A housing design to meet the changing needs of today's family

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TRANSLATING family housing needs into appropriate and practical designs has always intrigued and challenged architects. And when clients have generous budgets, the results can be well-turned forms that turn heads and create an architectural aesthetic that becomes a benchmark for others to follow. Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie House is an example of this phenomenon, and it has spun off ranch-home clones across the United States.

The needs of today's family, however, are changing. Indeed, today's family is itself changing. More than half of all women are in the paid labor force, for example. Thus, the dominant American family is now the two-earner household. Also, the single-parent family is the fastest-increasing demographic type. And single people living alone now account for almost 25 percent of all households.

What this portends for today's housing design was the subject of a recent architectural design competition, ``A New American House.'' The competition, sponsored by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, asked experienced designers as well as students to design an efficient, affordable housing unit, not to exceed 1,000 square feet in area, which would function both as the residence and principal professional workplace for at least one of it s occupants. Competitors had to place six units together on a site a little less than half an acre in the Whittier neighborhood in Minneapolis.

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From among 346 entrants, three winning designs were chosen, with first place going to Troy West and Jacqueline Leavitt of Wakefield, R.I.

Mr. West and Ms. Leavitt have been exploring for some time now how architectural designers can better meet people's housing needs. Four years ago they turned their attention to the needs of single parents, designing a congregate house that was altered to include an accessory apartment for an elderly person. Their winning entry for ``A New American House'' was built on this earlier work, but it was modified to fit within the competition's guidelines.

Each unit in the West/Leavitt design is U-shaped, with main access through an alley and street access through a front yard. Each work space is in the front and has about 200 square feet of area. This space is connected to the house with a ``spine'' that is an efficient, linear kitchen. The design creates an enclosed garden that provides a protected outdoor space for children.

The main house has a gabled roof, which symbolically associates it with the classic, single-family home. It has a living room (236 square feet), second-floor bedroom (225 square feet), and third-floor bedroom (134 square feet). These spaces, plus a smallish bath (47 square feet), alcove (49 square feet), and deck (22 square feet), combine with the work space and spine/kitchen to fall just within the prescribed 1,000-square-foot limit.

Most of the designs in the competition provide some excellent visual thinking on how to meet the needs of the new American family. On first glance they appear to be a rehash of the traditional urban row house or town house. But a closer look shows that these new forms of congregate housing express a sense of community (albeit only six to a lot, within this competition's requirements) that is often overlooked in more traditional urban forms.

The West/Leavitt design, for example, permits the units to be arranged flexibly so that work spaces can be joined to provide a child-care center while the front and rear yards can be used in a communal fashion. It enables individuals, in effect, to have their own private, single-family home.

Further, the 1,000-square-foot limitation and the congregate nature of the design could place each unit within a single parent's budget. MCAD's Harvey Sherman, who directed the competition, believes that gross construction costs should not exceed $45 a square foot. Mr. Sherman says he further believes that a completed unit should be able to reach the market at about $70 a square foot, for an average sale price of $70,000.

The time has come, Mr. Sherman says, to provide those designers who are concerned with solving social needs with a forum to air their ideas. It is also time, he adds, to see those experimental ideas take tangible form.

Mr. Sherman is now working with the Department of Planning and Economic Development in St. Paul, Minn., to build the West/Leavitt design, with groundbreaking expected in the fall.

The ``New American House'' exhibition will be at the City University of New York Graduate Center through August; at the University of California at Los Angeles, School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Oct. 14-Nov. 1; and at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Fine Arts, Nov. 15-Dec. 15.

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