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Design and construction innovations can help contain costs of affordable housing

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Innovations in design and construction can reduce the costs of multifamily housing, according to researchers with Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and NeighborWorks America (a network of organizations that creates opportunities for people to live in affordable homes, improve their lives and strengthen their communities).

In the fourth and final installment in a series of articles on affordable multifamily housing, author Hannah Hoyt examines how thoughtful design can create high-quality affordable multifamily housing. The four articles were based on a 47-page report titled “More for Less? An Inquiry into Design and Construction Strategies for Addressing Multifamily Housing Costs.”

Hoyt also outlines several hurdles faced by developers who build affordable housing. Among those hurdles are complex subsidy programs, expensive labor and materials, onerous local land use regulations, and community oppositions. “Neighboring residents often worry that low-cost housing will be ugly and comprised of hulking, boxy structures with cheap-looking facades,” she states, but adds, “There are strategies that allow them to build apartments that are visually appealing and offer comfort and convenience to their residents while meeting all the essential requirements of safe, healthy housing.”

The latest article, co-authored by Jenny Schuetz, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution, focused on three building components: façade (exterior shell), interiors, and services.

Inasmuch as the façade (exterior shell) plus windows and doors are a building’s public identity and biggest thermal barrier, the materials used for it need to be durable, visually appealing, and supportive of environmental and performance objectives, the authors emphasize. Collectively, these components account for 25-to-30 percent of total hard costs for a project and there are rarely excesses that can be removed from the shell and structure to reduce costs.

As a cost-saving strategy, Hoyt and Schuetz recommend simplifying facades while sill creating variation through big moves (visual shifts), colors, and materials. A second strategy to consider is offsite construction and new materials, but they acknowledge while they may promise big benefits, they are not “silver bullets.”

Building a more efficient and economical interior was the second component the authors examined. “Small changes can make more livable and efficient units,” they stated, but cautioned, “Downgrading finishes and appliances doesn’t save much money and may reduce durability and environmental quality.

Two cost-saving strategies the article recommended were:

  1. Design unit layout and dimensions for flexibility and efficiency; and
  2. Reuse designs, rotate floorplans, and reduce costs.

Tweaks can allow developers to increase usable space and fit more apartments in a given building,” according to the authors.

Building services – elevators, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing — were the third component of the report. These “unglamorous but essential and expensive” services can incorporate best practices to help control costs. “Selecting systems requires a tradeoff between cost, quality, and environmental performance. The challenge is finding an appropriate set of systems given project costs and priorities,” the authors emphasized.

The strategies they highlighted were “stack, standardize, and simply,” and create long-term savings by investing in environmental performance. As an example of best practices for plumbing to control costs they suggested stacking “wet” walls for kitchens and bathrooms vertically and placing them back-to-back to reduce plumbing complexity and cost.

The report noted many affordable housing nonprofits want to invest in high-performance envelopes, HVAC, and plumbing systems that could reduce long-term operating costs. Such investments could be encouraged with scoring systems used to allocate Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC).

Hoyt and Schuetz noted housing developers need more opportunities to share best practices and data on building performance in order to choose the right system for the project.

Based on 30+ interviews Hoyt conducted with developers, contractors, and architects, she identified several factors that can help project teams deliver “high-quality, environmentally responsible apartments at more affordable costs.”

“Close coordination across the project team throughout the process is essential,” Hoyt stated. “Making sure all team members agree on project goals, such as quality of life for tenants, environmental performance, and affordability, keeps the team unified as issues and pressures emerge. Collaboration also sets the stage for sharing best practices on new construction techniques, materials and systems.”

Hoyt also noted that practices that shorten the development timeline translate directly into cost savings. Working frequently with trusted partners, investing in upfront research to anticipate unknowns, and partial offsite fabrication are other ways she outlined for reducing costs without compromising quality.

Despite best efforts by the design and construction team to improve housing affordability, local policies can create unnecessary hurdles. “Policymakers need to better understand how building codes and zoning laws impact apartment design and construction,” Hoyt wrote.

The authors reiterated three types of regulatory changes that deserve special consideration:

  1. Reduce parking requirements. “In cities and neighborhoods with reliable public transportation systems, reduced parking requirements in zoning laws should be a top action item.”
  2. Zoning should not prohibit efficiently sized projects. Some rules, e.g., floor-to-area ratio, often limit a developer’s ability to build larger, more economically efficient buildings.
  3. Make the development and project review processes shorter, simpler, and more transparent.

Policy choices by federal, state, and local governments can negatively influence the cost of building affordable housing. “Building safe, healthy, and visually appealing apartments at lower costs is possible – but will require better policies,” Hoyt emphasized.

Designer/urbanist Hannah Hoyt is a M.Arch candidate at Harvard University Graduate School of Designer and was a 2019 Gramlich Fellow in Community and Economic Development.

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies helps leaders in government, business, and the civic sectors make decisions that effectively address the needs of cities and communities. It advances understanding of housing issues and informs policy through its research, education, and public outreach programs.

NeighborWorks encompasses 240 network organizations in every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The congressionally chartered and funded nonpartisan nonprofit supports organizations that provide communities with affordable housing, financial counseling and coaching, training, and resident engagement, along with collaborations in the areas of health, employment, and education.

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