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Architects See Housing Crisis Solutions In Design Innovations

The Bay Area’s housing crisis is presenting multifamily and affordable housing designers with new challenges: how to create more density through design without significant community opposition. NIMBYs tired of fast growth, traffic congestion and bulky buildings are becoming increasingly resistant to high-density housing that is greatly needed to solve the region’s housing crisis.

Perkins+Will urban designer Kristen Hall

The need for affordable housing is a growing concern in cities around the nation, particularly for those where the cost of living is high, which is particularly true in the Bay Area. San Francisco's rents have risen 48.6% since 2010 and rank second only to New York City. In San Jose, rents rose 52.4% in the same time period. 

To find solutions for the Bay Area's housing crisis, architects are reinventing the way people live, incorporating better uses of design to increase efficiency and engaging with the community to find designs that work well for everyone. 

One of the trickiest issues architects face is having to anticipate future design needs several years out. Because it takes so long to permit projects, some buildings are outdated by the time they get built, Perkins+Will urban designer Kristen Hall said. 

Additionally, developers are asked to deliver all these public benefits by paying fees that go toward affordable housing, schools and infrastructure. These added costs can lead developers to put less of a priority on design and quality of construction materials, which can lead to buildings of lesser quality, she said.

“Residents see these buildings go up and don’t want more of these buildings,” she said. “It just exacerbates the fear.” 

Developing A Design That Works With The Community

1180 Fourth St., San Francisco

Mithun partner Anne Torney said architects can play a key role in community engagement by providing a clear vision for new buildings and new districts that increase density and also are welcoming, walkable and vibrant places to live.

“Without that vision of the future, we’ll continue with this pattern of resistance to growth and continue to constrain supply,” she said.

She said her firm has been really focused on providing quality design for affordable housing projects. She said affordable housing can be designed to look just like a market-rate project.

A building Mithun designed for Mercy Housing California at 1180 Fourth St. in Mission Bay is GreenPoint Rated and LEED Platinum targeted. The 150-unit building, which was completed in 2014, has 10K SF of retail space, community and amenity rooms, supportive services, day care, courtyards and a roof deck. Mithun worked with WRT Solomon E.T.C., Kennerly Architecture and Planning and Full Circle Architects for this project.

Developers are building taller, Torney said. In some neighborhoods where Mithun previously designed a four- or five-story building, the firm is now designing an eight- or nine-story building across the street.

A rendering of the working waterfront at Mission Rock

Perkins+Will's Hall said her design team focuses on features that are uniquely San Franciscan and have elements of sustainability to create projects that blend with their surroundings. She said using tech to set targets and performance criteria helps determine what buildings look like and how to create flexibility to reach those goals. 

The design elements depend upon the neighborhood. In San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, building design would be reflective of the robust street activity, large warehouses and large windows.

In the Mission District, where streets are narrow and buildings are often 40 feet tall, the design would need to reflect flat bay windows, stoops and buildings set back from the street. 

As her team considers the future neighborhoods at Potrero Power Plant and Mission Rock, the design will incorporate a mix of uses that take newly available waterfront access into account, she said.

The design also considers what elements were missing from these areas and how to incorporate them where it makes sense. At Mission Rock, that means creating a robust retail environment that works within the urban fabric.

Even as architects look at how these projects' exteriors fit into the neighborhood, the interiors of the buildings are also evolving.

Designing A New Way Of Living

KTGY Architecture + Planning Director, Design Ben Kasdan and KTGY R+D Studio Senior Designer Marissa Kasdan with their sons, Henry, age 6, and Mitchell, age 9.

Architects are using innovations and concepts to create an entirely new way of living. Torney said her firm is looking into technical innovations to explore different unit types. She said not everyone wants to live in a micro-unit, and there are options to use accessory dwelling units, studios and other design innovations that allow people to live more compactly.

She said factory-built elements and cross-laminated timber can create more housing quickly and at less cost. Mithun has designed two modular projects in the works in San Francisco and Menlo Park.

KTGY Architecture + Planning’s R+D Studio also has researched a wide range of living situations to understand where the housing gaps are and how they can be addressed, KTGY R+D Studio Senior Designer Marissa Kasdan said. KTGY R+D is a global effort that works in collaboration with KTGY’s seven offices in Chicago, Denver, Irvine, Los Angeles, Oakland, Tysons, Virginia, and India.

“We need to look beyond what our clients are asking for to find creative solutions to the housing shortage,” she said.


Adding efficiency into a project schedule and the building itself can help reduce construction costs, Kasdan said. Modular components can allow for various parts of the building to be built simultaneously, she said.

Kasdan said her team has looked for ways to focus on growth in walkable, public-transit-friendly neighborhoods that reduce the need for cars and parking spaces, which add to the cost of a project.

With the rise of car-sharing and greater use of public transportation, KTGY R+D is anticipating an over-construction of parking lots, she said. KTGY’s Park House concept reimagines a wrap building parking structure that is retrofitted with modular units created from shipping containers, Kasdan said. Repurposed containers and walls are built off-site and basically plugged into the parking structure. Three shipping containers make up one unit. Using 357 shipping containers, 119 units of housing can be created using this model.

“We look to new design solutions that minimize corridors, reduce elevator stops and capitalize on the trend of our sharing culture,” she said.

KTGY’s Skytowns are a high-rise concept that provide townhome living in an urban setting and have nearly 90% building efficiency.  

Creating More Shared-Living Options

Rendering of KTGY's macro-unit, a 3,866 SF unit with 11 private bedrooms and bathrooms and shared living, dining and kitchen areas

Anderson Brulé Architects project architect Angshupriya Pathak said her firm is looking at ways to provide multi-generational, multifamily and community-based housing with integrated support services. 

The housing crisis has the firm considering new models that provide affordable and supportive housing for middle- and lower-income individuals and families, Pathak said.

This is creating the need for homes with multiple master suites with independent bathrooms, larger shared kitchens, multiple entrances, rentals within a single-family home and accessory dwelling units on the same property. 

Co-housing among older populations with community kitchens and shared amenities is increasingly sought for multifamily projects, she said. She said new models in the U.S. are also bringing older and younger generations together.  

While co-housing is nothing new, the models are becoming increasingly popular, especially for families that have a younger generation unable to find affordable housing and an older generation living longer, she said. The sandwich generation is living with elderly parents, grown children and sometimes grandchildren, she said.

In addition, groups of singles are living in large houses, creating ad hoc communal living, splitting rent and dividing chores, KTGY's Kasdan said.  

In response to growing trends of shared living across both young and older generations, Kasdan and her team developed The KTGY Macro-Unit, which has 11 private bedrooms and bathrooms and large living, kitchen and dining areas. These 3,866 SF units will provide lower rents while also providing a social and community living environment, she said. 

Greater Involvement With The Community

Anderson Brulé Architects project architect Angshupriya Pathak and President and co-founder Pamela Anderson-Brulé

Despite all of these innovations and new designs, the housing crisis is at risk of persisting if the response of the community doesn’t shift as well.

“Designers can develop new housing solutions all day long, but without the support of political and neighborhood groups, those ideas are left unrealized in city submittal packages,” Kasdan said.

One way designers are getting involved is through providing input on general plans.

“General plans are being updated to support a successful housing market, but oftentimes planning policies do not keep up with the need,” Pathak said. “Working closely with planners and politicians to make sure that opportunities open up to attract successful developments is everyone’s responsibility.”

She said the urban villages within the Envision San Jose 2040 General Plan are a good example of a collaboration that involved citizens, architects, planners and the city. Urban villages are San Jose's new master-planned communities that are walkable, transit-oriented and incorporate housing and jobs. Pathak took part of the 2014-15 project through the work of AIA Silicon Valley.

The extensive site analysis and engagement with the community led to a draft land-use plan and building-height map with conceptual designs for the Blossom Hill and Snell Urban Village, she said.

She said this approach will allow developers a new range of options on how land and buildings can be developed to support the community’s urban village vision.

Mithun principal Antonio Pares, partner Anne Torney, principal Sandy Mendler and associate Mohammad Momin

Mithun’s Torney said she became a member and chair at the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition and helped draft a white paper that later informed building variances within San Francisco’s affordable housing density bonus program.

“Design insights can absolutely contribute to help speed up building affordable housing,” she said.

Torney said part of the criticism that led to SB 827’s failure was the fear that it would allow housing that was out of scale with what already existed. The initiative would have increased density and streamlined projects built around transit corridors.

Architects can help with the next iteration that takes a more nuanced approach to design at specific sites that also help a community envision what the outcome will look like, Torney said.

“Really, really ambitious initiatives that increase supply are really the mechanism that will lower the cost of housing,” she said.

CORRECTION, MAY 29, 9:12 A.M. PT: A previous version of this article misspelled Mithun partner Anne Torney's name. The article has been updated.