By Joann Plockova
Across the United States, the lack of affordable housing in areas close to city centers has resulted in single-family residences that have been sub-divided to be shared by multiple inhabitants – and frequently, families with multiple generations.
Just ask architect Wonne Ickx, co-founder of Productora, a Mexico City-based firm that has designed a handful of projects in the U.S.
“This is what happens to a lot of the suburban neighborhoods,” he says, speaking to the changing dynamics of households across the country. Ickx currently lives in New York and at one time called L.A. home. “All these big houses, they’re too big now for families. And so, it’s a very logical thing, you see it everywhere.”
You see it, for example, in Denver’s Cole neighborhood, a low-density area on the edge of the city’s River North Art District that’s just a 15-minute bike ride to downtown. Here roommates and friends frequently share the neighborhood’s majority single-family residences and, in response, Productora has designed an experimental co-housing project that offers a solution to centrally located, low-cost housing.
“What the client is trying to do with this project is to see if in the first inner city ring there’s a way to create affordable housing," says lckx. “He wants to see how [we can] maintain an interesting mix of inhabitants, like artists and students, living in areas where there’s not only single family residences, [where] it’s not like on every plot you have a family with [2.5] kids living there.”
The client is Continuum Partners, a development company led by Mark Falcone, which is behind such projects as the Denver Union Station redevelopment. “Mark was very, very instrumental in this project,” says lckx. “He's really the brain behind the whole concept.” Falcone, who invited Productora to participate in the project via a juried selection process through the Biennial of Americas, was instrumental in reviving Denver’s downtown. That success also pushed out many of the people who helped him create it. “I speak really in his own words, it became such a success that there's no more affordable housing,” says lckx. “That’s how this project came about.”
On a standard 50-foot-wide lot that has been divided into two equal halves, two pitched-roof structures – each on their own 25-foot-wide lot and backed by an ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit)— stand out for their bold blue color that transitions to a lighter hue at the base and gives them the feeling of electrified arrival. Appearing as two single-family residences, together the structures comprise 8 units (6 in the main houses, 2 in the ADUs) with shared space—including laundry rooms, paved outdoor space, powder rooms and a kitchen and living room on the ground floor.
“The whole idea is that if you live in one of these small studios, if you live in a small space but you want to organize a nice dinner, you can use [the shared kitchen], [or] if you want to have your friends over to watch a football game, you can use the [shared] living room,” says lckx.
The advantages of co-housing, Ickx says, is that you live in smaller units, and are thus ’stimulated’ to take advantage of the communal spaces. “This demands neighbors to organize themselves, to make agreements, to participate. In the end to get to know each other,” he says. “It is all about ‘creating community’ in order to make more resilient societies.”
Each main house includes a 420-square foot studio on the ground floor and two upper-level studios of the same size with a 245-square foot sleeping or storage loft. “The upper units are nicer because they have a pitched roof,” Ickx says. All are equipped with a small bathroom and kitchenette, as are the split-level, 502-square-foot ADUs, which have the feel of an artist’s loft thanks to roll-up garage doors that open up to the outdoor space. “The client chose this lot because of its proximity to the artsy area of RiNo (River North Art District),” says Joe Dooling of DDB Inc., the local architect and contractor for the project. “His original vision was that the houses would be occupied by local artists that might find it difficult to continue living in the artistic city core because of rising rents,” he says. Downstairs in one main house is the shared living room and in the other a shared dining room. (As required by code, both of these spaces have their own kitchens.)
“That’s basically what we started working on to see how we could not only maximize the amount of units, but also how they kind of work together, “ explains lckx. “Permit-wise, they’re thought of as two different buildings, they each have to have their own kitchens. [But] for us it’s really interesting that they work together.”
Each main house has a corner of floor-to-ceiling glass that opens itself to the other to create a connection between the two. “It kind of creates a continuity between the two neighbors,” says lckx, “so it can operate as a sort of single space.” Paved areas in between create shared outdoor space.
“For me [the challenge] has everything to do with cost and generosity,” says lckx. ”You know, how can you build [affordably], while still creating spaces that feel generous, that don't feel standard, that feel like [they are] designed with care. I think that that's really important.”
Built with a limited budget (around $200 per square foot), the architects used cost-effective construction materials and standard solutions. “Everything is very basic,” says lckx. Each house is built with traditional balloon frame timber construction. The multilevel roofline, which gives the structures a clustered appearance and helps to break up the mass, is made up of standing-seam metal roofs. Facades are clad in traditional board-and-batten with standard aluminum-clad window frames, which have been thoughtfully positioned to allow for both privacy and light. Inside materials include polished concrete floor slabs, interior finishing in white painted drywall and IKEA cabinetry. But in the same way private space is balanced with common space, these economical solutions are balanced with “small gestures” including double height entryways, skylights that bring in natural light and a long, continuous counter surface made from laminated beams that offers multifunctional use and a feeling of spaciousness. “It’s a way to create a certain generosity,” says lckx. “It feels nice.”
As a solution to addressing housing affordability, co-housing just makes sense, Ickx says, as it allows architects and residents to save on costs through shared space – to prioritize where they want to put money toward privacy and where they want to save space through sharing.
“If the cost of land and construction is expensive and a small space is the only option, it’s a pity if [residents] have to use that space for individual laundries [for example],” says lckx. “Every square foot counts.”
Rather than an experimental one-off, the pilot project is intended as a system that can be replicated across the country to invite true transformation. “If it's done well, it's a repeatable system, says Ickx. “Because there are really standard plots you can find in every U.S. city.”
Productora is already working on its next project with Falcone. (They recently delivered the proposal and conducted a feasibility study.) It is based on the same system but offers a more diverse typological mix, ranging from 378-square foot studios to three-story family apartments. “Neighborhoods can become more mixed in population. For example, families with children can live next to students, couples able to afford larger two-bedroom units can live to next to couples living in a studio, and so on. This avoids single-family-type neighborhoods, and mono-cultural environments in cities,” Ickx says.
That said, Prodoctura looked to the single-family home typology to inform the design.
“[For] us it is important that a certain language related to the single family [house] is maintained in order to have a harmonious mix between the not-developed and newly developed lots,” says Ickx. “There was really a very clear attempt in both of the proposals to see if we could create something that still has that quality of the suburban neighborhoods in which, typologically, the house shape still plays a role. That [became] an interesting guiding line.”
Their choice of a bold blue hue, used in part to emphasize that familiar shape, was informed by the studio’s desire to put a spin on things.
“I think one of the beautiful things about the suburb[s] is the possibility of free expression. Everybody does their own house with their own decoration and so on,” says Ickx. “So, [in] one way or another, I think we kind of had to define as a design office, where do we follow kind of the logic of the spatial organization, and where do we kind of allow ourselves that suburban freedom to just do whatever you want, you know, to just have your house as your house [and make your own mark]. And I think the [blue color] certainly comes from there.”
Ickx and his partners at Productora believe that transformation is already happening through initiatives like ADUs and Small Lots Development Policies.
“I think in the US, [there is an awareness that] we have to densify our suburban neighborhoods,” he says, “And people are experimenting with it now.”
Joann Plockova is a design writer based in Prague.