Affordable Housing

Affordable Housing or Not...First Costs and Long-Term Costs...Is Bigger Really Better?

Having worked in affordable housing for the last 20 years, we have been a part of the wave of work that is a reaction to the flawed housing policies and urban renewal of the 60's and 70's. But we all know that reactivity sometimes can push us off course too. Many of the projects that we have worked on have been awarded additional points for larger size, when competing for funding. We are immersed in a culture where size is important. Most everyone has dreams of a "big house” they will live in some day. We have developments filled with McMansions, where houses may not be built with quality materials in mind, but size, and the desire to impress, seems to be the main intent. It was not uncommon before the last great recession to see homeowners who were over-mortgaged living in unfurnished houses that were really beyond their reach. Bigger is on the minds of most Americans but is bigger really better?

Sarah Susanka asked this question a decade ago when she published the wonderful book The Not SO Big House. Susanka's trends have caught the eye of many high-end single-family homeowners. We think the question of making a smaller, higher quality house, is particularly relevant when it comes to affordable housing. Affordability is usually defined by initial cost, but don't long-term energy and long-term maintenance issues affect affordability as well? When a building is made from materials that have a relatively short life span, we are building in problems for the homeowner or building owner down the road. Many of the vinyl windows that are ubiquitous in affordable projects don't have a shelf life of ten years, which means expensive retrofits are a relatively short way down the road. The same applies to carpeting, plastic tub surrounds, vinyl siding, and a list of other materials. Similarly, if the building has the code minimum insulation and relies on large pieces of mechanical equipment to maintain thermal comfort, long-term affordability is threatened through escalating energy and maintenance costs.

In our Passive House in Heidelberg, we were able to take our client's budget for a 3-bedroom, 2200 sf house, and make a 3-bedroom,1700 sf house with an open floor plan, cement board siding, high quality triple glazed windows, ceramic baths, and bamboo strand flooring. The bedrooms were minimally sized and the bathroom was compartmentalized so that it can accommodate multiple users at one time. It also meets Passive House Standards, meaning that projections for heating and cooling are less than $20 per month.