2018 Collaborative Achievement Award Recipient

The Collaborative Achievement Award recognizes the excellence that results when architects work with those from outside the profession to improve the spaces where people live and work.

For nearly a decade, the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute has been a quiet but powerful force shaping social impact design. Modeled on the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, it assembles development and design leaders to focus on the ways in which architecture can produce more livable and sustainable housing for low- and middle-income people across the United States. During its short life, the institute has had a profound effect on the affordable-housing ecosystem and has cultivated partnerships with more than 70 nonprofit and community groups in several communities.

“It is one of the most important programs that help define and influence public policy and social frameworks on the design of buildings and communities surrounding affordable housing,” wrote Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, in a letter nominating the institute for the AIA Collaborative Achievement Award. “Most importantly, it has galvanized a national relationship between architectural leaders and community design advocates, implementing social change in community-based design and development.”

Whether it’s improving four-unit historic buildings that serve a primarily refugee neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, or single-family homes for 300 Native American families in Arizona, the AHDLI process begins with a two-and-a-half-day charrette bolstered by a rigorous design curriculum. In that short time, the institute can radically alter the trajectory of development projects while equipping a new class of leaders with the tools to champion design excellence. Surveys have shown that as a result of AHDLI participation the vast majority of participants work more effectively with designers, address design much earlier in the development process, and ask more of their architect.

“Architecture is naturally collaborative, but the form of collaboration experienced at the institute was truly inspiring,” Timothy McDonald, principal of Philadelphia’s Onion Flats, said of his experience. “It reminded me of the value of pausing long enough to let others’ thoughts and ideas actually impact a project, so I will be pausing more often.”

Through AHDLI’s efforts, what begin as thoughtful changes on paper become site-specific buildings with a deep impact on residents’ quality of life. In 2012, Sharon Lee, executive director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, brought early plans for the city’s Marion West project to AHDLI. Recognizing several key missed opportunities—notably the failure to take advantage of a nearby historic Carnegie Library and a bustling street scene—the institute suggested new but achievable plans to further benefit the young, homeless residents for whom the project was developed.

“We love it when we’re moving homeless people out of tents into the Marion West,” Lee said. “They just cry because it’s so beautiful.”

AHDLI is the embodiment of what can happen when architects are fully engaged with leaders from outside the profession. Participants often become instant advocates, and the resulting innovative collaborations directly benefit people and communities in need.

“The Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute has played a critical role in developing the existing leadership body of the affordable housing industry,” wrote Trinity Simons, executive director of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, in a letter supporting the AHDLI’s nomination. “The public realm is greatly in need of design leaders, and AHDLI is one of the few programs that I see reliably delivering the skills and leadership needed.”


Rik Master, FAIA (Chair), USG Corporation, Woodstock, Illinois

Patrick Burke, FAIA, Columbia University, New York City

Lindsey Graff, Assoc. AIA, Ayers Saint Gross Architects, Scottsdale, Arizona

Libby Haslam, AIA, GSBS Architects, Salt Lake City

R. Steven Lewis, FAIA, TRC Energy Services, Detroit

Image credits

Marion West Ground Floor

Michael Walmsley

Marion West Roof Garden

Michael Walmsley

AHDLI Design Team Member

Enterprise Community Partners