When you think of affordable housing, the first free-associated word that comes to mind might be “uninspired.” With approaches more explicitly limited by budgets than standard housing projects, affordable housing has historically favored function over form. But the recently completed 48,000-square-foot Highwood Square Affordable Artist Housing project in Hamden, Connecticut, as collaboratively designed by architect Ben Ledbetter and Lawrence Blough of Graftworks, suggests that form and function are complementary—and might lead to sustainable and attractive results that not only alter the buildings but the community itself.
“The main idea that motivated this project, voiced by the client and the town government, was to provide housing, work, and teaching space for artists as a way of expressing a hope for cultural and economic progress in a struggling neighborhood,” Ledbetter says. “The goal of the architecture was to express this hope.”
Highwood Square is an adaptive reuse of an existing brick warehouse from 1920 and office building dedicated to commercial use. A new three-story building and new story above the warehouse comprise 27 live/work-style residential units—intended to be more “house” than “housing.” One-, two-, and three-bedroom options are available, each with optimal daylighting and a program to encourage maximal versatility. “The owner really wanted to develop different dwelling types for the residents, and every apartment has a large living space that can double as a studio space,” Blough says. “There is a lot of interlocking between apartment types creating double height spaces, and every unit has two orientations, which is unique for a US affordable housing typology.”
“In this project, we were able to reclaim buildings, but we were also able to create a public space in a transitioning area.”
Lawrence blough, graftworks
The three structures form an open J-shape surrounding a central courtyard that would be accessible from a number of points, intending to create a new sort of community space in an area of Hamden historically underdeveloped in this way. Thus, the 16-mile-long rails-to-trails-style linear park abutting the face of one of the buildings intersects with the courtyard, creating a literal connection between the development and the urban fabric. “The building has multiple access points, and the owners originally wanted a fence around the building, but we resisted that, because it was important for the buildings to have a connection to the community,” Blough says.
Although Highwood Square is already distinct for its use of color, perhaps its most dramatic elevation is the one facing the linear park. There, passersby see an enameled metal shingle screen wall adorned with an abstract, pixelated mosaic of greens, blues, and turquoises aesthetically inspired by the verdant landscape and materially inspired by the area’s industrial history. The development is located on 76,000 square feet of a former brownfield site, once occupied by a perfume factory (demolished prior to development), a Nabisco bakery warehouse (adapted for reuse), and the office of the perfume factory (also adapted).
“We restored the warehouse spaces, but we also put one level of housing units on top of it,” Ledbetter says. “If you look at it from the street, you see the scroll façade on the warehouse, and a green figure comes out above that. Obliquely, this is kind of like a phoenix rising from the ashes—a new form coming out of the old—but it’s also a symbol of sustainability.”
The additional materials used at Highwood Square—polycarbonate glazing, fiber cement board, and steel mesh—further complement the area’s industrial history. The units are supplied with Energy Star appliances, and thermal performance in the existing buildings was also improved to better function in the cold New England winters. “In this project, we were able to reclaim buildings, but we were also able to create a public space in a transitioning area,” Blough says. “The community at Highwood Square has become a model for the community not only for adaptive reuse, but how housing can have a public component.”