October 1, 2008
Erik Van Mehlman, based in Durham, North Carolina, won a design competition to expand the Wake County chapter of Habitat for Humanity’s portfolio of homes. Later, he started Studio B Architecture, a firm specializing in affordable housing.
“Habitat’s Wake County chapter is a rather progressive group. They’re open to new ideas, and they’re also one of the larger affiliates in the country in terms of building homes. Habitat likes to keep things even keeled when they do a development, so that everybody gets an equal product. When the house on Lot 17 was done, Habitat was like, ‘Yeah, this is a little bit nicer than what we’re typically doing.’ But I don’t think there was a whole lot more to it besides good light quality, smart solar orientations, and a little bit more design thought.
“A lot of times Habitat tries to build like production-home builders, and I’m not sure that’s the right way to go. You can’t put a price tag on things like daylighting, thermal comfort, and reduced sound transmission. I think they could do more to educate the public about where real value exists instead of perceived value. You’re paying money for unnecessary ornamentation— throwing brackets on the outside of the house that are nonstructural, crown molding, and wainscoting—but what’s the value for the client? I’d rather have a nice space with great light and good air quality.
“Habitat benefits from using free labor, so if you can get materials at the normal rate, then the cost of doing something like clerestory windows, which improve air flow and light quality, is the same as doing a standard roof. I was a little overzealous in the project and wanted to do everything I could to make this home the best it could be. That led to positives in terms of the delivery of a great home, but it also led to a couple of negatives as far as repeatability. I don’t think they’ll build this one again. It has been redesigned as a historically contextual Raleigh home.
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“When Habitat started in the 1970s, its mission was to make simple, decent, affordable housing for people who lacked adequate shelter, and now they’re one of the largest home-builders in the world. I think their mission has to expand to include both the aesthetic and environmental impact on our built world. I want to challenge them to raise the bar on design so the general public that buys production homes begins to question why a nonprofit affordable-home builder would be providing a higher-quality house than for-profit builders. Then the builders might have to emulate it, and maybe it could create a ripple effect. It might be worth it for Habitat to say, ‘We’re going to make sure we have good sustainable qualities to all our designs, even if they cost a little more, in order to reduce long-term costs for our clients and give them a better place to live.’”
How to build high-quality, affordable homes in the nonprofit sector:
1. Donate your expertise, and challenge your colleagues to get involved. Get a good team together, and then you can dig in and develop thoughtful design.
2. Develop a good rapport with the client, and have patience. It can be a long process from conceptual design through construction. The client has to be open to new ideas, and the architect must be willing to compromise.
3. Listen to your client, and understand the realities of their budget.
Also, educate them as to where real homeowner value exists: energy savings, daylighting, thermal comfort, reduced sound transmission.
4. Develop repetitive details. It’s crucial to detail these things cleanly and make them easy to construct.
5. Work on-site to keep the design on track. You earn the respect of the construction team when you can show that you’re capable of putting the building together.