Architecture News – NYC Design Competition for Affordable Apartments

Hello readers,

Although this is somewhat old news (the contest was announced back in July) I felt that the topic was important enough to warrant posting. The contest sponsored by NYC Dept of Housing Preservation and Development was to design an apartment complex which contained apartments that were no more than 300sqft in size. The small footprint would in theory keep costs low and make it affordable for young people trying to find a place to live in NYC. A photo of a sample layout is shown below. The submission deadline for the contest is Sept 14, 2012. For an idea on what a 300sq ft apartment feels like, check out this brief news clip.

While the idea of living in a 300 sq ft apartment is novel, I am not sure how I feel about this project or its goals. On the one hand, high density development is considerably more sustainable than living in the suburbs; however there are costs with being so close to your neighbor. The limited personal space in a city of millions can feel suffocating and the forced interaction with your closest neighbors can raise stress levels and anxiety in an already hectic city.

Another way of looking at this project is seeing it in terms of social control being exerted over the young and poor in the city. Architects through design control the way people live and move through their spaces. In a way this is more personally intrusive then any government mandate could ever be. Through the physical layout of the apartment you are dictating to someone how they make their morning or evening routines in their own homes. This is exerting a level of influence that peripheral issues such as taxation or regulation could never touch. With so much at stake, the onus on the architect to get it right becomes very high. Take something as small as the way a refrigerator door opens. If the door opens the wrong way, every time you use the appliance you will be irritated by having to step out of the way of the door. These little inconveniences compounded over months, combined with the stressful city life can make someone downright miserable over the long term. Thoughtful design makes life easier while poor design choices serve to annoy and make life all the more difficult.

Given the degree which you are affecting someone’s life by though this housing, the short timeline given to develop plans for this project seem grossly inappropriate. As a designer/architect you need the time to iterate to make the design as optimal as possible as well as attempting to consider every possible factor in a living environment. Even after all of that work, you are still going to miss things. There are unexpected outcomes in even the best planned developments. The absolute failures of urban housing projects for the poor in the past should serve as reminders to carefully evaluate the merits and pitfalls of the even smallest detail in the design. Do we really want to be short changing another generation with sub-standard housing?

In addition to the logistics and functionality of the apartments there are hundreds of social issues at play in housing. The final design will ultimately reflect the architect’s values and ideals for living more than the values of the young people living there. Is the architect an extrovert or an introvert? If introvert, he may value privacy and solitude in the design more. If extrovert, he may opt to create more common spaces for people to gather in, and by doing that how will the ambient noise from those common spaces affect those that may want more privacy? What is the architect’s opinion on technology? Should we be attempting to get people out of their phones and conversing with their neighbors or should this housing act as a cocoon where one can escape away from the trials and interactions of the city? Also the issue of park space is another issue to consider. When you consider all of these separate topics and how they interact with one another designing a suitable building becomes an ominous task. That is why so few architects succeed at large scale central planning, there are just too many variables.

One also has to ask if this project is really designed to help the young or just serve as an additional source of income for the rentier class that collects their bloated monthly rent checks from the city dwellers seeking accommodations within the city limits. Does this development scheme offer any type of equity to the young person living there?

If it doesn’t, a better solution would be to offer the apartments to young people by having them pay into a currency pool used to fund the building’s construction and maintenance using an alternate currency such as Bitcoin. By paying rent into a monetary system that is by nature deflationary rather than inflationary, the tenants’ purchasing power is preserved and equity is created rather than destroyed. The current rent system sends the tenants’ funds to an often unknown landlord’s pocketbook while the increasingly worthless US dollar erodes what little money the tenant might have left over after paying his rent.

Under the Bitcoin scheme, at the end of his/her stay in the building, he/she can sell their share in the apartment to the next occupant for a set fraction of the same number of Bitcoins that he initially payed to occupy the apartment. As each whole Bitcoin is worth more over time, equity and profit are created for the current and future tenants. That way they could walk away with some equity to buy a real home or property in the future.

Although this scheme will be affected by the fluctuations in the value of Bitcoin currency, (i.e. the more people who demand the currency, the more value each coin holds as the number of coins is limited to 21,000,000) recent trends seem to indicate that the currency is increasingly acting as a repository for value in the face of corrupt or collapsing governments. As public trust in the formal government erodes, more of the economy and people move from the formal to the informal sector of the economy.* There has been a direct correlation between the increasing price for Bitcoin and the unraveling of the economies of Greece/Europe in recent months. With most developed countries including the US facing default on sovereign debt and the unpopularity of austerity measures needed to remedy those debts, the poor are turning to outlets that will protect their savings from inflation or taxation.

So to conclude, it would seem that there are a lot of factors to consider when designing for this seemingly simple 300 sq ft apartment competition, from layout to financing.

* For further reading on the subject of formal vs informal sectors of the economy see Hernando de Soto’s The Other Path and The Mystery of Capital & Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West & fails Everywhere Else

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