Story at a glance:
- Urban Practice helped to transform affordable housing in Camden, New Jersey in collaboration with The Michaels Organization.
- The Branch Village project includes two low-rise buildings, the most recent of which was completed in 2021.
Christina Davis talks about the Branch Village Townhomes in Camden, New Jersey a lot in her work. It’s the kind of project she and her colleagues at Urban Practice can be proud of. “The mission was to provide a really nice place to live for the local community,” says Davis, principal at Urban Practice.
The affordable housing project, which includes single-family townhomes and two low-rise buildings, was completed in five phases, rolled out from 2017 to 2021.
“This is a project we reference often. Even when we’re working on other projects, we reference how things were constructed within Branch Village. ‘We used this wall type, we used this type of assembly, we used these cabinets from Branch Village,’” Davis days. “It’s such a rich resource.”
She says the whole experience went really well in large part because of Urban Practice’s standards—which include things like using the same energy-efficient fixtures and finishes across projects. “Branch Village is a really good representation of what our standards are all about,” she says. “It’s a very easy project to reference, and it’s so ingrained in the neighborhood.”
The Michaels Organization, one of the largest private sector owners of affordable housing in the US, started working with the City of Camden and the Housing Authority of Camden (HACC) more than 20 years ago—when Camden was widely considered to be one of the most impoverished, crime-ridden, and racially segregated cities in the country. When Branch Village in Centerville was built in 1941 as a public housing community, more than 50% of the residents lived below the poverty line. In the decades since, the houses had fallen into disrepair and were in need of a complete renovation.
When Michaels set out to make change, they chose Urban Practice to help. Today all of the original Branch Village public housing units have been replaced with Branch Village Townhomes—an affordable, mixed-income community with 255 modern and energy-efficient units. Today’s Branch Village community offers residents access to a free health clinic and community center complete with a large gathering space, computer lab, fitness center, and commercial grade kitchen.
Davis says the design team also wanted to open Branch Village up to be more connected to the community. Ultimately, new streets and corridors were added to ensure the project didn’t feel closed off. Inside the most recent building, she says they emphasized warm finishes and light colors. Outside, splashes of green call back to an earlier phase on the exterior facade and bring life to the space.
Every detail—right down to the toilets—was considered early in the design. “The Niagara toilets look good,” Davis says. “They have WaterSense technology, and they are durable. They are probably cost effective, too.”
Niagara toilets are high-power and low-maintenance. They flush quietly and, according to the manufacturer, have the most efficient flush on the planet.
Urban Practice has strong standards for the products and materials they use across projects, Davis says. “We’re trying to develop our standards so we use the same toilet throughout all of our projects,” she says. “It helps us manage expectations for the resident and for the builder, and it eliminates the question of ‘What toilet are we going to use?’ We know the pricing.”
She says they do the same for sinks , faucets, showers, tubs, and tub surrounds, among other features. “We developed these standards that are accessible to anyone working on this project. It spells out what we’re aiming for.”
Throughout the project Michaels contracted with more than 10 local companies—many of them small, minority, or woman-owned. The completed townhomes range from one- to two-bedroom units, each with a full kitchen, living, and dining areas, full baths, and generous bedrooms.
The project also incorporated low-VOC paint and carpets, LVP flooring, locally manufactured millwork, Energy Star windows and appliances, and low-flow fixtures. “It’s really important for us to incorporate that level of awareness into our projects,” Davis says.