Saturday, June 21, 2008

June AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Courtyard Housing Competition winning entry
by Keith Rivera and Kristin Anderson

The housing affordability crisis is clearly a topic that strikes a chord with the AIA-SWO membership. Not unlike our April chapter meeting that featured presentations by three local advocates for low-income and affordable housing, we once again had an outstanding turnout of members and guests to hear an excellent presentation by two of our chapter’s own on the subject of residential infill strategies: Michael Fifield, AIA, AICP, professor of architecture, University of Oregon; and Mark Gillem, Ph.D., AIA, AICP, assistant professor of architecture and landscape architecture, University of Oregon.

As developable land becomes scarce and demographics change, meaningful strategies for providing affordable and appropriate housing for all become increasingly critical. The challenge is to identify appropriate infill strategies for Eugene/Springfield so that new housing may be constructed to meet the demands fueled by population growth and the diversification of our populace, while simultaneously minimizing urban sprawl. This challenge is made more difficult by the pronounced disparity in our community between the median household income and the cost of a typical home. The inequity is further exacerbated by the continuing trend toward larger and larger houses: the average size of a single-family dwelling in the U.S. in 1950 was a modest 983 square feet; the average size of a single-family residence in our metro area in 2006 was 2,867 square feet, or triple the size of the typical home half a century earlier! Paradoxically, the super-sizing of our homes is occurring at a time when the traditional nuclear family is shrinking and is no longer the predominant household demographic. The reality is that homes occupied by singles, couples with no children, families with grown children or aging parents living with them, and persons unrelated by blood or marriage are increasingly common domestic profiles, and yet much of the housing industry continues to build as if this is not the case.

Michael and Mark discussed the issues associated with infill development by looking at three recent case studies:

Common to all of the case studies is the recognition that design excellence can mitigate community opposition to the introduction of infill housing.

The mid-block alley is a ubiquitous and underutilized aspect of Eugene’s urban morphology. Alleys provide access and connections to utilities convenient to the introduction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU). Imaginatively designed ADUs as small as 300 square feet or less can easily meet the needs of individuals or even couples seeking to own a home that is distinctly their own while assuming a relatively small footprint.

The 2004 Portland competition resulted in the creation of two permit-ready, Council-approved plans called “Living Smart Houses.” In an effort to encourage the use of these plans, Portland’s Bureau of Development Services (BDS) discounted associated plans review and inspection fees by 50%. The two styles of Living Smart Houses are the “Higgins” and the “Vargas,” named after their designers, Bryan Higgins and Trent & Roxana Vargas Greenan, respectively. So far, ten of the Higgins and Vargas houses have been constructed in Portland.

Vargas "Living Smart" narrow lot houses.

The Portland Courtyard Housing competition was significant because Michael and Mark sought from the outset to ensure that tangible lessons would be learned. Accordingly, the competition jury distilled the best conceptual ideas to a set of principles that can easily be applied to future courtyard housing projects for a variety of different sites and conditions. These design principles were expressed as goals for the design of courtyard housing:

1. Create versatile courtyards

2. Build functional homes

3. Use sustainable solutions

4. Make interior/exterior connections

5. Respond to the context

Refer to my May 7, 2008, post for even more information about this competition.

Michael and Mark pointed out that the success of residential infill strategies is not assured by our skill as architects alone. Cities will need to amend development codes to remove roadblocks to infill development. Onerous systems development charges and other fees should be reduced to reflect the smaller impact upon public infrastructure afforded by ADUs, narrow houses, and courtyard housing when compared to the current paradigm. And the affordability factor, influencing how and where people choose to live, will need to be addressed such that the scales are tipped in favor of building smarter and more compactly.

Former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber once said, "Oregonians really dislike two things: they dislike sprawl; and they dislike density.'' This witty aphorism will seem less and less apt as our metro areas increasingly embrace density. The ADU alley report and the Portland competitions are demonstrating how this density can be achieved in ways that will have broad appeal.

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This month's winner of our chapter meeting raffle prize, which is a $50.00 gift certificate courtesy of Down to Earth Home Garden & Gifts store, was Marston Morgan, AIA, of Architectural Associates. Remember, your first raffle ticket is free with your paid dinner and additional tickets are only $2 each. However, you can’t win if you don’t attend, so join us at our next meeting!

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