WSLA Insights is a special section in each issue of gb&d magazine where alums from the Women in Sustainability Leadership Award share their guidance and leadership experience.

By 2050, roughly 70% of the world’s population will live in cities—an influx of 2.5 billion people. Without proper preparation and investments in infrastructure, transportation, and services, this population growth will strain cities’ abilities to provide for people and operate efficiently. The “financialization of housing,” or the growing trend of multibillion dollar firms owning and operating residential real estate for maximum profits, is a pattern we’re seeing around the world.

As affordable housing becomes more difficult to access and rents continue to increase, the creation of more cost-effective homes is necessary. With the housing crisis affecting every state, county, and city in the nation, it’s more critical now than ever for Congress to invest in residential infrastructure. These investments will help communities preserve and build up the country’s affordable housing stock, strengthen the U.S. economy, and provide more stability to families.

Wentworth Commons Susan King

Wentworth Commons is a prime example of sustainable, affordable housing. [Photo: Anthony May Photography]

Housing is a Human Right

Advocating for housing as a human right is my focus today. When the opportunity came to design Wentworth Commons, an affordable housing facility on Chicago’s South Side, I was well prepared to push not only for good design but also environmental friendliness as a key to affordability. Wentworth was the first multi-unit residential building in the Midwest to receive LEED certification. The project served to discredit the myth that sustainability costs more or can’t be attained on tight budgets.

As the environmental movement expands to include social equity, I continue to strive to blend the two. The recently completed Lake Street Studios also exemplifies this effort. Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood has experienced a dramatic revitalization over the last two decades, transforming from an industrial concentration of factories and warehouses to a sought-after location for renowned restaurants, high-end galleries, and luxury apartments.

With this growth came new employment opportunities across sectors, skill sets, and income levels—and expensive housing that excludes the neighborhood’s lower-income service industry workforce. Lake Street Studios provides 61 affordable, transit-oriented micro-units, ensuring Chicago’s service industry workers not only have safe, attainable, high-quality housing, but also critical access to opportunities, social services, and the jobs they depend on to survive.

Wentworth Commons Interior Susan King

[Photo: Anthony May Photography]

Moving Forward

During my time as a young architect in Chicago, I recognized the importance of civic engagement beyond my typical day job. I became actively involved in two professional organizations—Chicago Women in Architecture and Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. At the time, I didn’t fully understand how these would influence and set the course for my career.

As a mentor to other architects today, I underscore the importance of being what the AIA recognizes as a “citizen architect.” The AIA defines this term as someone who uses their insights, talents, training, and experience to contribute meaningfully to the improvement of the community and human condition. I continue to weave these beliefs into the projects I design and into my involvement in community engagement. I encourage young professionals to pursue their passion, which may be outside of their current position or day job.

There is much to be done in today’s political climate on so many issues. We must all participate. We can’t afford not to. Architects are in a unique position as natural advocates for a better future. Whether climate change, better funding and mechanisms for attainable housing, or anything else, pick your issue, and don’t be a passive member of anything.

Wentworth Commons Susan King

[Photo: Anthony May Photography]

Susan King Susan King became the third woman principal at Harley Ellis Devereaux (HED) in 2007. She previously served as chair of the AIA Chicago Committee on the Environment and president of Chicago Women in Architecture. King received the Women in Sustainability Leadership Award (WSLA) in 2016.