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99k House Competition Builds New Tradition of Affordable Sustainability
AIA Houston and the Rice Design Alliance Rebuild the Gulf Coast Shotgun House in Contemporary Sustainability’s Image
by Zach Mortice, Associate Editor
The Core house designed by ORA/Hybrid. Image Courtesy of ORA/Hybrid.
MASM (designed by John Smith, AIA, and Stephen Maynard) forms new kinds of urban social spaces around an abstracted shotgun house. Image courtesy of MASM—John Smith and Stephen Maynard.
Sharon Chapman and Justin Drace’s 99K House is built from gabion walls made of concrete construction waste. Image courtesy of Sharon Chapman/Justin Drace.
The 99K House exhibit of green, affordable housing designs pushes notions of sustainable value for money far ahead of the mainstream conversation on who sustainability is marketed and produced for, but perhaps it’s most notable for the way it reaches backwards; reimagining vernacular architecture traditions and turning them into contemporary design strategies. The exhibition (now on display at AIA National headquarters in Washington through March 31) began as a competition hosted by AIA Houston and the community development non-profit the Rice Design Alliance that asked architects to design a sustainable house for less than $100,000 on an abandoned lot in Houston’s Fifth Ward neighborhood east of downtown. Nearly 200 entries from across the globe (66 of which are included in the exhibit) deconstruct and recast the traditional Gulf Coast shotgun house to remind designers of the time-tested, sustainable value of vernacular architecture. The competition entries have taken the raw elements of shotgun houses (narrow and breezy corridors, elevated pier and beam foundations, compact footprints, sun shading gabled roofs) and used them as templates for innovation that’s brought new, affordable housing to a neighborhood that desperately needs it. The winning design, by the Seattle-based team of Owen Richard Architects (ORA) and Hybrid, was recently completed, and its new owner is moving in.
A place for families
The competition and exhibition began in 2007 when incoming Rice Design Alliance president Nonya Grenader, FAIA, wanted a way to build exemplary affordable, sustainable housing in Houston. She enlisted the help of Barrie Scardino, AIA Houston’s executive director, in writing the competition’s program. They obtained the land the project sits on for free, from Houston’s Land Assemblage and Redevelopment Authority (LARA). LARA takes tax-delinquent and abandoned properties and sells them at a reduced rate (or donates them) to developers and non-profits to build affordable housing. Houston has 5,000 such delinquent lots. Per the rules of the competition, the 99K house lot can accommodate a 1,400-square-foot house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The jury for the competition included both David Lake, FAIA, of Lake Flato, and affordable housing expert Michael Pyatok, FAIA.
The Fifth Ward of Houston is an impoverished inner city neighborhood, drained from decades of suburban migration and urban disinvestment that’s sadly typical for large American cities. Yet, it was chosen for this competition because of the underlying, inherent quality of its urban fabric. Despite its current condition, it’s a neighborhood with good bones. It’s filled with well-constructed early 20th century detached shotgun row houses, with neighborly porches and tight-knit backyards, creating a consistent neighborhood design sensibility. The 99K House site is located near public schools and a local park, and the entire neighborhood is not far from the cultural amenities of downtown Houston. The houses here are densely packed (at least in contrast to the sprawling tract housing typical to the city), making it a sustainable place to build. Redeveloping this site, “showed that there is potential to create more density in older inner city neighborhoods without necessarily demolishing what’s there,” says Owen Richards, AIA, whose design won the competition.
“In Houston, we’re not very good at treating our lower [income] neighborhoods very well. We like to keep them out of sight,” says Sharon Chapman, who along with Justin Drace, contributed a house design while they were working at Stern and Bucek Architects in Houston. “But a lot of us believe that these people deserve their dignity, and we want to preserve what’s there. We want to go in and be part of that neighborhood and sustain that neighborhood.”
“This neighborhood in particular has a huge potential to be a great family space,” says Kathryn Fosdick, associate director for programs at the Rice Design Alliance. “Fifth Ward in general has lots of pockets that are just like this.”
The 99K House designs have added rainwater cisterns, green screen trellises and green roofs for urban agriculture, and solar exhaust chimneys to let out hot air to the traditionally sustainable houses’ naturally ventilated corridors and compact massing. They’ve also heavily investigated the role of pre-fabricated and modular construction systems. Fosdick says that the rigorous budget requirements nearly made cost-efficient pre-fabrication a requirement. Some designs use mass-customization approaches to their construction systems. As it’s been explored by Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake , mass customization uses parts and building sections that have been factory-made and largely built off-site. Though they’re standardized building components, these pieces can be fit together in a multitude of ways to suit the needs of the user, putting a personalized level of function onto pre-fab. ORA and Hybrid’s Core house was praised for thinking through and fully developing this level of pre-fabricated sophistication in a way that was both practical and affordable. This competition winning design can be reconfigured to have a different number of bedrooms or living spaces. Houston has few zoning requirements, so owners could even set up a small business in a dedicated office room.
Systems like this that recognize flexibility and income generation potential were rewarded in as aspects of sustainability in the competition. Quite intentionally, the competition organizers didn’t explicitly define sustainability. Instead of black-and-white building performance metrics or rating system achievements, they opted for a holistic social and economic vision of sustainability: sustainability as a lifestyle that allows people to grow and prosper. “That’s the core of what sustainability should be, especially in a low income neighborhood,” says Fosdick.
In response, the 99K Houses tend to rely on simple, passive sustainability features (proper solar orientation, tight building envelopes, etc.) rather than on high-tech on-site energy generation systems, which proved difficult to fit into the houses' five-digit budget. Scardino says that, likewise, requiring entries to meet certain performance guidelines or attain some level of green building rating system certification “would have priced us out of the market.”
In many cases, the modular systems and shotgun house massing seen in the 99K houses were also explored by Rice University’s Zerow House, an entry in the 2009 Solar Decathlon. Budgeted at $140,000 (far below most Solar Decathlon entries), the net-zero energy project offered less living space than most families would want at a price $40,000 dollars above the limit of the 99K House competition. That $40,000 remains as the gap between practical, livable but loosely-defined sustainability and carbon-neutral lifestyle compromises.
Nevertheless, Fosdick says, “People did take sustainability in totally different directions.” Chapman and Drace’s entry (which earned an Honorable Mention) uses construction waste as its primary structural component. Their house uses broken concrete refuse from Houston’s sprawling freeway system’s continual cycles of widening and expansion, and gathers it into gabion wall bricks with wire frames, thus turning unsustainable development patterns into sustainable housing. These are stacked into walls, and the house’s façade is covered in a sprayable concrete that can also be colored.
ORA and Hybrid’s two story Core house features a solar-powered fan that sucks up hot air and pushes it out of the house. Cisterns collect rainwater to flush toilets. Like many of the 99K projects, the building sits up on elevated piers, protecting it from floodwaters and allowing ventilation under the house. Its prefabricated balloon framing system and demountable interior partitions (developed by the pre-fab experts at Hybrid) make a house that can be programmatically reconfigured quickly.
John Smith, AIA, and Steven Maynard’s MASM design expertly abstracts the traditional shotgun house typology into a Modernist architectural expression. The two designers (who both work for WHR in Houston) began by looking at the project’s site. They noticed that the narrow lots of the neighborhood allowed bits of conversation, music, and community life to float easily from lot to lot and yard to yard. They wanted to embrace this kind of porousness and amplify the sense of community connection it fosters. So, Smith and Maynard took the long, rectilinear massing of a shotgun house, split it into two sections, and lifted one long, angled section into a second story cantilever. The ground floor contains living spaces and a kitchen, the upstairs contains bedrooms and balconies. Under the cantilevering volume is a partially covered carport and storage space. This asymmetrical, two-level plan creates new kinds of urban space and porousness, with view corridors through, under, and over each of the two sections. These cool, mechanistic forms are an intriguing counterpoint to the warm, gabled roofs of its neighbors, but the MASM design doesn’t stray too far. “Even though it’s maybe an abstracted version of its surroundings, it really does plug into that neighborhood feel,” Maynard says.
More than materials
Despite (and perhaps because of) their lack of eco-gadgetry, the 99K house designs on display do a fine job of reminding people that sustainability is something greater and deeper than material choices and technology. Especially when tight, affordable budgets are involved, sustainability has to be expressed more purely through design; where and how a project is sited, how much space it consumes, how well its envelope functions, and how it’s used. “A lot of people don’t know what they don’t have,” says Drace. “A lot of people think green is a type of material. If it’s not designed in such a way that it’s going to be sustainable and use less energy, no matter what you put into it, it’s really not going to be [sustainable].”
This kind of sustainability, unfortunately, is often the kind the consumer public is least familiar with--until they move into such a house and see it for themselves. Especially in terms of sustainability and affordability, a design competition can celebrate design, but it takes a finished building to make the public understand why design matters.
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