Imagine you’re in your senior years, in need of assistance but not ready for a nursing home, and you’re feeling isolated, forgotten, and expendable. Tucked away where no one can see you, you might feel like your best days are behind you, but a program within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is trying to prevent such situations from happening through its work with the next generation of affordable housing designers and leaders.

HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) just held its fifth annual HUD Innovation in Affordable Housing student design and planning competition. While the competition is about improving publicly assisted housing, the solutions and lessons learned can apply to any community facing a shortage of affordable housing, an aging population, public health issues, and other challenges. The competition invites interdisciplinary graduate student teams to submit proposals for how they would address an existing affordable housing design and planning issue. While there is a specific challenge posed each year – this year’s focus was on strong community and supportive services – the competition is always based on the goals of affordability and environmental, economic, and social sustainability. These all go hand-in-hand, as renewable energy and energy efficiency make homes more affordable, in both the short and long-term, and improve public health.

Each year, the PD&R competition works with a real public housing agency to generate potential solutions to the agency’s current housing problem. Phase I of the competition requires teams to submit a schematic design level site plan, schematic floor plans, section and building massing, and financial calculations. From a field of 40 teams, four finalists are chosen to move on to Phase II, which includes a site visit. This is a significant step during which students meet with the housing authority in charge of the project and tour the property. After the visit, they further refine their design solutions and incorporate more details, floor plans, and economic and energy analyses. After all this, the student teams come to Washington, DC, to present their final product at HUD headquarters, where a jury selects the first place winner and runner up. The winning team receives $20,000, the runner up receives $10,000, and the remaining finalists receive $5,000 each.

This year, the theme for the competition was strong community and supportive services. The housing partner was Whittier Falls, the affordable housing authority in Dover, New Hampshire. The student teams were challenged to design 154 new dwellings for seniors and persons with disabilities that would be located between two existing projects. Most importantly, they were tasked to consider social needs and connectivity in their proposals. In creating their final product, each team had to ensure their project created opportunities for residents to engage and interact and ensured accessibility for all, through Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance and universal design. Features presented by the teams included community gardens, centrally located amenities, transportation for the disabled, buildings connected through interior passages, heated sidewalks, and visual doorbells and wheelchair access within the apartments.

University of Maryland students presenting their affordable housing project to the jury (Courtesy: HUD)

The final four teams were from the University of Maryland, College Park, the University of Colorado, Denver, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Pratt Institute. All the teams exhibited advanced analytical, design, and creative skills and delivered final proposals that exceeded expectations. After a day of exciting and innovative presentations, the University of Maryland, College Park, emerged victorious and the University of Colorado, Denver, came in second.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the competition is the requirement that all teams be made up of students from various disciplines – at least three disciplines that grant three different degrees, and at least one student needs to be from a non-design-related discipline. This emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary work – there will never be a sustainable future if engineers, architects, policymakers, economists, business people and others do not work together to create it.

Though each team had different approaches, a few ideas were shared across the board. First of all, every one of the teams used modular construction to some degree, meaning that they planned to have their living units put together offsite and delivered ready to be installed on site. Teams chose this because modular construction is a quick and efficient construction method, lessening the displacement of residents. It also allows future residents to choose their preferred unit type before they move in, and lowers construction costs. The team from the University of Texas at Austin decided to use cross-laminated timber (CLT) modular construction for a variety of reasons but primarily for fire protection. As a heavy timber, CLT has natural resilience to fire and has performed well in testing. CLT also sequesters carbon throughout its life cycle. As a bonus, the team was able to find a manufacturing facility less than 300 miles from Whittier Falls, which would make transport easy.

All the teams included renewable energy sources in their proposed buildings and communities. For most, this meant solar panels on the rooftops of the residential buildings. The team from the Pratt Institute, however, used geothermal energy as their primary energy source, leaving it up to the residents to decide if they want to install solar panels through a private partnership option as an additional measure. Renewable energy improves resilience against high utility bills and, if paired with energy storage and designed to disconnect from the grid, could enable critical services to continue during grid power outages. These strategies enable communities to better withstand emergencies and extreme weather events and bounce back more quickly.

In addition to clean energy, the teams used energy efficiency strategies such as passive house design, whole-building insulation, energy recovery ventilation, and high performance windows, all of which help ensure that homes are healthy and comfortable to live in. Finally, the teams all had aspects of ADA-compliant and/or universal design in their buildings. The primary difference between the two is that ADA-compliant design has specific guidelines established in the Americans with Disabilities Act, while universal design is meant to be accessible to all members of the population, regardless of age and ability. Each team implemented these design requirements in various ways. Some of the most impressive aspects were movable kitchen islands and shelves, dual use counters and tables, and audio and visual doorbells.

Overall, HUD’s competition is a great way to engage the next generation in the real world problem of affordable housing. Not only is it showing that we are in very capable hands, but it encourages young people to work together to solve complex problems, problems that many of them will be working on throughout their careers. The recurring affordability and sustainability theme of the competition illustrates the importance of these two topics for all types of housing. The additional theme each year adds to that, placing emphasis on a specific aspect of housing or group of residents. Previous themes were family housing, social needs of residents, senior housing, and homeless veteran housing. By shining a spotlight on each of these topics, HUD PD&R’s competition shows the full potential of affordable housing for low to moderate income households and beyond. It also furthers the PD&R mission to create cohesive, economically healthy communities.


Author: Joanne Zulinski