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Power Plexes

In our previous post, we discussed powerful strategies to creatively expand housing choice in ‘single-family’ districts. These are important ways to gently increase housing options within existing walkable neighborhoods. What do we mean by walkable? We mean places where you could feasibly live without a car. These places have physical characteristics such as small blocks, sidewalks, street trees, on-street parking, and importantly, amenities to walk to. You'll often see these characteristics in older neighborhoods created before 1929. Newer suburban neighborhoods often lack these connective components. This makes it harder, but not impossible, to accommodate additional housing choices within them.

Older neighborhoods also often have commercial cores, which typically corresponded to historic trolley or streetcar stops. These existing commercial clusters are true gems, often the “heart” of a community. Supporting and allowing these neighborhood-scale commercial businesses to thrive requires adequate homes/rooftops within walkable proximity. We’ve written before about how typical detached single-family housing simply does not provide adequate, proximate rooftops unless the community also has a blend of attached housing options here.

Designing and deploying Missing Middle Housing has been heralded as an important way to provide more housing choices at a neighborhood appropriate scale. Though this type of gentle density usually already exists in older neighborhoods, with current zoning requirements it is not easy to provide when building new. One reason is that it simply is not legal in enough neighborhoods. Additionally, we see a massive shortage of architects and contractors that know how to design and build it. As many groups have a strong desire to build and manage this type of housing, we've been working hard on solutions to these problems to maximize positive outcomes.

Our work over the last eight years teaching with the Incremental Development Alliance (IncDev), has provided us opportunities for deep research and development into these challenges. We start with the development math to determine a viable project (do the rents justify the costs?) and work backwards to craft a viable urban design and building strategy. Time and again we’ve seen that fourplexes rarely, if ever, work. You need to get to a six or eight plex to have a shot at project viability at the smallest scale.

But doing a small six plex on a single lot also has significant inefficiencies. For example, finding an architect to design a custom building, outside of their wheelhouse, on a small budget is a big hurdle. Smaller projects just don’t have the design budgets to do a thoughtful deep dive in making a great building as a one-off. At KUA, we’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to design multiple plex buildings for non-profits committed to deliver workforce housing, such as Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise with support from the Lyndhurst and Benwood Foundations. With these partnerships we have been able to design and refine multiple quad, six, ten, and twelve plex buildings. These buildings are not only designed with an urban designer’s mindset and an architect’s eye for detail and livability, they are informed by real development math. Our nonprofit partners, equipped with a set of pattern plans for reuse, can now provide neighborhood-scale housing choices in cost-predictable and cost-efficient ways.

While the pattern plans are the crux of this approach, the urban designer’s lens is critical. The plex buildings are designed to fit across a range of small-format infill sites, but they become transformative when multiple buildings are arranged together on 0.5 - 2 acre sites. Baked into these medium-sized sites are thoughtful approaches to mobility, connectivity, and parking. Reduced parking is critical to achieve enough housing density to calibrate rents to more attainable levels. These infill developments often achieve 14-40 units, offering a range of development scales that start to provide efficiencies not just in building design and construction but also for operations and property management.

Not only is this approach repeatable, incremental, and attractive, it significantly outperforms alternate infill strategies from a development math standpoint. To illustrate this point, we’ve run some comparative analysis on several current projects. Time and again, we are finding more cost savings, more attainable rents, reduced complexity in construction, and more of the things we all love: compatible, vibrant infill.

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