Do More with Less Space

8 min read

Museum exhibit encourages fresh thinking  

Our vision of the American household is inaccurate and out dated.

Thus proclaims a display panel near the beginning of “Making Room: Housing for a Changing America,” an exhibition running through September 16 at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. At the bottom of the text block, large boldface type concludes: The bottom line – Our current housing stock isn’t nearly as diverse as we are.

The museum, one of the nation’s capital’s great underappreciated treasures, maintains a larger, ongoing exhibit entitled, “House & Home.” It shows through a diverse array of artifacts, scale models, photographs and films, how we live as Americans and what we have always aspired to in our dwelling places. “Making Room” could easily have been called, “How We Really Live – And What We Need to Do About It.”

Despite its understandable oversimplification for a general audience, I wouldn’t object if attendance were mandatory for anyone associated with affordable housing policy, from the political, government and regulatory sides, through the financial realm, and up through those who find the land, make the deals and build or rehab the buildings.

The first part of the exhibit disabuses us of our commonly held ideas about our housing demographics, which, in many cases, are throwbacks to the 1950s and early ‘60s. The hard facts:

  • 22 percent of Americans will be over 65 in 2050.
  • 32 percent of young adults live at home.
  • 48 percent of adults are single.
  • 27 percent of children live with a single parent.
  • The American middle class shrunk by 11 percent between 1971 and 2015, from 61 percent to 50 percent.

“Today,” we are told, “nuclear families account for 20 percent of America’s households, while nearly 30 percent are single adults living alone, a growing phenomenon across all ages and incomes. Supply, however, has been slow to meet the demands of this burgeoning market – or to respond to the needs of our increasingly varied mix of living arrangements: from roommates to single-parent, extended, and fluid families. Innovation has been constrained, often by deeply-rooted zoning regulations.”

Zoning is but one of the obstacles. Graphics and charts outline restrictions in many jurisdictions against accessory dwelling units (ADUs), numbers of parking spaces, maximum density requirements, minimum unit sizes and occupancy limitations, such as the number of total adults allowed or that all residents in a given unit must be related.

Then there is the reality all of us in the affordable housing industry deal with daily: In a panel headlined, “The Rent Is Too Damn High!” we are told that the average American household must earn at least $21.21 an hour, or roughly $44,000 annually, to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment without spending more than 30 percent of income on housing. In high housing cost cities, like Washington, DC, the wage requirement rises to as much as $33.58 per hour: $70,000 annually. This is followed by a panel explaining how the government

supports housing supply and demand through tax breaks, tax credits, low-interest loans, vouchers and direct subsidies, adding, “Supportive housing uses affordable housing as a platform to provide additional specialized services to individuals and families recovering after a period of homelessness, hospitalization or incarceration.”

Among the demonstrated solutions “providing a wider menu of housing designs and layouts,” are homes with less square footage, homes that can be shared to allow people to group their incomes together, and homes that can be divided into secondary or accessory units, providing more housing and/or additional income for the owner. The overall message: “Do more with less space.” Among the case studies presented are micro living units in New York City of 260 to 360 square feet. Residents may share kitchen, dining and social space. In downtown Seattle, such micro-units are renting for between $600 and $1,000 per month.

To counter what may seem at first a dry, statistical approach, “Making Room” presents profiles of actual individuals affected by today’s housing crunch. In brief but telling quotes, they explain their situations, aspirations and challenges in finding housing that meets their needs.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the life-size interior of a 1,000-square-foot home, “The Open House,” that visitors can walk through and experience. Designed by Italian architect Pierluigi Colombo, The Open House features a highly efficient layout, smart technologies, movable walls and multifunctional furniture. It is designed to be easily adaptable to a variety of living needs and during the course of the exhibition, it will be configured in three distinct ways.

The first configuration, from the opening last November through February 2018, was entitled “The Roommates” and was arranged for a couple and two single adults, maximizing private space. When the moveable walls are fully closed, each roommate has complete privacy. The walls can be fully retracted with the touch of a button to create a larger room for socializing. The couple shares one bathroom while the single roommates share the other, and they all use the communal kitchen.

To meet the needs of a multi-generational household, the interior is currently configured for “The Extended Family.” In this mode, a grandmother lives with her adult daughter and grandson. The moveable walls are open during the day, but in the evening, they can be shut to provide a bedroom for the boy and still allow the grownups to move freely throughout the rest of the space after he goes to bed.

The final configuration will be “The Empty Nesters,” in which The Open House seamlessly becomes two independent homes. An older couple that wants to age-in-place can still downsize by converting the largest bedroom into a self-contained studio apartment. This can be rented out for additional income, used by a live-in caregiver or by adult children who live with them or come to visit. Each unit has its own entrance, full bath and kitchen area. The older couple’s bathroom can accommodate a walker or wheelchair.

Consistent throughout all of the configurations are a modern kitchen, two full baths, three living areas with transformative furniture allowing each space to double as a bedroom, a walk-in closet, laundry room and an integrated smart home network. The Open House meets the District of Columbia’s residential building code and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As the galleries before The Open House essentially presented the challenges, a multitude of real-life housing solutions are presented in the halls after the house. Some have been written about recently in these pages, including DC’s John and Jill Kerr Conway Residence for veterans, an architecturally inventive, private-public partnership offering multiple services; and Kasita, a developer in Texas that is building 600-to-1,000 square-foot homes on leased land with long-term financing.

Las Abuelitas (colloquial for grandmothers) Family Housing in Tucson, AZ, is a community conceived by, and designed for, “kinship families” by Poster Frost Mirto architects. It provides innovative affordable housing for grandparents raising grandchildren through foster care or adoption and accommodates both childcare and aging-in-place services. Oslo Shaw in DC, designed by architect Chuong Cao and developed by Ditto Residential, is the city’s first modern, purpose-built apartment building to embrace contemporary group living.

Alley flats, shared housing, accessory dwelling units and online notices for roommates offer additional solutions to the affordable housing squeeze.

In one section labelled “The Constructing Change Game,” visitors are invited to “play developer” and plan new types of housing for a rezoned urban block. The aim is to stay within the designated footprint while addressing the unique needs of different types of residents. Specified requirements include an elderly couple that wants to add an ADU; a building that must accommodate an extended family of 12, including a live-in health aide; ten single adults who want to be able to share a building, each with a private bedroom; another building that must meet the needs of four single-parent families; and a house in which one nuclear family lives. And there has to be a park. Visitors definitely get a sense of what affordable urban housing developers face.

A closing commentary informs us that “Making Room” is already inspiring a new generation of architects, designers and developers. “Collectively, these projects —and their design solutions—offer a glimpse into the future of housing: one where more housing options of all types meet the ever-shifting needs of our households.”

As Tax Credit Advisor Editor Marty Bell recently showed a professional audience of care coordinators as part of a Stony Brook University Aging in Place class, California instituted a law in 2016 facilitating “granny houses”: self-contained accessory apartments or ADUs, either attached or detached, and usually on the grounds of a single-family home. They can be significant upgrades from single-room occupancy (SRO) dwellings. Among other provisions, the California law addresses zoning and the ability to rent for income. In the law’s first year, the ADU stock in Los Angeles went from 124 to more than 2,000.

This is but one example of perhaps the exhibition’s greatest contribution: to expand our thinking on the diversity of the current American populace and the multiplicity of possible solutions to house them efficiently, economically and well.

“Making Room” is organized by the National Building Museum and the Citizens Housing & Planning Council in partnership with Resource Furniture and Clei Designs.

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