April 4, 2020. Today, many architects tend to focus on beautiful designs rather than on long-standing city problems. Only a few projects have been able to make a real impact. Generally, when they do happen, there is a conflicting relationship between the architect and the city’s administration.
Once again, we return to the enduring debate between aesthetics and functionality. Modern cities with pandemics, economic inflation and social stratification demand collective action from both parts more than ever before.
On March 5th, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced the launch of the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Standard Plan Program. It is a new strategy to combat the city’s housing crisis, “the moral and humanitarian crisis of our time” (Garcetti, 2021), affecting the city for decades.
In short, the program offers a variety of pre-approved ADU building plans to simplify the permitting process.
The Los Angeles housing crisis is a complex phenomenon. It affects different populations but arises from a common underlying problem⎯the lack of affordable housing. For one thing, more than 66.000 homeless people live in the streets, many affected by mental illness and drug addiction issues. Simultaneously, a 16% poverty rate and very low-income citizens cannot pay the rising rents. Also, middle class and high-income younger generations search for better housing alternatives outside the city.
“Everyone agrees that the city needs more housing for low-income and homeless Angelenos. But steep construction costs, insufficient housing subsidies, and time-consuming regulations have hampered efforts to meet the demand.” (Young, 2020)
The city’s skyscraping prices result from a permanent imbalance between supply and demand. COVID-19 has only exacerbated this crisis. Now, the average property value is exceeding nine times the average household income. ” ‘Everyone is aligning to try to address homelessness with money, land, and strategy’, says Mark Vallianatos…’ The challenges that remain are, Where do you build it? and Can you build it quicker?’ “ (Cimino, 2018)
The initiative implants small-scale, detached residences into properties zoned for single-family homes, located on a lot with an existing primary dwelling, usually on the backyard or garage.
The program gives access to a flexible “catalogue” of approved plans to shorten the weeks-long permitting process. “The permitting process in Los Angeles can account for up to a third of the cost of the entire project, which would mean that this program could produce considerable savings of both time and money.” (Betsky, 2021) After selection, the last step would only be a review of site-specific factors.
The program would feature more than twenty designs from various architectural studios. One of them, pending approval, is the New York-based firm SO-IL founded by Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu. Their open-ended designs transform in real-time. They interact with the individual and the site to promote intellectual and social engagement.
A concept home for nomadic living in Milan, an industrial heritage site transformed into a thriving cultural area, and the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art for the University of California, to name a few critical projects.
The “Pebble House” raises above the ground by a cloud-shaped platform. A receded and extruded 16-point star forms the living space. Glazed walls act as translucent screens between the inside and the outside, fitted with corrugated metal clad to control the light coming in. Like a habitable carrousel, it appears to rotate according to its surroundings.
The living space surrounds a central core containing the bathroom unit. It separates sleeping and dining, leaving the remaining area for other activities. Here, life loops inwards and spills outwards as an extension of the interior.
SO-IL imagines a free-spirited inhabitant whose day-to-day remains in touch with the landscape. “The presence of the environment (in L.A.) is inescapable. This house, with its extended facade, maximizes that relationship” (Block, 2021), the firm told Dezeen.
The unit is easy to assemble with a do-it-yourself quality, made of a cold-formed steel frame with a floor and ceiling of epoxy coated wood. “The structural elements are readily available, but the pieces would be pre-fabricated on a case-by-case basis” (Block, 2021), SO-IL explains.
While the Los Angeles average house price is approaching $700,000 this year, SO-IL estimates each “Pebble House” (around 65 square meters) would cost in the region of $170,000 to $200,000. The practice is currently working on the project with the hopes of getting it approved for the ADU program by April.
ADUs can be up to 1.200 square feet (112 square metres) and must contain a separate entrance and independent bedroom, kitchen and bathroom facilities. They are meant for extended family or additional income when used as a rental property.
Hence, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) has developed a series of initiatives to build more ADUs and prepare prospective renters. The goal is to help both homeowners and vulnerable groups affected by the housing crisis.
Namely, encourage homeowners to build ADUs to rent to very low-income individuals and families, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. Also, help the homeless reintegrate into the community, remain in stable housing, and lead healthy, productive lives. The HACLA supports these initiatives by offering rent subsidies and permanent supportive housing.
“Critics complain that such projects threaten the character of their neighbourhoods and increase congestion. Others worry about rising crime rates and plummeting property values.” (Young, 2020) Yet, for Mayor Garcetti. “This program is about making ADUs more accessible, more affordable, and more beautiful.” (City of Los Angeles, 2021)
SO-ILs “Pebble House” gives value and identity to low-income, unlike the recurring social housing “grey box”. The question is, does it respond to the needs of its renters? The firm offers a rather loft-style space for no more than a few individuals to gather. They could have made full use of the pavilion-like layout and provide support to different lifestyles.
Without a doubt, it answers to Los Angeles’s eclectic culture and housing dynamics. It creates a new housing concept instead of fitting New York-style tiny homes into the predominant single-family-home fabric. It is both diversity and affordability, design and pragmatism that can change the scene of low-income housing by making it more accessible.
Garcetti, E., 2021. Homelessness. [online] Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Available at: <https://www.lamayor.org/Homelessness> [Accessed 4 April 2021].
Young, E., 2020. We Asked Top Architects for Bold Solutions to L.A.’s Homeless Crisis. Here’s What They Came Up With. [online] Los Angeles Magazine. Available at: <https://www.lamag.com/citythinkblog/housing-solutions-los-angeles/> [Accessed 4 April 2021].
Cimino, S., 2018. Can Design Help Solve LA’s Homeless Crisis?. [online] Architect Magazine. Available at: <https://lscpagepro.mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?i=489508&article_id=3055868&view=articleBrowser&ver=html5> [Accessed 4 April 2021].
Betsky, A., 2021. How Los Angeles is Confronting its Housing Crisis. [online] Architect Magazine. Available at: <https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/how-los-angeles-is-confronting-its-housing-crisis_o> [Accessed 4 April 2021].
Block, I., 2021. Pebble House is a pre-fabricated backyard house designed by SO-IL. [online] Dezeen. Available at: <https://www.dezeen.com/2021/03/18/so-il-pebble-house-adu-los-angeles/> [Accessed 4 April 2021].
City of Los Angeles, 2021. Mayor Garcetti Announces the Launch of ADU Standard Plan Program. [online] Available at: <https://www.lamayor.org/mayor-garcetti-announces-launch-adu-standard-plan-program> [Accessed 4 April 2021].