In High Demand: Housing Innovation from the Studio to the Global City
Throughout the 20th century and over the last two decades, we have seen an increasing number of architects and planners — as well as urban designers and theorists — study, propose, and effectively build cities in response to the need we all share for a place to live.
Global conditions such as climate change and unprecedented urban population growth have underscored the urgency of research and design that responds to a consistently increasing demand for sustainable, innovative housing solutions. The resulting work in this area is at once exciting for its optimism and overwhelming, if justified, in its call for enormous shifts in both design priorities and human behaviors.
Though we could extend the length of our view by several decades, a look at the work of AAP's alumni, faculty, and students from the past year reveals an expanse of sites and contexts where architects and planners have demonstrated a strong commitment to innovative design for housing that is environmentally sustainable as well as responsive to sociopolitical, cultural, and economic conditions.
From built projects in Harlem and Baltimore to studio and classroom investigations of locales from Ithaca and New York City to Chongqing, China, the AAP community is responding to the open question of the future of housing with plans and designs that are as conscientious as they are bold in their expression of our shared belief in the value of a high standard of living for all.
Development Without Displacement
Ernst Valery '01 (B.S. URS '00) is the founder and president of Baltimore-based Ernst Valery Investments (EVI). EVI, in partnership with the Baltimore Development Corporation, developed the Nelson Kohl project that was opened for occupancy in spring 2018. The Nelson Kohl adheres to current standards for environmentally sustainable design and construction; is located steps from Penn Station and other public transit; and stands out as a new multifamily, mixed-use building that adds amenities such as a library, a gallery, and a small café to Baltimore's Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
"For years, when I walked out of Penn Station and looked to the north there was a foreboding blank spot, an almost invisible barrier that inhibited me and others from moving to the north," says Valery. "The Nelson Kohl will be a gateway to Station North welcoming all to this incredibly diverse neighborhood."
According to the press release, the project's goal was also to shift the economic paradigm in Baltimore communities while adhering to a philosophy that resists the displacement of current residents as neighborhoods develop. "The 21st-century social justice movement is about economic development," said Wendell Pierce, an investor in the project and cast member of HBO's The Wire. "In the 20th century, we memorialized how you empower yourself and organize the community in changing laws and politics, understanding that laws can change behavior. The movement then understood that beliefs may not change but that by forcing behavior to change through legal means, we can move the needle. Now we have to add the second part of that equation to make sure that economic development comes into our communities because that is true empowerment."
The building houses 103 units in 90,000 square feet and is named after two of Valery's mentors — Mary Nelson and Ben Kohl (Ph.D. CRP '99) — who spent their lives dedicated to urban issues and helping people. "Many things excite me about this project, but one that may be less heralded but particularly heartwarming is the library that will be curated by Mary and Ben's families," said Valery. "I hope that the library will become a place for modern-day salons to take place and discuss the very real issues of urban planning and economic empowerment that are at the heart of so many of the challenges we face as a society today."
Affordable Housing, Passive House Standards
When complete, the Sendero Verde project in East Harlem will be the largest affordable housing project in the world to achieve Passive House standards. Led by Handel Architects, the firm of Gary Handel (B.Arch. '78) and Blake Middleton (B.Arch. '78, M.Arch. '81), the project meets the standard with its integration of green space, a green roof, rainwater capture, high-quality insulation materials, and use of advanced solar energy technologies that cut resource consumption and energy costs by 70–90 percent.
"It matters what choices we make when we design buildings, especially choices that affect energy use and resiliency — significantly reducing the carbon footprint of buildings is no longer optional," says Middleton. "We view each project we design as a catalyst for positive environmental and social change, both local and global. The Sendero Verde project exemplifies this approach. By creating affordable, sustainably designed housing, we can work to both break the cycle of poverty that disrupts so many people's lives, and dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of large buildings of any type and use."
Plans for Sendero Verde began in 2016 with support from New York City's SustainNYC program and community planning meetings that allowed for concerns such as affordable housing for current senior residents, the protection and enhancement of existing small businesses, and publicly accessible open space that meets the needs of community members now and in the future, to be addressed as first steps in research and development. The project is currently advancing through design and permitting phases, and features amenities such as community gardens, open space, a fresh food market, and an outdoor kitchen; as well as space for institutions that offer education, affordable housing, healthcare, and social services.
Community partners prepared to occupy space at Sendero Verde include Union Settlement, a housing services provider established in 1895; Mount Sinai and the YMCA, who will collaborate to offer medically integrated health and fitness programs; and Harlem RBI/Dream Charter School, which has been operating in the neighborhood since 1991.
Residential and Commercial Development: Affordable Housing and Childcare in Ithaca
Assistant Professor Suzanne Lanyi Charles's spring 2019 commercial development class is creating a proposal in partnership with the Ithaca Child Development Council (ICDC) for a prototype of an affordable live-and-work residential project where residents can operate home-based childcare.
"There is a dire need in Ithaca for both affordable housing and childcare," says Charles. "Design alone can't solve the affordable housing problem. An in-depth understanding of how affordable housing is financed is critical to increasing the availability of home-based childcare."
After taking a "deep dive" into real estate finance during the first half of the class, the seven M.R.P., six B.S. URS, and other students from outside AAP are developing a concept design for a physical prototype in tandem with a specific plan as to how the project will be financed.
Charles says the project being developed this semester is innovative. "This type of low-income, live-work, home-based childcare project doesn't yet exist in Ithaca. It's exciting because if we can figure out how to make it work, it could have a really positive impact on our community." The development proposal will be presented to the ICDC on the last day of class.
In addition to ICDC, students are working with Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services.
Affordable Housing Policy and Programs
Visiting Lecturer Paul Mazzarella, a former director of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, reviewed the affordable housing programs in the U.S. from the 1930s to the present, and led the class to examine what programs have worked and why — from government involvement in the development and management of affordable housing and how it evolved into market-driven, private-sector approaches; to tax policy in the allocation of housing resources. Recognizing that housing is more than shelter, the success or failure depends on a complex mix of community development issues that include land-use regulations, economic conditions, racial discrimination, access to credit, demographic shifts, wealth accumulation, public health, and crime, among others.
Working in small teams, students from all three departments in AAP and other colleges at Cornell delivered two research papers and a case study project at the end of the fall 2018 semester.
The Sectional City: Urban Housing Fabric for Chongqing, and Mellon Collaborative Studies in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Expanded Practice Seminar: Spatial Tensions
The Mellon seminar, cotaught by Assistant Professor Leslie Lok and Professor Andrea Bachner from the Department of Comparative Literature, traveled together with Lok's option studio to investigate housing on a trip to Chongqing, China. The option studio was dedicated specifically to housing, while the seminar explored additional unique geographic, urban, infrastructural, and cultural transformations looked at through interdisciplinary lenses.
With 30 million residents, Chongqing is one of the largest cities in the world and is both geographically compelling as well as urbanistically complex. Built on mountains and situated at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Jialing rivers, "its central core is a multiground city stratified into vertical urban layers while its metropolitan area is surrounded with a mostly rural landscape," according to the studio syllabus.
While the goal of the Mellon seminar was to think through and study how urbanization transforms spatial and social structures in a context of globalization, Lok's studio examined urban housing in Chongqing to negotiate the city's unique spatial, topographic, and urban milieu. Sectional investigations explored a form of mat urbanism that negotiates the vertical, the horizontal, and the oblique.
"This type of layered mat-urbanism could reoffer urban relationships and adjacency absent in most contemporary landscapes of residential towers but formerly present in the Chinese city," Lok said. "The diverse trajectories that emerged from the course truly benefited from the interdisciplinary conversations of our students."
The AAP NYC architecture studio Housing +, taught by visiting critics Stella Betts, David Leven, Thomas Phifer, and Gabriel Smith, was an exercise in rethinking the physical, political, and economic environment of Red Hook, Brooklyn, a neighborhood located within New York City's lowest and most vulnerable flood zone. According to the syllabus, the site's intense urban mix offered a range of forms, flows, muscular infrastructures, and an industrial past, present, and future experiencing gentrification. Students were tasked with paying particular attention to the needs of urban dwelling with a design-centric approach to housing affordability for the working class, the largest population group in the city. In groups, the students were asked to incorporate community programming such as schools and childcare into their proposals, and to "test the norms and limits of collective personal space."
Kun Bi's (M.Arch. '18) thesis Reimagining City Boundaries: How Hybrid Residential Towers Preserve Agricultural Life looked at the loss of agricultural and natural areas to the rapid expansion of urban centers in China, replaced and pushed out to the city edges by generic residential buildings. Bi's thesis proposed an experimental design scheme to bring agricultural production back to the city periphery, inserting hybrid residential towers that reconcile urban and village life. Bi's thesis advisors were architecture faculty Assistant Professor Luben Dimcheff and Visiting Critic Lina Malfona.
Using digital technology, Derek Yi's (M.Arch. '18) thesis Popocropolis proposed collapsible, customizable load-bearing architectural elements to expand pop-up spaces. Intended for use in "rail towns" dependent on a single, exhaustible revenue source, they could be used for temporary residences, benefiting from incremental capacity and mobility and providing potential for economic growth.
City and Regional Planning
Adam Bronfin's (B.S. URS '18) undergraduate honors thesis, The Condominium Question: Evaluating the Lack of Condominiums in Ithaca, New York, sought to determine why the market share of condominiums was so low despite a strong overall housing market, expressed demand, and government encouragement. Bronfin interviewed developers, government officials, real estate brokers, lenders, attorneys, and consultants to uncover the factors limiting condominium development in the county despite high demand. He gave a presentation on his findings to the Tompkins County Legislature in May 2018. Bronfin's thesis advisor was Assistant Professor Suzanne Lanyi Charles.
Peter Romano's (M.R.P./M.P.S. RE '20) exit project seeks to quantify how college- and graduate-aged student populations influence the housing cost burden ratios for nonstudent renters, that is, families and households. Romano's interest was sparked by the process of "studentification" — students moving into neighborhoods and displacing the families that once lived there. Assisted by Cornell's geospatial reference librarians and CISER, he used IPUMS USA microdata to exclude students from the household cost burden data and to calculate new ratios for 260 metropolitan areas in the U.S. Initial results show that while some of these areas see a dramatic decline in cost burden rates when students are excluded, others see an increase, suggesting that in some traditional college towns, families and households may actually be less cost-burdened than the national average.
By Edith Fikes and Patti Witten