Courtyard Living

A Portland-based competition announces the winning proposals that promote high-density housing.

Portland is widely recognized as an urban planning and design leader. In 1974, the city council killed plans for a highway and instead used the federal funding to create the first modern day light rail system. Six years later, the city became the first in the nation to create an urban growth boundary to contain sprawl. Nevertheless, in the 21st century, Portland faces many of the crises common to the contemporary American metropolis: lack of affordable housing, declining numbers of families with children, and rapid growth at the suburban-rural fringe.

Enter the Portland Courtyard Housing Design Competition, whose winning entries were announced in late November. Sponsored by the city, the competition promotes courtyard housing as an affordable way of increasing neighborhood densities without sacrificing public space and environmental sustainability. The courtyard model also extends Portland’s tradition of street oriented urbanism. “Suburban houses avoid the street,” said Mark Gillem, a competition director and a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon. “The courtyard can engage it.”

The competition drew 257 entries from 15 countries and 35 states and featured two submission categories based on site dimensions and locations: a 100’ by 100’ Portland infill site (Inner Site), and a 95’ by 180’ East Portland suburban site (Eastern Site). Both categories required one parking space per unit.

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Among the winning entries, innovative features include multi-use parking areas, which encourage children’s play in spaces traditionally reserved for the car, explains David Miller, a competition juror and a principal at Miller Hull Partnership in Seattle. Flexible floor plans accommodate non-traditional and growing families while clear transitions between public and private spaces demarcate the boundaries necessary for high-density living.

Despite the common theme, the entries encompassed a range of contemporary and traditional architectural styles, says Gillem. For example, a commendation award was given to a design that stacks recycled shipping containers around a courtyard framed by wood trellises, eco-roofs, and pedestrian bridges. The Portland merit award winner showcases “future proofing,” in which a starter house—boxy and modern with an ancillary rental unit—evolves into a single family residence, and then, finally, into multi-generational quarters.

The city aims to build a couple of the designs to spur innovation among developers. Courtyard housing distributes construction costs, provides a safe place for children to play, and builds community. “It’s about livable affordable densities,” says Gillem.

A catalogue featuring all the entries will be available in January 2008.

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