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I visited Utah recently and saw the incredible sprawl of new housing and construction cranes that stretch across the Salt Lake City valley to the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. According to the U.S. Census, the state led the nation in new housing units between July 2020 and July 2021, outpacing fast-growing areas of Texas and Idaho, among the places that drew new residents during the Covid pandemic. While single-family homes top the building boom statewide, new multifamily apartments are leading the way in Utah’s capital city. Still, construction is not keeping up with demand, and, as in most parts of the country, home prices and rents continue to soar, tempered only somewhat by rising mortgage rates.

And the high prices of new dwellings should be measured not only in dollars but in environmental costs. The alarming consequences of growth include Arizona suburbs that are running out of water and millions of new homes in California being built in so-called “wildland-urban interfaces,” with a high likelihood that, ultimately, they will burn down in wildfires, says new research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the U.S. Forest Service. Other kinds of natural disasters now present “a moderate threat of annual losses” for more than 50 million households, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. That includes 11.6 million low-income households, whose occupants find it much harder to rebuild or relocate.

Cathleen McGuigan.

Cathleen McGuigan, editor-in-chief of Architectural RecordPhoto © Jenna-Beth Lyde

In cities, the housing crisis continues to be defined by limited availability and unaffordability. Vacancy rates are extremely low—below 6 percent at the end of last year—and rents have been skyrocketing, up nearly 12 percent nationally in the first quarter of 2022, compared with a year earlier, and, in several metro areas, exceeding 20 percent, says the Harvard center. Lower- income households are suffering the most, of course: in 2020, 46 percent of renters were moderately burdened—meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income to their landlords—and 24 percent spent more than half.

Why can’t we adequately house our population? With unemployment low, and wages and demand relatively high, prices go up. Inflation, labor shortages, and supply-chain problems are slowing construction. And some experts cite the increasing influx of private equity into the housing market. While most of that engagement is in single-family housing—with investors buying up moderately priced houses to convert to rentals or upgrade to sell—such firms are entering the multifamily market in greater numbers, raising rents and frequently evicting longtime tenants.

These are problems far beyond the scope of architecture to solve. But designers can bring innovative thinking to improve the quality of housing as well as the quantity, while controlling costs. In the September 2022 issue, we look at several inventive multifamily projects. This year’s AIA Gold Medal winners, Angela Brooks and Larry Scarpa, have deep experience in low-cost housing, and the Rose Apartments, in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, shows off their skill in bringing beauty and dignity to a complex with 35-units for the formerly homeless, with its gleaming white stucco exterior, animated by a varied rhythm of volumes and verdant terraces. Finding land in city centers is tough, and in Basel, HHF Architects came up with an unusual proposal to build a 15-unit family complex in the center of a large urban block, with other existing apartment buildings on its perimeter. The result is dwellings that overlook a quiet garden, each with generous balconies or terraces as well.

The notion of outdoor space for those who live in tight, urban settings inspired a market-rate 18-unit condo project in Brooklyn, New York, by SO — IL, using open concrete walkways across an interior courtyard to get to each apartment’s front door, with large balconies for every unit. In a vibrant urban neighborhood of Palma de Mallorca, OHLAB created a high-end high-rise—where penthouse residents can be outdoors on their roof decks with pools. But maybe the ultimate luxury is that it was built to Passive House standards, so residents can live with less guilt because they never have to turn on the air-conditioning.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most challenging type of multifamily project, like Brooks + Scarpa’s, is epitomized by San Francisco’s six-story Tahanan Supportive Housing by David Baker Architects. The 145-unit structure for the formerly homeless was inventive in both its financing and cost-conscious modular construction. By shortening the time frame for funding and building, the project saved at least $200,000 per unit.

The varied design ideas in these housing projects, across a range of sites and price points, shine some rays of light on one of contemporary society’s most intractable problems.