Can We Reduce Cost to Build, Improve Quality, and Reduce Cost of Occupation?

When building affordable housing, we are faced with many challenges. These include land-use regulations; the complexity of subsidy programs; the cost of labor, materials, and equipment; and opposition from existing communities. But none of this should stand in the way of designing better-quality housing for low-income families.

In this article, I discuss a few low-income housing design ideas that, together, will help to tackle all these challenges – helping to enhance neighborhoods and reduce both build and living costs.

Make low-income housing pleasing to the eye

We immediately tell much from a building by how it looks on the outside. Why build ugly concrete blocks?

The façade of a building does a much bigger job than looks, though. Its windows allow light in. Its doors connect inhabitants to the outside world. It’s a thermal barrier, and its design does much to dictate heat, light, and airflow. It is also around 25% of the cost of the build.

We must focus on making the façade of a building attractive, durable, and functional. We should concentrate on using the right materials, and mixing low-cost and higher-cost materials for functional and visual effectiveness.

Use interior space more effectively

We rarely make the best use of interiors. Yet by exploring simple, small design changes we can often create large floor space efficiencies.

For example, we can design homes to incorporate areas with multiple uses (as we see in studios and one-bed apartments). Instead of using walls to separate living areas, utilize the furniture to denote a change of use.

In apartments, we can align kitchens and bathrooms to reduce plumbing costs. 

Instead of traditional doors, use sliding doors that recess into walls.

Should we include communal in-house laundry facilities? In many locations, laundromats are available nearby, so is in-house laundry necessary?

It’s usual to standardize unit layouts when building multiple units in an apartment building. Designers should consider the space-savings that may be made by rotating or mirroring units within the building. This creates low-cost variation, and may also free space to be used otherwise.

We must also avoid the obvious cost-cutting that does not reduce housing affordability: pay attention to higher-grade finishes and resist the temptation to downgrade appliances to save money – such short-sightedness may reduce the cost to build, but increases maintenance and occupation costs in the longer term.

Make services sufficient, efficient, and sustainable

Considering the basic services needed by a building may be unglamorous but it is crucial. Not only for the build costs but also for ongoing costs of occupation. For example, it may (or may not be) more expensive to build ‘green’, but the cost savings to occupants in the long-term can be substantial. And this is on top of the benefits to quality of life and health.

How can we trade-off between costs, health benefits, quality of life, and housing sustainability?

First, we can design buildings that stack wet walls – placing kitchens and bathrooms back-to-back and vertically aligned will save on plumbing costs.

Can we reduce or eliminate elevators, while maintaining ease of access?

We should also consider how to improve the performance of our affordable housing. It may cost more to incorporate high-performance HVAC, but there could be substantial savings to occupants, as well as to the environment.

Construct off-site and use alternative materials

When designing low-income housing, we should consider the substantial cost savings that can be made by using off-site construction methods such as modular housing and flat-pack elements. We can improve quality, reduce build times, and reduce the cost to build.

Architects and designers must stay updated with modern construction practices, as well as be informed about constraints that may affect construction – like the effectiveness of modular build depending on the size of the property and the space available for cranes to be used.

We should also consider what materials are available to us. For example, using alternative timber products can aid in prefabrication, reducing costs while simultaneously improving build quality.

Design for expansion

We know that families grow over time, so why do we not build for homes to be expandable? If we design and construct units that can be added to, we remove the need for families to move to larger properties.

Get policymakers onside

It is not only in the design and construction of low-income housing that we must improve. We need to have building codes and zoning laws that are conducive to the delivery of quality affordable housing.

For example, policymakers should revisit off-street parking requirements – especially in locations where there are adequate public transport options. 

Should zoning rules be relaxed to allow larger projects, thus reducing the cost to design and build per unit? Can local government remove red tape, and make permissions more transparent and simpler?

In conclusion

By building more pleasing-looking buildings, we help to mitigate some of the irrational opposition to affordable housing. By incorporating the most effective materials and modern building practices, we reduce time to build and improve functionality, while improving the quality of life and reducing the cost of occupancy.

By designing with efficiency to build and use, we can further reduce costs and make buildings easier and cheaper to maintain, while also including an element of individuality.

If we utilize practices that simplify building and reduce the time to build, we will reduce the cost to build. You see, lower cost does not need to lead to lower quality. 

We must not allow the cost of constructing affordable housing to constrict our ability to do so. We must simply continue to consider all elements, and seek ways to build better more effectively.

At ACB Consulting, we are committed to helping improve the communities in which we live, work, and play – including how they are conceived, designed and created. To learn more, contact ACB Consulting.

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