Tiny Townhomes: Affordability by Design

Marty Sandberg, AIA; Terry Howell, AIA; Lon Stousland

A modular, efficient townhome design in Chicago is being adapted from its roots as a youth homelessness solution into market-rate housing alternatives for overlooked citizens.

"This is a Home for Living In" was selected as the winning design in AIA Chicago's 2016 "Tiny Homes Competition," which sought to build on the surging popularity of "tiny homes" as a possible response to the growing problem of youth homelessness in the city of Chicago. The prompt called for a cluster of small dwelling units in the near-south neighborhood of Bronzeville, providing long-term residences for high school and college students whose unstable living situation made it difficult to complete their studies.

Chicago has an abundance of vacant lots near mass transit stations, including a large collection of City-owned parcels. These offer a unique opportunity to provide a low-cost, affordable housing option that can be replicated throughout the city and beyond. By utilizing lightweight wood framing, traditional construction methods, and a dense, one-story structure, it is possible to greatly reduce the overall cost compared to multi-story subsidized housing developments. Occupying a now-vacant lot, the project is a new take on Chicago's traditional courtyard building. Residents pass through a secured gate and reach their private entry doors by traversing a wide courtyard with deep, covered breezeways that connect neighbors at a more intimate scale.

Within the unit, generous ceilings draw light deep into each home, and operable windows facilitate natural ventilation. The additional height also creates a small storage loft above the bathroom, accessible via built-in modular storage units that double as an improvised staircase. The bedroom is screened from the living space by a custom, semi-transparent shelving unit with a folding panel that provides a small table and prep surface.

Durability and functionality are prioritized while the high degree of flexibility allows each resident to personalize their own home. These homes would equip each resident with the foundation for success, as they make another step towards full independence. Following the competition, a full-scale model unit was constructed, allowing visitors to experience the space in-person and consider how effective this solution could be. Conversations frequently strayed into parallel possibilities for the design, and how it could help city-dwelling seniors, single-parent households, veterans, refugees, and other overlooked citizens.

The architects were also approached by several developers interested in a workforce housing or market-rate approach. The project team, represented by the Pan-American design firm Via Chicago, has partnered with a local developer on a variation that will provide low-cost, for-sale housing in one of Chicago's northern suburbs. After several rounds of negotiation and collaboration with the zoning department, the project is awaiting final approvals.

The owners hope this will serve as a prototype project to prove the concept's viability for future affordable developments on a larger scale. The modular nature of the original design allows it to be constructed as the original one-bedroom unit or a "double-wide" three-bedroom unit, in reaction to local market expectations. This provides versatility while maintaining the simple construction methods and materials that keep the design's affordable price point. Regardless of the resident, this home offers the stability, comfort, and dignity that all citizens deserve.

Image credits


Marty Sandberg, AIA; Terry Howell, AIA; Lon Stousland