Chicago’s South and West Sides have suffered more than a half century of population outflow and disinvestment. The city’s ambitious community development initiative, “INVEST South/West,” was launched to turn around those long-term trends.
The endeavor’s initial phase aimed at spurring investment in commercial corridors. The next strives to support commercial corridor investments by reinvigorating South and West Side residential enclaves surrounding those byways. To that end, in December, the city along with the Chicago Architecture Center and Chicago Community Trust, announced a multi-stage competition to identify designs addressing “missing middle density” housing. That term refers to middle-scale housing that gently boosts the urban fabric’s density, preserving the character of the neighborhood. U.S. cities long forsook this housing type in favor of single-family homes or larger-scale multifamily structures, but now seek to bring it back.
This “Come Home Initiative” seeks to boost affordable home ownership, spur local development and forge a community development model. In so doing, the initiative also aims to lure families back to the very neighborhoods they exited years ago.
Today, the Chicago Architecture Center will unveil a new exhibit. It will display suggested “Missing Middle” infill solutions from 42 architecture firms based in cities from coast to coast. Each has provided a single 40-by-30-inch board showcasing its suggested design. A jury will select 8 to 12 of the designs to be built as case study structures, says Chana Haouzi, whose Chicago firm Architecture for Public Benefit, in partnership with Boston-based Peter Rose + Partners, is among competitors.
“Chicago is an architecture city, one of the few American cities where the general public takes pride in its architecture,” Haouzi says. “But a lot of that investment is not evenly distributed. The Come Home Initiative is exciting because it centers design as a key to solving urban challenges.”
In addition, the competition can serve as a model for similar efforts in other cities, creating a blueprint for initiating community development processes that serve the public by connecting architects, developers and city agencies, she says.
Another salient aspect of the Missing Middle competition is that the design solutions must be grounded not in fantasy or oversimplified “one-size-fits-all” concepts, but in real-world challenges. So says Dwayne MacEwen, founder and principal of DMAC Architecture & Interiors, another Chicago-based firm among the 42 participants.
“We need a capital ‘A’ architectural design solution that imagines a strategy that is also inspired by and born out of a sense of place – its culture, people, community and history,” he says. “These are the nuances that make a difference.”
Chicago, he adds, is “a city of neighborhoods that values its architecture and innovative practice. It is perhaps the best place to test ideas to tackle the complexities of affordable housing.”
Many such competitions emphasize ideas, but the designs rarely materialize as brick-and-mortar reality, Haouzi says.
In the case of the Missing Middle competition, the city wants to actually build on infill South and West Side parcels 30 to 100 affordable units based on chosen designs. This is by no means the competition’s only differentiator, she adds.
“The other interesting differences are the diverse and talented team of designers who have been selected, and the production of a pattern book,” she reports, referring to a collection of designs of a particular type, in this instance organized by housing typologies. Those typologies would be well known to virtually any Chicagoan: Single-family bungalow, two-flat, three-flat, six-flat and row house. “The competition is a unique opportunity to reimagine existing housing typologies in order to meet the needs of our time,” she continues. “The pattern book has the potential to be an open-source document that can serve as a critical resource for designers, developers and city agencies to shape the lives and neighborhoods of the South and West Sides.”
DMAC’s specific interest is row house design. To perform well in the Missing Middle competition, the simple row house must be designed to adapt over time as the family grows, MacEwan says. If grandma comes to live in the basement, how will the house evolve to fit the family’s needs? “The role of an architect is shelter and enclosure. This is one of these projects everyone in the office is excited about,“ he says. “We owe it to the urban landscape and it seems a very worthwhile competition.”