A McKnight Foundation study urges more innovation in place of Minnesota's ''thoughtful-but-modest'' designs.
Minnesota has long been known as a national leader in the development of affordable housing. But the political and financial tradeoffs that must be made to make new low-income housing happen sometimes can stifle innovative architectural designs that could make such housing more attractive to the communities they're in and useful to the tenants who live there.
That was among the messages a panel of local architects delivered to attendees at the American Institute of Architects convention held in Minneapolis this week.
The panel discussed the findings of a study funded by the McKnight Foundation that tried to identify how affordable housing projects in Minnesota could improve their designs.
Rosemary Dolata, a Minneapolis architect who moderated the forum, described an affordable housing scene in the Twin Cities in which a handful of firms perform most of the design work -- and while the quality is good, it could be better if more professionals were lured into the field to question business-as-usual assumptions.
But getting more architects involved isn't easy.
Dealing with the complex processes used to gain funding and approval for low-income housing can be a headache and a barrier to entry for many professionals, said Dolata, a former project manager for the nonprofit housing developer Aeon and a member of the AIA's Housing Advocacy Committee.
Also, government rules keep architectural fees for affordable housing artificially low. "With all the challenges involved, promoting innovation and great design is no small task," she said.
Better-designed affordable housing is more important than ever as the need for it steadily grows. The median income in Minnesota is falling at a time when rents are going up and apartment vacancy rates are at record lows, Dolata noted.
The McKnight Foundation study found that even some of the best new affordable housing projects in Minnesota used "thoughtful-but-modest" designs whose aim was to blend into the neighborhoods they were part of rather than utilize bold techniques seen in other parts of the country that could have made the housing more attractive.
Another issue that can stifle innovative design in affordable housing is where the housing is located, panelists said. One of them, Kim Bretheim of LHB Architects, studied the Resource Access Center in Portland, Ore. -- a supportive housing project for former drug and alcohol addicts -- as part of the study.
He determined that its location at a high-profile spot in the city's downtown prompted a very high-quality design.
"If you've ever been involved in affordable housing, among the first questions asked is ... where is the cheapest and most nonoffensive site where we can locate these people?" Bretheim said. "And usually that's in some kind of polluted industrial area on the edge of town."
But since the Portland project was meant to help revitalize a part of its central downtown, it demanded high-quality construction and "a great design" that included big windows that look out over a public park -- where crime has dropped due to the eyes of the residents, Bretheim said.
The study also cited examples of highly innovative affordable housing in the Twin Cities.
Aeon's 70-unit Crane Ordway Building in downtown St. Paul, designed by Cermak Rhoades Architects, was praised for its innovative ideas for converting long-vacant former industrial buildings into affordable housing.
Because the windows in the former warehouse were situated well above the heads of even the tallest people, some suggested they be cut bigger -- which was rejected due the changes it would make in the historic façade, architect Todd Rhoades said.
Instead, he said, the firm came up with a way to slightly elevate living rooms in the units on low-cost platforms, bringing the windows to eye level.
To address the challenge, the McKnight study recommended adjusting the design process to balance neighbors' concerns with broader public policy goals; making reviews after tenants move in standard; allowing negotiations for architects' fees, and establishing an affordable housing design awards program.
Don Jacobson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer. He can be reached at 651-501-4931.