The Future of Living: Housing Innovation in Underserved Markets

A Q&A with Booth Hansen architects on how innovations in construction are changing the dynamics of residential development.

For the past three years Metropolis’s director of design innovation, Susan S. Szenasy, has been leading Think Tank, a series of discussions with industry leaders on important issues surrounding human-centered design. On March 15th, at Chicago’s Booth Hansen architects, she met with a panel of experts in architecture, construction, and urban development to talk about innovations in construction that are leading to increased efficiency, reduction in costs, and opportunities to address markets that are underserved. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation, prepared by M. Nacamulli.

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis Magazine (SSS): Chicago stands out with its unique mix of laws, relationships with unions, relationships with the land, and relationships with its population. Innovations in fabrication, financing, and community engagement are changing the development landscape in the city. Joe, what is at the forefront in Chicago’s construction and development industry?

Joe Pecoraro, project executive, Skender Construction (JPec): The construction industry is not often recognized as being forward thinking, but the big innovation in our field is to eliminate waste and drive costs down. We’re currently looking at how we can push the envelope on prefabricating construction components. From wall panels to pre-engineered modular components, to prefabricated components can reduce labor and material waste.

SSS: Justin Pelej, what kind of movement would you like to see in the development and construction industry?

Justin Pelej, vp of development, Focus Development (JPel): We are always looking for better ways to build. People don’t pay for structure – they pay for authenticity. With smart decisions and partnerships, we can deliver the best design-focused product.

SSS: Mark, what do you mean when you say you’re “looking for the soul of a place?”

Mark Heffron, managing partner, CEDARst (MH): We often find opportunities in renovation projects. While the housing market today is mostly focused on luxury residential, we have always tried to serve a middle market. Renovating buildings and inheriting foundations keeps our cost basis lower and provides smaller living spaces. We’ve had success leasing buildings that incorporate average unit sizes around 300 square feet, which is easier to do in buildings whose existing character provides an extension of living space. The authenticity of that character – impossible to reproduce in new construction –produces a level of soul in the building.

SSS: The market you’re serving is looking for that authenticity and connection to something real. Larry, how does current design in Chicago relate to the city’s historic architecture?

Larry Booth, principal/director, Booth Hansen (LB): Our idea to come back to rebuild the city of Chicago was ambitious, but is coming to fruition because Chicago is at a period of growth. Corporations are moving downtown and people want an urban lifestyle and buildings with real character.

SSS: And George, can you talk about how new lifestyle trends affect building design?

George Halik, principal/director, Booth Hansen (GH): There is a demographic for whom the center of the universe is beyond the center of the apartment. They are satisfied to live in smaller apartments and use the amenity area to socialize.

SSS: Most of this demographic couldn’t wait to leave the ‘center-of-the-universe’ suburban homes they grew up in. Now they are working within their community so that their city life can be more enriched than their suburban life was.

We’re talking about a very different way of building and developing than in the past. What is current in terms of innovation and fabrication, especially with modular construction?

676 N. LaSalle, by Booth Hansen Architects. Rendering © Booth Hansen.

JPec: The concept behind modular is to stop rampant waste on job sites by eliminating time spent waiting for materials, cutting down on labor time, and reducing material waste. We can pull concepts of waste reduction into construction because of how dynamic construction is, with unions, trades, and areas of expertise.

SSS: What are the benefits of modular floor and wall construction?

MH: In Chicago, an analysis of an all-precast building showed that it was the most cost-effective and architecturally significant building we could construct. Precast structures are being designed more frequently, and it’s increasingly popular to use heavy gauge materials for walls and floor panels.

SSS: Is there a substantial percentage of cost that might be saved?

JPec: There is a reduction in waste because the product is cut-to-size with little need for field modifications. From a cost standpoint, it can be the difference between being able to do a project or not.

GH: Recently, we compared a modular unit to the standard, corridor-type building with low air quality and limited views. With the modular unit approach, every unit had sun, three out of four units had private outdoor space, and we could eliminate the corridor to allow for cross ventilation and, ultimately, healthier living.

Modular Construction Concept, by Booth Hansen Architects. Rendering © Booth Hansen.

Another low-tech aspect of modularity is to design units with repetitive elements. It makes designing easier, as well as simplifying construction. The result is better quality, quicker construction, and lower cost.

SSS: Joe, you are situated in the cradle of an American industrial revolution, and you certainly have space, buildings, and a skilled labor force. How do you envision this moving forward?

JPec: It has to be a collaborative effort. We’ve been talking internally about working with the unions and the city to adapt jointly and move forward together so that we can reduce the cost of construction while maintaining the advantages that the unions provide. There is a huge political issue of workforce development, as people aren’t participating in the projects being built in their own communities. With our training program, the proposed modular factory would be working with nonprofit hiring groups to get people from the community involved in the actual construction of the units being constructed there. The unions have to be involved because you want folks to be able to work elsewhere when they graduate from this kind of pre-apprenticeship program. In general, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how open-minded the different entities have been. Reducing construction costs creates more jobs and allows more developments to happen. We’re turning in the right direction.

The Parker Fulton Market, by Booth Hansen Architects. © Dave Burk of Photography by Dave Burk.

SSS: What are the opportunities in communities that have been underserved?

JPec: It costs the same amount to build anywhere in Chicago. If you lower the cost across the board, you can increase affordable housing opportunities for all neighborhoods. There are many people in Chicago trying to accomplish things by working together. Whether in the neighborhoods or downtown, there is a collective initiative, especially with a financial incentive.

GH: Mixed-income housing complexes result in young people with nowhere to go. What do you think of the requirement to provide retail or community space as part of housing?

JPel: The current focus of affordable housing is to integrate it into middle and higher income housing. Creating a mix of housing levels avoids concentrated poverty and is more attractive to retailers.

SSS: How do we begin to understand displacing the people that are in a community or bringing others in?

Alan Barker, associate principal, Booth Hansen (AB): The socioeconomic issue is not just about the development. It’s also about employment and empowering residents to attain the financial wherewithal to be able to afford the renovated houses that are going to be produced. If people are learning skills and being compensated for them, they can be active participants.

SSS: In innovation districts forming around the country, there is a movement to train community members for the next generation of jobs. Is that kind of proactive job development happening in Chicago?

AB: The city has certainly made an effort to attract innovative companies. They have internal training programs, but I think it’s a stretch to say that they are looking at how they’re training people to be effective in the community.

SSS: If people living near tech companies only anticipate staying for a limited time, how does it affect your investment and the development?

JPel: It’s great for investment short-term. As units turn and there is high demand, rents increase. But that’s a short-sighted way of looking at things – the bigger question is where people go next.

MH: Chicago has so many neighborhoods that each have their own character. Some neighborhoods are based around single family homes and have a community feel, while others are higher density and more urban. It’s about picking a neighborhood with opportunity for real-estate development.

SSS: Chicago has the population, location, and intellect to take innovative steps in the area of financing. How can financing adjust to the developing market?

JPEL: Our team is trying to figure out ways to develop neighborhoods so people can own property. We have initiatives, like provisions for first-time sales, which can bring affordability and sustain neighborhoods. And we have to be creative in finding ways to get middle market projects off the ground. We need to challenge the archaic, costly building codes in Chicago. Then, the norms on construction across the board will inevitably change.

SSS: All systems need to be examined, discussed, and integrated into a larger philosophy of equity within the population of that city. While prefab is more efficient and cheaper to produce, where does it leave room for design?

GH: You can create a more private experience for people living in prefabs than in the typical double-loaded, corridor building. From a design standpoint, there are many possibilities.

JPel: You can also get better quality, better precisions, and just better construction with prefab.

JPec: When we talk modular, we’re not talking about a box or a shipping container. You can design anything you want to be built with this.

SSS: So, it’s a kit of parts designed specifically for that project, leaving plenty of opportunity for design. With so many possibilities, we’re at just the beginning of this discourse.

Audience Member:

How do you push the sense of ownership, and the integration and self-worth that accompanies it, on a rental community?

Jpel: Some of it is cyclical, but I think the bigger discussion here is that people inherently want to be part of a community. At some point, renters seek the amenities offered by neighborhoods, and that’s where we start to see ownership pick up. The question is how to make that ownership affordable.

SSS: Any city has to be a system of interconnections of neighborhoods, people, services, ideas, and human intelligence. Chicago is a city rich with resources, and it continues to develop as one of the most important American cities.

Szenasy (left) and panelists at the offices of Booth Hansen. © Tony Vasquez.

Larry Booth, principal/director, Booth Hansen

George Halik, principal/director, Booth Hansen
Mark Heffron, managing partner, CEDARst 
Joe Pecoraro, project executive, Skender Construction
Justin Pelej, VP of Development, Focus Development

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis magazine

The Metropolis Think Tank series is presented in partnership with Corian® Design, DXV/GROHE, KI, Sunbrella Contract Fabrics, and Teknion.

Recent Programs