'Quads': promising answer to the US housing crunch?

Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright drew dormant seed to possibly help ease a hunger for housing in 1980. Asked by federal officials during the depression to design public housing for the Berkshire Hills in Western Massachusetts, Mr. Wright proposed clusters of four connected, low-cost units set in the shape of cloverleaf.

Last year, the Greater Boston Real Estate Board dusted off the Wright idea -- called a quadruplex, or quad -- as the model for a competition among architects. The winning design, selected this fall, will be promoted in the Bay State as a versatile, standardized type of housing for private developers in both poor and rich communities.

This Wright legacy could become the Bay State's gift to the nation if it is artfully and properly constructed, says Arthur Danielian of Danielian Associates. Newport Beach, Calif., chairman of the affordable housing task force of the Orange Country chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Terming formula and rubber-stamp planning "dangerous, a definite risk," Mr. Danielian says, "preconcieved building plans may easily falter because people get tird of the product," or other factors interfere.

"Frank Lloyd Wright proposed mor than basic living quarters," says New York architect Edgar Tafel, once an apprentice to the late architect. "He thought community facilities like privacy. He thought community facilities like tennis courts, play areas, recreation centers -- living at a price people can pay."

The quad idea can work for the "have nots," says Mr. Tafel, only if developers avoid the "temptation" of sameness, shortcuts, and monotony.

In his recently published book, "Apprentice to Genius," Tafel says that Wright always hoped to "beat the cost system" and create houses the "average family could afford. . . . This system if widely adopted, would mean better living for Americans -- an idea he kept in mind for 50 years.

"Frank Lloyd Wright knew the advantages of the quad over the single-family home in utilization of land," says V. Victors Vitols of Vitols Associates, Boston, first-prize winner of the quad competition. "He foresaw, even in the ' 30s, the spread of suburbs, the need for land conservation. He did not like the swallowing up of virgin land."

An architect who has designed attractive housing for low-income people in urban inner- city communities, Mr. Vitols says his prize designs offer three packages of quads with one- and two-bedroom units within a price range of $36, 000 to $50,000 in 1981. He proposes mass production "prefab" structures as quad clusters as a phase of larger developments.

The Wright quad was never built for the town it was designed for -- Pittsfield, Mass. the only one ever built was an Ardmore, Pa., by the Todd Company in 1938.

Non-Wright quadruplexes were "the rage" of the West Coast 12 years ago with a development in southern California's San Fernando valley. But they have faded in public favor recently, Danielian explains, because they did not provide enough housing density for ballooning land prices.

In Massachusetts, however, real estate agents, architects, and developers support the quad as a practical means of meeting a reported shortfall of 22,000 housing units a year. A 1979 study by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Communities and Development declared that more than 80 percent of the state's population could not afford new housing at current market prices.

Nationwide, the 1980s home seeker -- whether in New England with its $62,000 median, in the West with its $73,400, in the North Central at $64,700, in the South at $56,00, or in the Northeast at $67,700 -- cannot muster the funds to meet these prices, says Danielian.

In Massachusetts, many young people cannot afford to live in their own hometown. Says Norma Bogen, with the Boston real estate board says, "The quad is the answer, if we can persuade local governments to revise building codes, zoning laws, and other requirements."

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