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Op-ed: Lead with a mission-first design process to provide affordable housing

MASS Affordable Housing

Op-ed: Lead with a mission-first design process to provide affordable housing

Rendering of the J.J. Carroll redevelopment. (Courtesy MASS Design Group)

One of the words most often associated with affordable housing is “crisis.” Not only is there a crisis-level shortfall of affordable housing stock in America, but the typical path to affordable housing development is also hampered by rigid permitting processes, regulatory constraints, and rising costs for land, labor, and materials. Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies annual report reveals that 31.5 percent of all households are paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and more than 16 percent are paying more than half their income. For these cost-burdened households, the tradeoff means cutting back on spending for food, healthcare, and retirement savings. Not surprisingly, those most affected are members of lowest-income households, which are disproportionately made up of some of our most vulnerable populations: children, those with disabilities, people of color, and seniors. 

To meet the demand, developers often focus on how they can disrupt the financial systems that make building affordable housing such a cumbersome and cost-prohibitive process. While these are useful measures, financial solutions that aren’t forged in conversation with design solutions run the risk of defining success solely in terms of getting projects funded and completed. 

Design holds incredible potential to transform affordable housing development and achieve the ultimate goal for all stakeholders: creating beautiful, dignifying affordable homes that meet residents’ unique needs as well as each project’s stated goals. Design excellence comes from collectively determining a cohesive project mission with input from all stakeholders. While the search for more units will always be a priority in an urban environment, it is important to prioritize the residents’ experience and their place in the new community.

The best results for all stakeholders occur when a project is conceived and built with purpose. From the outset, each project is grounded in a clear mission that informs and influences every step of the process. A purpose built approach begins with immersion, a deep engagement with all partners and project stakeholders that allows us to collectively identify the specific mission of a project and its intended outcomes, and ends with impact. The process redefines the designer’s role, who is never an outside authority that arrives with one-size-fits-all answers, but a partner who first listens to clients’ and future residents’ needs and goals and then brings their expertise to bear on advancing the project’s mission. 

The J.J. Carroll Apartments redevelopment project in Brighton, Massachusetts, designed in partnership with 2Life Communities, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing and managing safe, affordable, and dignified housing for older adults, is one such project. The current J.J. Carroll buildings, built in 1966, are a series of two-story brick townhouses right next door to 2Life’s Brighton campus buildings, with 64 units for an aging and disabled community. The development is now past its useful life and lacks the accessible design features required by residents with various physical abilities and ages.  

When MASS began work with 2Life, designers hosted a workshop series with current J.J. Carroll residents to learn how they operate, what they most want in the new development, and how the design could best support 2Life’s goal to offer older adults the chance to thrive in a dynamic, supportive environment. 

A MASS Design Group-designed affordable housing complex
Rendering of the J.J. Carroll redevelopment. (Courtesy MASS Design Group)

At the top of everyone’s list was community. Loneliness and social isolation are two of the top health hazards for aging adults, associated with a variety of poor mental and physical health outcomes and a higher risk of mortality overall. 2Life worked diligently to create connection and community among residents, and residents highlighted their love of the micro-communities they’ve found there within the macro community. The old J.J. Carroll apartments, challenging for residents to access and disconnected from the programs and services offered on the 2Life Campus next door, were designed as townhouses, with only a few residents sharing common entrances and stairwells. Residents voiced that they appreciate this shared experience for interaction and connection, as well as the smaller scale of community that this shared space created.

Building on this feedback, the design team came up with an approach to maintain this type of intimate connection and community while increasing the capacity to more than double the units on site. To create smaller scales of community within a larger, fully connected and accessible building, the team created a series of “neighborhoods” made up of apartment clusters between 5-8 units each, and connected them to a grand, singular corridor programmed with shared community spaces. This form created a diversity of spaces between the connection points and provides access to green space, views, and natural light. Along the corridor, the team focused on the specific needs of older adults, creating opportunities for rest, shared living rooms and fitness areas, and highlighting the specific identity of each neighborhood to assist with wayfinding. The courtyards between the clusters are also programmed for different scales and desired levels of social interaction, from meditation gardens, to game courts, to a 15,000-square-foot public intergenerational playground. 

“We never would have arrived at this design without the early, mission-based work done up front,” said  Lizbeth Heyer, 2Life’s Chief of Real Estate and Innovation. “In the past, builders have asked how many rooms we need and designed based on housing needs, not community needs. By looking at what makes the community special, and how the building operates, (the designers) translated those needs into operational and helpful design.”

The needs assessment led to a design that not only responded to 2Life’s mission and the project’s goals, but helped accelerate the timeline for getting through the permitting and approvals process with the city of Boston. 

Also beneficial was the commitment project partners made to create and articulate a mission-driven design that was measured against desired outcomes. When the team presented to the Boston Civic Design Commission, they demonstrated the mission of the project as well as the design solution. This way of working to link design decisions to a clear and legible mission statement helps reviewers and partners engage more fully in the design process, reduces vague and often subjective feedback or criticism (those familiar “it’s too brick-y” or “make it more ‘contextual’” statements), and allows for efficient, productive dialog between all stakeholders. Now, at J.J. Carroll, 150 low-income seniors who would have been displaced from another building will be well cared for in beautiful, stable housing designed with their best health and social outcomes in mind. 

Developments like J.J. Carroll point to a new path forward for how organizations can implement a mission-first design process, and how the wider design community can begin a necessary and fundamental shift in how we do affordable housing work in America. Instead of trying to solve the affordable housing crisis solely by building as many units as possible on a given parcel of land, we can shift our focus to designing for more equitable and healthy communities, more just outcomes, and even the grand, shared vision of providing safe, stable, and affordable homes for everyone who needs one.

This case study was authored by MASS Design Group’s Katie Swenson, senior principal; Patricia Gruits, senior principal & managing director; and Jonathan Evans, senior architect. For more on MASS, visit massdesigngroup.org.