Building Community Buy-In for Housing Innovation

Published: Monday, March 13th, 2017 by Julia McElhinney

Editor’s note: While concentrates almost exclusively on international housing, developed markets’ housing innovation often frames key issues creatively with implications for developers or investors in developing markets. In this special guest post, Julia McElhinney (@mcelhinney) of CBT Architects in Boston explores community engagement for housing innovation.

In so many places in developing economy cities, community members aren’t involved in planning for formal housing, even if there are long-standing efforts to keep communities involved in slum upgrade and redevelopment. The ultimate consequences of not including even minimal consultation are clear when housing developments fail to become communities and deteriorate after a short time, undermining developers’ license to operate in capital constrained environments.

We thought CBT’s open public engagement on housing would also help housing developers frame their pitch to investors and to sell their vision for community development.

Affordable housing is a global issue. In a rapidly urbanizing world, this is especially true in cities. Whether in Boston or Beijing, London or Lagos, there is a serious shortage of affordable housing. According to A Blueprint for Addressing the Global Affordable Housing Challenge published by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2014, some 1.6 billion urban dwellers living in both developing and advanced economies are expected to be financially stretched by housing costs or live in substandard conditions by 2025.

While every city and culture is unique, there is still so much we can learn from each other about building affordable and sustainable communities. A few months ago, my firm (CBT Architects) launched a public education and engagement initiative called Housing the Hub to help raise awareness for and address Boston’s housing shortage through thoughtful urban planning and design.

Housing the Hub - Small Scale InterventionCredit: Gustav Hoiland

Even though this exhibition and discussion series focused on housing in Boston, many of the ideas we shared could be applied to other cities around the world. In fact, many of the ideas were inspired by the creativity and resourcefulness of other cities and countries to begin with.

Here are a couple of examples:

Housing the Hub - 5 Ideas

Housing the Hub: 5 Ideas. Credit: CBT Architects

What if we could do more with less?

Many countries around the world are able to provide an exceptionally high quality of life in dramatically less space than others. The average size of a home in Sweden, for example, is approximately 890 square feet. This is less than half that of the United States which clocks in at 2160 square feet.

Reevaluating our space-per-person standards and leveraging smart spatial planning will allow us to build more units on the same amount of land as before, therefore responsibly increasing a neighborhood’s density without significantly changing its existing character or scale.

This in turn will allow more families and individuals to enjoy a city’s many inviting spaces, from parks and museums to restaurants and coffee shops, in addition to their own relatively small homes.

Building smaller units is also a remarkable opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint. At their most basic, smaller units use fewer building materials, require less energy to heat or cool and need fewer resources to maintain. These thoughtfully designed spaces also offer countless opportunities to explore new sustainable materials and practices.

What if we could build where we couldn’t build before?

Our urban fabric is full of residual and underutilized spaces that could be used for housing so long as we are willing to look at them with an open mind.

There are many different types of spaces that occur throughout a city that could be used to accommodate additional housing. Some spaces, such as abandoned or distressed buildings, attics, basements or backyards already exist and just need to be renovated, repurposed or added on to. Similarly, we could build new structures on existing but non-conforming lots.

Other spaces, such as parking lots or highways, bridges or rail lines, may require more innovative design approaches to transform into housing. However, these same spaces also occupy a large percentage of our city’s land area and therefore could add significant housing capacity to the city. Finally, there is the possibility of building over water and extending the perceived boundaries of our city.

Many of these types of spaces are already used for housing in other cities around the world. Amsterdam, for example, has capitalized on its waterways to accommodate some 3,000 houseboats. San Francisco, on the other hand, announced a citywide Accessory Dwelling Unit program in 2016 to encourage the conversion of existing but underutilized attics, basements and garages into additional housing units.

By embracing these kinds of ideas we can make better use of our city’s limited land and unlock its full housing potential.

At the same time that we hope that Boston will borrow and build on ideas from other cities, we believe that Boston can play an influential role in developing global best practices for the design of and community consensus building around these sorts of sustainable and affordable housing strategies. Our Housing the Hub initiative is a great example of this.

In terms of design, Boston is currently experiencing a burst of energy and intellect around the idea of “innovative housing.” As part of Housing the Hub, CBT Architects displayed a series of unique, new building typologies and designs that celebrated new housing concepts such as compact living, co-living and modular design. Similarly, the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab and Boston Society of Architects (two of our community partners on Housing the Hub) are currently hosting a citywide “Housing Innovation Competition” to encourage architects, designers and developers to think outside the box when it comes to home design.

The most critical factor in the success of any of these innovative housing models or designs, however, will be community support. Here are a few things that we learned from Housing the Hub about designing a collaborative community design process:

We were overwhelmed by the eagerness with which our partners joined our team. Our public, private and non-profit partners moved mountains to bring this remarkable civic dream to life. They brought unique insights, robust outreach networks and unwavering support to the initiative from inception to completion. Together, we were stronger than the sum of our parts.

We discovered the tremendous value of meeting people where they are. Rather than asking people to come to a school gym or city hall to join our community conversation, we brought it to them. Our central, outdoor location in a community park allowed us to attract a much wider and larger audience than traditional outreach programs. People liked that they could stop by whenever they wanted and stay for as long as they liked, even coming back multiple times. People also appreciated the opportunity to speak one-on-one to on-site experts and participate in community discussions.

We were struck by the power of telling a strong, simple story. We kept the exhibition’s content clear and concise. Bold visuals, key facts and thoughtful narratives came together to tell a holistic story that resonated with an extremely diverse audience.

All too often, public participation in neighborhood and city design is reactive rather than proactive. With the hope of shifting the status quo and helping to address Boston’s critical housing shortage, Housing the Hub aimed to provide community members with a space to proactively discuss, learn about and share new design ideas for housing our growing city. Community members continuously thanked us for not only putting together this exhibition, but also for offering them an opportunity to learn about and play a proactive role in shaping our city’s housing future.

We hope that these lessons learned may be able to be used by others cities and communities to inspire similarly innovative community design processes around affordable housing and sustainable urban design. By sharing what we have learned on platforms such as Developing Smart Cities, we believe that we can work together as a global community to address urban housing shortages, one home at a time.

Please visit to learn more about our housing innovation research and engagement initiatives.