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Competition: Low-Rise Los Angeles

A design competition that pushed how we think about housing density.

In the depths of the pandemic, while most of the Union staff was working from home and everyone was feeling a bit un-moored, we decided to enter a design competition. There’s something about design competitions, with their ambitious goals, tight timelines, and promises of fame and fortune, that provides new energy and big-picture thinking to the office.

The Low-Rise LA design challenge was organized by the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Chief Design Office for the City of Los Angeles and was intended to solicit ideas for increasing density in the predominantly low-rise (one and two stories tall) neighborhoods of LA. It had a particular focus on incorporating community amenities and self-determination. As part of the competition, the organizers put together mandatory listening sessions on public infrastructure investment, affordable housing models and community response, transformative climate communities, sustainability across regions, and community land trust and cooperative housing models. These listening sessions framed the many associated problems through the work of local experts who are active in the communities most impacted by the housing crisis. They also ensured that project teams took a holistic view of the problem, not falling into the all-too-common trap of thinking that design alone can solve the housing affordability crisis.

Although the context and climate are quite a bit different than our native New England, the goals of the competition and the problems it was designed to address were directly in our wheelhouse. And regardless of the outcome, the ideas generated for a design competition often have a way of finding their way into our future projects, so we were all in.

The competition included three categories which were based on a typical 50′ x 150′ LA lot. The premise of the competition was that two lots merged could support 6-10 units, one lot could support a fourplex, and a subdivided lot could support a duplex accessory dwelling unit, all without disrupting the existing neighborhood. Union submitted two separate entries, one for a subdivided lot, DIY: Duplex it Yourself, and one for two lots merged together, The Canopy.

The DIY: Duplex it Yourself plan harnesses the side effects of LA’s low-density zoning – underutilized land and the runaway appreciation of single-family homes – to build no-money-down duplexes in backyards throughout the city. It has flexibility built in, with five different unit types that can be combined to meet the various needs of the market – acknowledging that families grow, change, and exist in all shapes and sizes. Each unit type is built on the same basic module, so individual units can adapt to the needs of their residents, expanding or modifying as needs change. The overarching goal of the DIY was to empower existing homeowners to help alleviate the housing crisis without needing an outside organization to administer the program, aligning incentives so that residents could benefit from the intensification of their property and neighborhood.

The Canopy plan envisions a 10-unit limited-equity co-op with residences organized around an interior courtyard and a flexible commercial space anchoring and activating the outside corner of the site. Porches, patios, balconies, and side yards create a layering of private and semi-private outdoor spaces, helping the range of unit types – from studio to three-bedroom – to live in harmony. The Canopy also put a special emphasis on planted shade and shelter – the site perimeter, lined with sidewalks and foliage, creates an inviting pedestrian experience. Site trees act as carbon sinks, provide shade, create a buffer between public and private spaces, and are an integral part of the stormwater treatment system. Native drought-resistant plantings eliminate the need for regular irrigation. Both submissions called for durable, low-carbon materials, efficient equipment like electric heat pumps, and an architectural language native to southern California.

There were 380 submissions from around the globe, and, unfortunately, we didn’t win. But, in a fun twist, one of our all-star new employees, Evelyn Ehgotz, received an honorable mention while still a graduate a student at RISD! The preservation of existing neighborhoods through the addition of new units is something we will continue to think about and work through, and we look forward to incorporating the design ideas generated by this design competition into future projects.