DesignMake Studio shows how affordable housing can be beautiful and affordable
Waldo Duplex deserves its Residential Architect Design Award, and shows how we can have nice things.
Charles Dickens writes in A Christmas Carol about some gentlemen hitting up Mr. Scrooge for a charitable donation:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman. “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
It often seems that not much had changed since Dickens published those words in 1843. Even at this time of year, it seems that if any provision is to be made for the poor and the destitute, it has to be substandard and awful and demeaning.
That's why I like this project by Design+Make Studio so much; they call it the Waldo Duplex, built in southern Kansas City as affordable housing.
The Waldo Duplex was designed and built by the architect to be a solution to a significant, if unexpected, problem in Metropolitan Kansas City. Rent is rising at a rate higher than the national average, negatively impacting lower-income neighborhoods like Waldo. Targeting only households making less than 80% of area median income and implementing rent controls, this project will be home for two moderately low income families that want to live and work in Waldo, but otherwise could not afford to.
They call it a Duplex and write "this project suggests that a maligned architectural typology -- the duplex -- can be built affordably without sacrificing architectural integrity." I had no idea that duplexes were maligned, and I would have called this a pair of semi-detached units rather than a duplex. Perhaps it is different where I live, where duplexes are defined as "development consisting of a building containing only two Dwellings, with one Dwelling placed over the other in whole or in part with individual and separate access to each Dwelling." They certainly are not a maligned typology everywhere.
If you are building affordable housing, duplexes make sense; obviously, the land costs half as much per unit, and expensive service connections can be shared. In what might be the floor area of a single-family house you can accommodate two families. But it doesn't radically change the character of the neighborhood. According to the architects, quoted in Residential Architect:
While developers today use the duplex model in a way that creates suburban neighborhoods with no identity whatsoever, the Waldo Duplex looks to the inherent benefits of duplex construction but works to redefine the building typology. Traditional duplexes isolate their tenants on either side of a partition wall. The Waldo Duplex unites them through the tradition of the front porch.
I am not so sure about that; there are two separate front porches here with a common yard. But it is still lovely with nice private porches, simple but durable materials. It gets the interior planning right, with all the services along the party wall between the two units, which reduces noise transmission.
There are things I do not understand, like the lack of opening windows; it apparently relies on the doors for ventilation. High ceilings are nice too, but they create a lot of cubic footage to heat or cool, and and that plastic clerestory into the bedroom doesn't give much acoustic privacy. But those are minor quibbles. Costs are not as low as they might be if it was covered in vinyl, $290,000 for 1,500 square feet, but it looks like it will last a long time, and a lot of thought went into it. It is more than just a pair of homes; it is an educational experience.
Design+Make is an Academic partnership between a Kansas State University capstone design studio and el dorado inc. This studio explores conceptually driven, expertly crafted architecture at all scales of work, with all types of clients and in all locations. It is a research-based architectural enterprise where graduate students from diverse backgrounds develop their passion for innovative problem-solving, focused on community needs.
Affordable housing is hard, but this is a serious, effective look at the problem.
In a larger sense, this project seeks to understand why affordable housing solutions often fall short. Typical affordable housing design only advances perceptions of inequality rather than fights them. This project suggests that affordability and thoughtful architecture are not mutually exclusive. It is the beginning of an important conversation. Can we build affordably, satisfy a strict economic model, and support the dignity of the residents?