030, it is estimated that 25 percent of the developed world’s population will be over 65. According to AARP, aging Baby Boomers want to live independently as long as possible and a 2012 AIA Housing survey showed home accessibility renovations on the rise. This isn’t unique to the US: a report by the British government concluded that, 鍍he aging of the population will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century for housing.・One burgeoning solution is urban co-housing, where occupants have easy access to city resources and communal support. With co-housing, occupants live in modest-size homes or apartments and share common resources, like kitchens and laundry facilities. In the city of St. Gallen, Switzerland, for example, a former 19th century embroidery factory was rehabbed to include 17 private apartments with communal spaces for occupants over 50.

Developing Downtown

It may be surprising to learn that the fastest growing residential area in Baltimore is the central business district of downtown. The last decade has seen downtowns from Baltimore to Los Angeles redefine themselves through office-to-residential conversions. The key lies in developing multiple resources at once. Housing alone cannot reform downtown and single use zoning must be supplanted by mixed-use opportunities. In Roanoke, Virginia, a town in the Shenandoah Valley with 97,000 residents, developer Ed Walker reinvigorated a historic downtown by simultaneously rehabbing existing resources into homes, cafes, and music venues. The Kirk Avenue Music Hall, which Walker opened four years ago, entices musicians to come to town with a free night in a nearby loft apartment. “We don’t have money, we don’t have fame, so hospitality is really critical,” Walker told The New York Times. In less than a decade, Walker has renovated more than twelve historic buildings into homes, stores, and restaurants, spurring Roanoke’s downtown population to grow from 10 to 1,200.

Programmatic Adaptation

One of the biggest challenges to any redevelopment program can be shelf life. Funding lapses, founders retire or wear out, energy wanes. Project Row Houses (PRH) is an example of a creative redevelopment solution that has evolved and grown over time. PRH is a neighborhood-based nonprofit arts and cultural organization in Houston’s Northern Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African-American communities. It began in 1993 when artist and community activist Rick Lowe salvaged twenty-two shotgun-style houses over a block. Today, PRH has redeveloped 40 properties including twelve artist exhibition and/or residency spaces, seven houses for young mothers, artist residencies, office spaces, a community gallery, a park, low-income residential and commercial spaces. In 2003, PRH created a separate Row House Community Development Corporation to address housing. They engaged local talent through a partnership with the Rice Building Workshop, the design/build program at Rice Architecture School, to bring the best design thinking to redeveloping new types of urban housing for low and middle income residents.

Create Trust

In 1989, community leaders and businessmen joined forces to save Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a 50 block area east of downtown, by creating a trust to attract private equity through low income tax credits and public finance. The Los Angeles Skid Row Trust has since salvaged hundreds of housing units that would have been otherwise lost, creating affordable, safe housing for the formerly homeless. The Trust has also championed innovative new architecture for low-income renters from top talent, including Michael Maltzan’s New Carver Apartments.

Participatory Design

Oftentimes, the most lasting change comes when a program mobilizes citizen energy and interest, making it easier for residents to participate in the betterment of their community. In Flint, Michigan, the State Legislature streamlined the city’s convoluted tax foreclosure process, which had contributed to urban decline by keeping properties off of the tax roll and out of circulation for up to seven years, and the resulting Genesee County Land Bank makes lots available for adoption, lease, and lease-to-own. The Land Bank also renovates between 25 and 50 houses per year to stabilize neighborhoods.

In Detroit, where a shrinking population has left the city with a glut of abandoned lots, creative residents have worked to purchase adjacent lots for private use. A study by the Brooklyn-based design firm Interboro Partners revealed that this phenomenon has changed the landscape of some outlying city neighborhoods from a formerly dense urban grid into a more suburban model. Their project 哲ew Suburbanism・suggested that this shift in land use shouldn’t be maligned but embraced as one possibility to the shrinking city, challenging us to be ever-present and open to the myriad of possibilities for the future of city living.

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a journalist, author, and editor whose articles, essays, and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in publications and Web sites including The New York Times Magazine,SlateNext American City, The Baltimore Sun, UrbaniteGristDesign Observer, The Atlantic Cities,Johns Hopkins MagazineBaltimoreConde Nast Traveler, and Style, among others. She is a contributing editor at Architect  and Architectural Lighting magazines and she is the Design Editor for Baltimore’s Style magazine. Dickinson teaches graduate level writing at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). 

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