Cheap = Good

Affordable housing -- more necessary now, post-Katrina -- is not just better than it used to be, it can be more stylish than any garden-variety McMansion.

Published October 5, 2005 6:32PM (EDT)

While today's architectural headlines are generally about glittering new museums or soaring condo towers, with limitless budgets and superstar designers, an important trend is blossoming closer to the ground. In part the movement is fed by the growing popularity of design/build programs in architecture schools across the country -- Fayetteville, S.C.; Seattle; Lawrence, Kan. -- inspired by the success of the late Samuel Mockbee's Rural Studio in Alabama. Ten years ago, students graduated from architecture school burning to build computer-generated blobs. These days, the architectural vanguard is just as likely to emerge with a diploma and a desire to build dirt cheap.

This new generation, devoted to the idea that cheap houses can be good houses, will be especially useful in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which randomly flung New Orleans residents to parts of the country they hardly knew existed. As if in Oz, thousands of displaced persons are wondering where they are and if they'll ever go home again. (One man airlifted to Utah asked, "Am I the only person out here with dreadlocks?") Suddenly it seems more than fortuitous that so many up-and-coming architects in this country are newly passionate about low-cost housing.

Affordable housing, of course, is normally a euphemism for low-income housing. Since the 1972 demolition of the infamous Pruitt Igoe houses in St. Louis, the idea of warehousing the poor in massive modernist projects has been decidedly unfashionable. The big projects have been systematically bulldozed and replaced with clusters of non-threatening townhouses. But in recent years some architectural firms -- Pyatok Architects Inc. of Oakland, Calif., for example -- have excelled at designing attractive, thoughtful complexes of apartments and townhouses for the affordable sector. The first annual John M. Clancy Award for Socially Responsible Housing, just given to half a dozen firms by the Boston Society of Architects, is a reflection of that trend and lends new prestige to low-cost, multi-family housing. And developers like Diane Botwin Alpert of Kansas City, Kan., have begun to see adventurous design as a way to "effect change" in blighted neighborhoods. For a 16-acre, low-cost development in Topeka, she has engaged the services of El Dorado, a progressive young firm, that will apply the same vivid palette of materials -- translucent Polygal and corrugated metal -- that it would use for high-end clients.

The housing bubble has pushed the cost of an ordinary home out of the reach not just of the poor but of the middle class. One young architect in Houston, Brett Zamore, renovated an abandoned shotgun house as his grad school thesis project and transformed it into a lovely, efficient, contemporary home. Along the way, he learned a few things about that particular style of building. For instance, he came to realize that the very characteristic that gives the house its name, the fact that a bullet could travel unimpeded from front door to back, also promotes good ventilation, making it better suited to Houston's steamy climate than newer, fancier houses. Zamore went on to build a new home, based on the shotgun, in a marginal Houston neighborhood for about $130,000, and another traditional Southern type, the dog trot, characterized by a central, open-air breezeway.

Zamore's "Shot-Trot" owes a debt to the historic styles that inspired it, but it is also unabashedly modern. He sees it as a viable alternative, a model for what developers could build, if they were able to discard designs -- wee Tudors and faux bungalows smothered in synthetic stucco and vinyl siding -- based on market research and an emphasis on the superficial, that is, curb appeal. As Zamore puts it, "We can't live in this McMansion world anymore. We need new strategies for building and rebuilding." Ideally he'd like to have a kit version of the Shot-Trot -- cheap, transportable and easy to erect -- ready for the reconstruction of New Orleans.

Although the current administration is not known for its embrace of creativity, all the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has to do is copy the Blair administration. In April, British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott launched a competition to design a $108,000 house, one designed for off-site manufacture, to be built as part of a large government initiative to build thousands of low-cost homes. The nine winning designs vary in style from staid to exceptionally bold. One design, by a firm called George Wimpey UK, is as brightly colored and geometrically varied as the packages on the shelf in a supermarket's laundry detergent aisle. The buildings are designed to be built from wooden panels attached to steel frames, constructed offsite and packed flat, like furniture from Ikea. The methods are not so radical; architects experimenting with prefab in this country are doing similar things. The extraordinary thing is that the British government is backing the effort.

While Brett Zamore is a clever guy, one architect can't solve the problems caused by Katrina. In the hurricane's wake, it seems clear that we desperately need affordable housing for both the poor and the middle class. (Zamore's Shot-Trot, while perhaps ideal for many New Orleans neighborhoods, is not the replacement for high-density inner city projects.) It's an opportune moment for HUD or some other government agency to step in and -- in WPA fashion -- harness the talents of the many architects who've dedicated themselves to the production of high-quality, low-cost housing.

By Karrie Jacobs

Karrie Jacobs was founding editor-in-chief of Dwell Magazine, and writes a column for Metropolis. Her book, "The Perfect $100,000 House," will be published by Viking next summer.

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