Invited Architects to Brainstorm with Developers

Pugh + Scarpa won the 2010 AIA Architecture Firm Award in part for its ability to deliver design excellence to low-income communities. Its affordable housing project Step Up on 5th, in Santa Monica, provides 46 studio apartments for mentally disabled and formerly homeless occupants above ground-floor commercial spaces; and the much-honored Colorado Court complex in the same city houses 44 low-income residents, sheltering them from the sun behind an extensive array of photovoltaic panels.

Indeed, founding partner Lawrence Scarpa, AIA, says his firm’s work with community developers is the exception to the norm: “By and large these are good people trying to do good, but there’s a somewhat pervasive attitude that the poor will be happy with anything.” An inaugural conference scheduled for this summer aims to disseminate the Santa Monica–based studio’s knowledge more widely.

In July, Maryland–based Enterprise Community Partners, in collaboration with Pugh + Scarpa, will present the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute, a two-and-a-half-day conference that will address design challenges in affordable housing. The event will take place at the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, where Scarpa and seven invited architect members of a “Design Resource Team” will work with developers chosen through an RFP process.

Scarpa compares the conference to the U.S.-based Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which gathers city leaders and designers in small sessions to discuss urban design in a case-study format. In addition to presentations by resource-team experts, community development corporations and nonprofit groups will present problems associated with their most current projects, and the participants will brainstorm solutions in a charrette format. “It’s closed-door, no holds barred,” Scarpa says. “It’s a frank discussion, and it’s a bit of tough love, too.”

Most likely, NIMBYism will be a recurring theme. “Nobody wants affordable housing in their community, because they equate it to crime and problems,” Scarpa explains. “But you can help people sell their projects by making them better community buildings.” Another challenge, he adds, is that affordable-housing clients almost universally reject mixing uses, either due to organization by-laws, funding mechanisms, or a general resistance to commercial tenancy. “We did some buildings in urban environments that could have been better if they had embraced mixed uses, or mixed incomes,” Scarpa notes. “Both seem a massive hurdle for any nonprofit. And the same goes for sustainability.”

A selection committee will tap eight nonprofit affordable housing developers for the institute according to existing work; candidates must also have a current project in schematic design in July. Two attendees will hail from the Minneapolis area. All travel, food, and lodging are free, paid for by the Kendeda Fund, the McKnight Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. RFPs from developers will be available between February 1 and March 15.