Jeffrey Liu and Haylie Chan propose a new typology of community-based affordable housing for a low-rise, low-density city.

In the lead up to each issue, we challenge emerging designers to respond to the Frame Lab theme with a forward-looking concept. Space-poor cities worldwide are dealing with insufficient affordable and social housing: a problem that calls for alternative and innovative solutions to the way that our living spaces are designed, constructed, managed and regulated. For Frame 141, we asked three creative practices to share their ideas. 

LA-based Jeffrey Liu and Haylie Chan both obtained their Master’s degree in Architecture from Yale University. Originally from Canada, Chan studied and worked as an architectural designer in Toronto, Hong Kong, New York, Rome, Tokyo and Gothenburg. Designer and writer Liu is currently an editor of Perspecta 55. Dingbat Court combines the qualities of the Dingbat typology with that of the bungalow court, resulting in a community-focused, affordable housing model.

Jeffrey Liu and Hayley Chan.

Your home base Los Angeles was the starting point for your contribution to The Challenge. Why?  

JEFFREY LIU: In introducing densified living as a solution to the housing shortage, we were interested in what form density could take within a sprawling, low-density city such as Los Angeles. While LA is dictated largely by single-family residential zoning, historical multifamily housing typologies such as the bungalow court and the dingbat reveal possibilities for densification in the city.

HAYLIE CHAN: Indeed. Built mostly between the 1910s and 1930s, the bungalow court arranged several small houses around a central outdoor walkway on a single lot. The typology provides certain amenities inherent to single-family homeownership, such as access to outdoor areas and the separation of neighbouring units, but at a higher density and more affordable cost. However, the increase of parking requirements in subsequent zoning ordinances led to the emergence of the dingbat in the 50s. It maximized land use within a low-density zoning envelope by elevating liveable space over the parking spots required for each site, maintaining the private entrances and off-street parking of single-family homes but in a denser form. While both housing types demonstrate strategies for densification within the low-rise conditions of Los Angeles, both types also reinforce the privatized nature of the city’s single-family residential zones, which lack spaces for shared co-living or public activity. 

So your suggestion is to combine both housing typologies? 

JL: Yes. Drawing from the dingbat’s structural strategy for density in elevating living spaces to create useable covered space below, as well as the bungalow court’s spatial arrangement of units around a central courtyard, we dreamed up Dingbat Court. It’s an affordable housing model that combines and reinvents both typologies for communal living while establishing public space for neighbourhood use. 

How will the model take shape? 

HC: The building’s structurally open ground floor centres around a public courtyard for outdoor gathering and community gardening. The street-facing sides of the building will provide shaded public space, residential parking, and a small-scale retail space at the corner. This will create a porous façade that allows the public access to the centre of the building, while residential units occupy the non-street-facing edges of the ground floor. 

JL: We envision the building to be sited on a combined lot at the corner of two streets, where it creates a new public space for the neighbourhood to gather and engage in small-scale food production. As it will be an affordable housing complex with a public space component, the building could be subsidized through a joint development between the city’s parks department and housing authority, linking low-income housing with equitable access to green space. 

What will the ratio of communal to private be like at Dingbat Court?

HC: While each compact unit is complete with a private bathroom and kitchen in addition to living quarters, semi-enclosed wintergardens connecting the four bungalow units serve as communal spaces. More than just a cost-effective solution, this housing type proposes that mutual community effort can create an effective support network for working- and middle-class families. Located at the shared entry between individual units, these wintergardens provide space for mutual aid where residents can grow vegetables together, care for each other’s children and elders, and share duties for cooking and laundry, lessening each family’s individual burden of reproductive labour.

How about the way they are constructed? 

JL: The building’s structural system limits the amount of high-carbon materials such as steel and concrete, using CLT for its loadbearing walls and structural slabs, while plaster and concrete are utilized as weatherproof exterior cladding. The building’s landscape employs low-water plantings and surfaces, consisting largely of gravel with desert planting and permeable grasscrete pavers. Thus, in its material construction, Dingbat Court aims to embody a principle of carbon neutrality. 

HC: In addition, the building’s faceted roof maximizes sunlight exposure for solar energy generation, as roof surfaces angled south and west are clad with thin-film, photovoltaic laminate. Finally, the building addresses carbon neutrality in transportation by providing electric vehicle charging points and bike racks, while also localizing food production and retail to limit the necessity of vehicular transportation. While the building’s provided space for parking reflects the necessity of automobile transport in today’s Los Angeles, these spaces remain flexible and can be converted to shaded public patios as the city’s public transportation networks improve in the future.

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