The University of Arkansas Community Design Center has received a national award for an architectural design studio that rethinks public housing in Fayetteville. The center, an outreach program of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, worked with architecture students and the U of A Resiliency Center.

Architecture studio is a class in a professional architecture program in which students receive hands-on instruction in architectural design. Architecture students working in the design studio explored design strategies for revitalizing Willow Heights, a housing complex on the east edge of downtown Fayetteville.

The spring 2018 studio, “Saving Downtown Public Housing: Towards a Blended-Income Community,” won a 2018-19 Housing Design Education Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture/American Institute of Architects. The award recognizes the importance of good education in housing design. Winners were selected based on the positive impact on students, the university or the community.

Built as affordable housing in the mid-1970s, Willow Heights has been at the center of civic debate. The former leadership of the Fayetteville Housing Authority wanted to sell the property and relocate low-income residents to another housing complex farther away from downtown.

Other people wanted to revitalize the housing complex, thereby keeping residents within walking distance of downtown. The nonprofit Endeavor Foundation commissioned the Community Design Center to explore alternatives.

Student work completed in the design studio contributed to the “Livability Improvement Plan for Willow Heights,” a Community Design Center planning study adopted by the Fayetteville Housing Authority and the Fayetteville City Council in 2018.

The plan proposes development of a blended-income neighborhood through rehabilitation of existing units and construction of additional market-rate and subsidized units. The studio also addressed issues of stormwater management on the hillside site.

“Through the application of design thinking that addresses healthy neighborhood design, value capture – positioning the public sector to more profitably manage its assets – and social return on investment, the study identified redevelopment opportunities while keeping low-income residents in a centrally located neighborhood,” said Steve Luoni, director of the Community Design Center.

Luoni is also a Distinguished Professor and the Steven L. Anderson Chair in Architecture and Urban Studies at the university.

The planning study offers three scenarios ranging in cost and complexity. The simplest one builds new housing on the flat part of the site, while the other two options cut into the hillside, requiring different levels of terracing and engineering.

Students worked in three teams to develop the new housing, while Community Design Center staff designed the renovations. The Resiliency Center, an interdisciplinary sustainability initiative hosted by the Fay Jones School, addressed stormwater management for the site.

Students grappled with a number of challenges as they worked on the scenarios, Luoni said. Site challenges include narrow right-of-ways, mature hillside trees that need to be preserved, chronic flooding and limited emergency access.

Students met with the Fayetteville Housing Authority, the city fire marshal, Willow Heights residents and other consultants as they adapted their plans to meet these needs.

Another kind of challenge came in balancing innovation and modernization with the legacy nature of the housing complex.

“How does a designer create compatibility with both the buildings that are there and the streets that are there, while also providing something of the present time?” Luoni asked. “That’s always the big existential struggle of working with the rehabilitation of a project.

“Students had to wrestle with a set of intentions from 40 years ago that are in place. Whatever they proposed had to be compatible with the site, but also exceed its shortcomings,” he said.

Like most housing projects of the mid-20th century, Willow Heights was designed as an isolated entity, with little or no connection to surrounding streets and neighborhoods, Luoni said. The three scenarios invert that logic, bringing new housing to the edge of the site and connecting the development with the streets around it.

“Part of the strategy of the new site planning was about making connections back to the neighborhood and enlivening the street,” Luoni said. “Understanding that good neighborhood design is part of the solution to good housing.”

New housing types include one-bedroom flats and a series of two- and three-bedroom townhouses in small clusters and long rows. The existing housing, which is still structurally sound, was enhanced by the addition of covered walkways and garden patios and by highlighting the difference between front and back entrances.

The biggest challenge in multi-family housing is designing for pattern while providing some variety, Luoni said. “You’re taking a unit and reproducing it, in this case 40 or 50 times, but you don’t want it to look like a barracks. How do you standardize something, yet provide variety? That’s why housing is so hard.”

The design studio gave students valuable experience in both housing design and site rehabilitation, Luoni said. He estimated that some 80 percent of future design work will be in the rehabilitation and preservation of existing building sites and infrastructure.

The proactive blended-income model proposed by the planning study allows the city to profitably manage its assets while creating a healthy neighborhood through social return on investment, Luoni said.

“It’s an example for the region of what public housing can be,” said Luoni, who also serves on the regional housing steering committee convened by the Walton Family Foundation and the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission.

This is the Community Design Center’s seventh ACSA/AIA Housing Design Education Award in the program’s 12-year history.

The U of A studio was one of three collegiate programs or projects this year to win the award. Award-winners will be featured at the 107th annual meeting of the ACSA, planned for March 28-30 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

AuthorLinda Komlos