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American Institute Of Architects Honors The Best Housing Designs Of 2021

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) is highlighting and celebrating exceptional residential designs with its 2021 Housing Awards. The annual event, now in its 21st year, was established to recognize the best in housing design for new construction, renovations and restorations.

Each year projects are awarded based on four categories: one- and two-family custom residences; one- and two-family production homes; multifamily housing; and specialized housing. 

This year’s recipients were selected by a five-member jury that evaluated projects for demonstrating design excellence. Additionally, the jury evaluates whether designs are sustainable, affordable, durable, innovative, socially impactful, meeting client needs as well as addressing the natural and built contexts.

Here are the recipients of the 2021 Housing Awards:

Category 1 – One- and Two-Family Custom Residences

LeanToo, Austin, Texas | Architect Nick Deaver 

When the owners of this project sought to return to the simple, curated life afforded in Austin, Texas, they found a lovely but small 900-square-foot cottage built in 1936 to call home. The original home was crowded by aged and leaning live oaks and faced limited development possibilities because of an underground utility easement. But the team’s approach, centered on an understanding of the landscape, delivered a 1,000-square-foot addition that blurs the line between indoor and outdoor spaces.

For this renovation and addition, the team honored the original home’s historical importance while providing thoughtful growth. The original structure is painted white inside and out to highlight its natural materials, such as lightly stained strip oak flooring.

Jury comment: “This is a modest single-family home with an interesting design and good energy performance.”

Loom House, Bainbridge Island, Washington | Miller Hull Partnership

Sitting on a landscaped bluff overlooking Puget Sound, this renovation of a classic mid-century home and standalone office is a model for home renovation using resilient retrofitting strategies. Through net positive energy and water, food production and adherence to a strict materials list, Loom House is on target to become the first residential remodel certified as a living building by the International Living Future Institute.

From the outset of the project in 2017, it was clear that the clients were focused on an extremely energy-efficient renovation based on their long history of running a foundation that strives for a more equitable and environmentally responsible world. As the team and client’s relationship blossomed, the team recognized that the Living Building Challenge framework aligned with the clients’ stewardship and social justice values.

Portage Bay Float Home, Seattle | Studio DIAA 

While the Seattle area has enjoyed a long history of floating homes and houseboats, a type of living romanticized in movies and television, the reality of building on the water is much less glamorous. For this 650-square-foot home on the north end of the city’s Lake Union, the owners embraced the challenge because such a home meshed with their aquatic hobbies of sailing, boat building, and scuba diving.

The project began as a renovation but quickly shifted during demolition when the owner and general contractor opted for a new structure due to the deterioration of the framing and log float foundation. The home received a new floor plate, walls and roof, all of which were erected within the existing home’s footprint.

Following the owner’s wishes, the team took a modest approach to the renovation, focusing on the qualities of light and space over an abundance of area. That resulted in a single-story home that responds to the houses surrounding it by preserving views of the water. Neighbors have expressed their gratitude for the home’s modesty, while its generous openings foster regular connections between the owners and neighbors.

“The ability to live graciously in a small footprint is clearly demonstrated here—with an accompanying reduction in impact on resources and energy,” noted the jury. “Excellent scale and proportions. The interior materials have a highly tactile quality.”

By working within the envelope of the existing home, the team was able to adhere to the restrictions placed on Seattle shoreline developments, resulting in a modern home that sits on an existing float comprising 4- and 5-foot-diameter old-growth logs assembled sometime in the early 1900s. Additionally, the craft-focused home gathers and reflects light through its multitude of glass doors and skylights. It is wrapped by a 5-foot-wide cedar deck accessible by openings in every room, allowing the compact home to feel more spacious.

“With more communities at risk of sea-level rise,” asked the jury, “could this demonstrate a future market for floating production housing?”

Walk-Street House, Hermosa Beach, California | ras-a studio 

Located just two blocks from the Pacific Ocean in Hermosa Beach, this home for a dynamic young family captures the essence of coastal living in Southern California. The site is distinguished by its situation on a walk-street, a pedestrian-only path in front of the home that is typical of the South Santa Monica Bay region.

While the walk-street fosters a pedestrian-friendly and walkable neighborhood and connects directly to a more significant bike and walk path running through the region’s beach communities, it required the team to provide innovative design interventions to meet the client’s needs.

To suit their active lifestyles, the clients sought a rebuild of their existing 1950s bungalow and requested an open concept of the ground level that leads to a natural grade and outdoor areas. The team was challenged to accommodate that request while adhering to Hermosa Beach’s zoning mandate that requires a two-car garage, which would have split the small footprint’s living spaces between multiple levels. The team found a solution in a mechanical parking lift, the first of its kind in the neighborhood, that can stack two cars in the footprint of just one and clearing the way for all living spaces on the ground floor.

The home features an on-grade ipe deck that functions as both a front porch and outdoor rec room for the family to relax or socialize with neighbors. The clever use of white concrete masonry blocks, flipped onto their sides to expose their cores, forms an entry wall that screens the interior rooms from the front porch. An oversized 27-foot-long pocket door provides access to a patio that runs the length of the lot from the living, dining, and kitchen areas, allowing the modestly sized home to feel much more significant than its actual square footage.

“Very nice climate-specific home with beautiful details and attention to context,” noted the jury. “The materials capture and reflect sunlight and breezes, flooding the interiors with a connection to this beachside community. The erosion of the walls between interior and exterior reinforce the openness in the floor plan.”

Category 2 – One- and two-family production homes

Tsuga Townhomes, Seattle | Wittman Estes

Seattle’s continually escalating construction costs, among the highest globally and averaging more than $338 per square foot just two years ago, has prompted a glut of high-volume, low-quality housing. The rising costs have transformed many of the city’s neighborhoods into a sea of generic modern boxes, built using low-cost materials and left disconnected from the outdoors. This townhouse project helps resolve the paradox around low-cost and high-quality homes while delivering sustainable design.

The team relied on careful design for this three-unit urban infill project, completed at the cost of $185 per square foot. It cleverly maneuvered through complicated development restrictions and fit the three units on just over 5,000 square feet on a site designated an environmentally critical steep slope in Seattle’s Highland Park neighborhood.

Category 3 – Multifamily Housing

Edwin M. Lee Apartments, San Francisco | Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects

Named in honor of the late Edwin M. Lee, the 43rd mayor of San Francisco who adopted the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, this project provides homes for low-income families and veterans in the city’s Mission Bay neighborhood.

In a city where affordable housing and access to shared community space are exceedingly rare, Edwin M. Lee Apartments boasts nearly 120 units and ground-floor services for residents and the greater community.

The facade takes its cues from the sky’s blue hues, signaling that everyone deserves a dignified home connected to nature. On-site renewable energy, a hallmark of the project and its GreenPoint Rated Platinum certification, is evident in the dramatic solar canopy that flows down the south elevation near the primary entrance.

It is the first combined development of its kind in the city and stands as a sustainable and resilient housing model for multigenerational communities.

Independence Library and Apartments, Chicago | John Ronan Architects

Representing an emerging hybrid building typology, this project couples a 16,000-square-foot library with 44 units of affordable apartments for seniors above. The project sits in Chicago’s diverse, mixed-income Irving Park neighborhood, which had been without a library since 2015 after a fire shuttered the previous Independence Branch.

Along North Elston Avenue, the team pushed the two-story library element of the building forward, accentuating its public nature. The four-story residential block, hovering above, sits further back. The library is wrapped in a façade of ground and polished precast concrete that contrasts with the bright colors that frame the units’ balconies above.

This scheme allows residents to identify their homes from the street easily and was a conscious effort to combat the brutal pragmatism found in many of the city’s past design efforts in the neighborhood. The color coding continues on the individual doorways inside, animating the hallways and helping seniors quickly locate their apartments.

“This project checks all the boxes while providing a moment of delight in a dense urban context,” wrote the jury. “An instant landmark, the jury was intrigued by how the corrugated shape and textures combine in an integrated shell. The thoughtful use of color-coding also aligns with best practices of senior environments by designing for decreased eyesight.”

The library provides learning opportunities for all ages and boasts a large multipurpose room that easily accommodates lectures and community gatherings. Its second floor juts out over covered parking to create a park-like terrace for residents and an outdoor space for occasional library use. On the ground floor, the children’s area features a mural painted by a local street artist that depicts some of the city’s most celebrated authors.

Category 4 – Specialized Housing

Adohi Hall, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas | Leers Weinzapfel Associates

Drawing inspiration from the Cherokee phrase adohi, which translates to woods or timber, this new residence hall at the University of Arkansas is the first large-scale mass timber building in the nation. At more than 202,000 square feet and housing nearly 700 students, the facilities are a bold demonstration of sustainability with clear ties to the importance of forestry to the region. Equally important for its use of cross-laminated timber and its approach to live-learn spaces, Adohi Hall is a pioneering venture for both the university and Arkansas.

To place a strong emphasis on access to nature, the buildings and landscape are stitched together as an extension of the forested hillside. This approach delivers unique outdoor spaces that resonate with the interiors.

Inside, wings of suites and pods offer students a wide variety of living configurations. Double-height lounges at the junctions boast kitchen and social spaces while, at the ends, quiet study rooms stand out as a series of lanterns along the adjacent roadway. The warmth of the project’s structural wood ceilings and columns can be found throughout.

Bastion Community, New Orleans | Office of Jonathan Tate

Inspired by the ideals of a community model that places foster children and older caregivers in mutually beneficial living arrangements, Bastion Community promotes an inclusive and thriving live-work environment for returning veterans with lifelong rehabilitation needs and their families.

The community’s progressive and supportive living environments reveal the potential of intergenerational communities to address the gap in public and private veteran housing programs. The 58-unit development is in an area of New Orleans with a long history of community-generated change.

The development closely echoes the scale and rhythm of the surrounding neighborhood, with each detached building mimicking the adjacent single-family homes. This approach creates a visual density that identifies Bastion Community as a semi-private and semi-public realm. Rather than fence off each of the units, the team opted to craft a protected but open block that courts interactions among veterans and civilians alike.

Given the development’s location near New Orleans’ London Canal, where a levee failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, resiliency was a key driver for the project. During the storm, the larger neighborhood experienced severe flooding, and all of the buildings on the site of Bastion Community were subsequently razed. Piers were employed to raise the units, allowing stormwater to flow freely through the site. The team also embedded strategies for filtering, storing, and returning water to the soil.

The Arroyo Affordable Housing, Santa Monica, California | KoningEizenberg Architecture

Emerging from Santa Monica’s progressive and inclusionary affordable housing policy, the Arroyo affordable housing development boasts 64 units at the edge of the transit-serviced and employment-rich city. Qualifying households in the LEED Platinum complex earn between 30% and 60% of the county-average median income, and many residents work in Santa Monica’s service industry.

In Santa Monica, all new market-rate multifamily housing must include a portion of affordable units on-site or nearby. Those units must also be delivered either in advance of or at the same time as the market-rate units. This project was sponsored by a nearby 250-unit development initiated in 2012.

The developer identified a nonprofit affordable housing partner to administer the program, which quickly identified a need for very-low-income, large-family units located on a separate site. Doing so allowed the project to offer more units than required by code while attracting supplemental funding sources to cover the cost of building community spaces.

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