At first glance, the Star Apartments in downtown Los Angles could be mistaken for an avant-garde luxury condo development. The six-story, 95,000-square-foot project is instead home to more than 100 formerly homeless residents. Designed by architect Michael Maltzan, an alum of Gehry Partners, the stacked, sculptural form levitating above Skid Row seems almost out of place in a part of the city most known for its transient population.

The project’s unique form is an inventive solution its design challenge: to build affordable housing units over an existing ground floor structure. Star Apartments’ bold architectural statement is comprised of four terraced floors of residences, along with community and public health facilities including a 15,000-square-foot Health and Wellness Center. Other amenities include a community garden, running track, exercise and art rooms, and a library.

Merits of Modular

affordable housing prototypes think wood gbd magazine

Aerial view of Star Apartments. Photo by Iwan Baan/Michael Maltzan Architecture

Star Apartments’ gravity-defying design is made possible by using light-frame prefabricated wood construction. The prefabricated wood-framed units were built in a factory outside of Boise, Idaho. They were transported on pallets, trucked on a flatbed, and hoisted into place with a crane upon arrival.

By using a lighter weight prefabricated wood system, Maltzan was able to build an entirely new structure atop the existing one-story building footprint. To residents’ gain, the lower cost of the prefabricated wood frame units and savings from faster construction afforded higher quality materials in the apartments.

“We needed to devise a model for another kind of urban space. Prefab emerged as the most direct and efficient approach, addressing issues from technical and financial to social and urban,” said Michael Maltzan project architect.

The Pressing Need for Affordable Housing

In the face of America’s housing crisis, Star Apartments is a shining example of a rising trend to think outside the box by taking advantage of prefabricated, sustainable building systems—like modular wood construction—to deliver more affordable housing solutions. And the solutions can’t come fast enough.

The demand for affordable housing is outpacing supply nationwide, with new multi-family units renting at prices cost-prohibitive for middle- and low-income renters. Nearly two-thirds of renters across the US say they can’t afford to buy a home and saving for a down payment is out of reach when home prices are rising at twice the rate of wage growth. These challenges, along with a year-long pandemic, have only intensified America’s housing problems.

One in four renter households in the US pays more than half their income on rent, and another 610,000 people have no home at all.

Housing as a social determinant of health and well-being is brought to light in a plethora of research, and access to affordable housing is a cornerstone to improving quality of life, remediating inequality, addressing social problems, and reducing unemployment.

Making housing more affordable is a complex issue with no single solution. Keep reading to learn about four affordable housing prototypes that demonstrate how materials like light-frame and mass timber wood construction, along with fresh approaches to design, can offer flexibility and play a role in curbing costs by streamlining fabrication, assembly, and installation.

Fostering Community: Affordable Housing For Young Adults Post-Foster Care

affordable housing prototypes think wood gbd magazine

Great Scott Trio. Courtesy of Guerilla Architecture

Fostering healthier communities and tackling inequality is something Portland, Oregon, developer Kevin Cavenaugh has made central to the mission of his firm, Guerrilla Development, and his spry, nimble team of five.

“For us, a building isn’t a pro forma with windows. We aren’t looking to simply maximize profits. I truly want to lean into what is best for the community,” said Cavenaugh.

These are words you might not expect to hear from a developer. But Cavenaugh and his crew are looking to do things differently–from vibrant paint schemes to social impacts, Guerrilla Development is a for-profit business with ambitious social goals. “Our affordable housing projects do not rely on a single penny of public subsidy. We are a small company that punches above our weight, that’s something we are good at.”

This includes one of their latest projects: Great Scott Trio, a four-story mixed-use building in northeast Portland. Using light-frame construction, the simple-but-clever design overcomes affordability challenges by doing more with less, which includes keeping all the common areas open and unheated.

affordable housing prototypes think wood gbd magazine

Great Scott Trio. Courtesy of Guerilla Architecture

Great Scott Trio incorporates simple cost-effective green design strategies. The light-frame structure keeps common areas open to the elements, reducing unnecessary heating costs while offering passive natural ventilation and cooling. The project’s renderings envision solar power on the roof and cistern for collecting rainwater.

Slated to finish construction in 2022, the project’s 40 apartments will all be classified as “affordable housing,” rented at 60% of median family income. A number of apartments will be reserved for 18-yr-olds aging out of Oregon’s foster care program.

A mix of resident ages and income levels will create a diverse community. An open-air design with a central courtyard will offer natural ventilation, cooling flora and offering opportunities for chance meetings.

“My goal is to design as sexy a building as possible at the best price. We have gotten good at that here at Guerilla. And when it comes to building materials, I never have considered anything but wood. I haven’t found anything that comes close to wood for the price, flexibility, and rapid renewability.” And Cavenaugh’s firm is committed to sharing their learnings, making pro formas and project plans available to anyone.

Tackling Affordability with Mass Timber: A CLT Honeycomb Bearing System

affordable housing prototypes think wood gbd magazine

340+ Dixwell. Courtesy of Gray Organschi

On the other side of the country, in New Haven, Connecticut, another four-story affordable housing project is looking to do things a little differently—this time with mass timber.

The nonprofit Beulah Land Development Corporation, Spiritos Properties, and HELP USA are teaming up to develop 340+ Dixwell. The architects are 
Gray Organschi Architecture and Schadler Selnau.

The two-building complex will provide a range of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units for individuals and families challenged by housing costs, along with ground floor commercial retail space with an aim to thread mixed-use elements into the project.

affordable housing prototypes think wood gbd magazine

340+ Dixwell. Courtesy of Gray Organschi

To explore affordable solutions and realize potential cost savings, 340+ Dixwell will take advantage of faster, prefabricated construction techniques using a cross-laminated timber (CLT) honeycomb bearing system. A special report on the project writes “[the system] provides the opportunity to expose more timber, creating warm, natural, hygroscopic approach, and helps achieve passive house performance easier, cutting long-term energy costs.”

The new project will not only “transform a major corridor in Dixwell but lead the way in the use of mass timber to make deeply affordable and attractive housing, deeply needed in New Haven, a nearer reality,” according to Darrel Brooks, chief operating officer of the Beulah Land Development Corporation.

Of the project’s 69 apartments, 80% will be reserved for those earning up to 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI). Another 20% will be what the team calls “supportive housing units,” and the remaining 20% will be market rate.

Tall Order: Maltzan Turns to Timber for His Next Affordable Housing Project

affordable housing prototypes think wood gbd magazine

The Alvidrez. Courtesy of Michael Maltzan Architecture

Mass timber can not only help build mid-rise affordable housing like the Dixwell project, but it can also boost density by going taller.

A case in point is the ambitions of Maltzan’s latest Skid Row project, The Alvidrez. The Alvidrez will be a 14-story tall timber tower of modular building blocks constructed from CLT column, beam, and deck members. A far cry from underwhelming, the building will be one of the tallest timber towers in the state of California.

Maltzan Making Affordable Housing a Priority of His Practice

Revitalizing downtown LA’s Skid Row neighborhood with bold design statements has been ingrained in Michael Maltzan Architecture since the firm’s founding in 1993.

Maltzan’s first project in the area, Inner-City Arts Campus, an arts education facility for at-risk youth, is another architecturally significant project that uses ordinary and affordable materials from the local area and California at large—white stucco walls, raw concrete, and low-cost wood-planking for load-bearing structures.

affordable housing prototypes think wood gbd magazine

Inner City Arts Campus. Photo by Iwan Baan/Michael Maltzan Architecture

In 2010 he completed the New Carver Apartments, the stark white six-story project with its circular iconic form visible from the Santa Monica Freeway.

Maltzan acknowledges that his affordable housing projects sometimes get criticism, with detractors questioning, “Why would you build affordable housing to be so nice?” In a recent lecture hosted by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies Maltzan challenged that notion, responding, “The question, then, for architecture is not, ‘How can we build something so nice for them?’ but rather ‘How can we not?’”

Taking a Deep Breath: Breezeway Home Offers Affordable Concept for Emergency Pandemic Housing

affordable housing prototypes think wood gbd magazine

The Breezeway House. Courtesy of Trevor Boyle Architects

Along with the need for permanent, long-term affordable housing options, there is a growing need for temporary solutions in the face of disasters, whether a global pandemic, raging wildfire, or major earthquake.

This spurred Orlando, Florida-based architect Trevor Boyle to develop the Breezeway Home—a concept design envisioning emergency temporary housing for health care workers during an event such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Designed to be resilient and adaptable in the face of adverse events, the Breezeway Home concept draws inspiration from the dogtrot-style of cracker houses that used a corridor between two building masses to draw in natural breezes.

affordable housing prototypes think wood gbd magazine

The Breezeway House. Courtesy of Trevor Boyle Architects

Its passive design is complemented by solar panels to reduce energy usage and rainwater collection to lessen water supply demands. Making use of steel-framed transportable trailers and light-frame wood, the Sun Belt-specific design is meant to operate easily in a hot and humid climate by promoting passive ventilation.

Structurally, the unit uses light-frame wood construction on top of the trailer base. The interior features custom built-ins for storage and seating, using finely sanded plywood finish for a clean aesthetic. The unit exterior is clad in wood panelling, creating vertical shadows that reduce the amount of direct sunlight hitting the exterior and reducing the amount of heat gain inside.

Affordable Ambitions: Cutting Costs Through Innovations

From modular boxes to breezeways, these affordable housing prototypes draw on both simple and advanced innovations in wood construction. With projects like these, building designers are showing that housing solutions don’t have to be bland or bare-bones—curbing costs can come with cutting-edge creativity.

By bringing these types of affordable housing prototypes to market, design teams are challenging our ideas of what affordable housing can look like, how it can perform environmentally, and how these buildings are experienced by residents.

Learn more about Think Wood


gb&dPRO members are recognized experts in their fields and contribute opinion columns as one of their member benefits. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and may not reflect the view of gb&d. We are committed to a diversity of voices advocating for high-performing, sustainable built environment practices. We’d like to hear what you think about this article or any of our other coverage. Send us an email at [email protected].