Imagine a small family that earns a modest income, say $75,000. If they want to buy a house in Chicago, new construction is probably out of the question.
“There are single-family homes being built in Chicago right now, but they’re going for $600,000 to a million dollars, which is not affordable to the average buyer,” said Sarah Brune, manager of innovation and public policy with Neighborhood Housing Services.
NHS and a half dozen other affordable housing groups, lenders and the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects are trying to change that. This week, they’re wrapping up a contest they kicked off late last year to find Chicago’s next starter home, challenging architects to come up with a modern version of the Chicago bungalow, a new single-family home that’s affordable to the masses.
Thousands of classic Chicago brick bungalows were built across the city in the 1920s.
“It was affordable to the average working family, it had the amenities that families wanted at the time, it was replicable, and it was beautiful. You could appreciate the architecture of it,” said Brune.
The goal of this contest is to do that again. Organizers want the 21st century bungalow to be energy efficient, wheelchair accessible on the first floor, and to cost less than $250,000. A winner is set to be announced Wednesday.
As part of the prize, the winning design will be built by megadeveloper Related Midwest on two city-owned vacant lots, one in Bronzeville and one about a half mile north of Garfield Park. The goal is to have families move into the homes by 2020.
Ultimately, organizers hope the winning design gets picked up by a private developer and built again and again, a la the original Chicago bungalow. That would get at a much larger problem the city faces: While there are more than 10,000 city-owned vacant lots across Chicago — most of them located in the city’s poorest neighborhoods — it costs more to build a house there than builders can sell it for. And in gentrifying areas, new construction is all high-end — there’s nothing for the middle.
There were a few fantastical submissions — including geodesic domes, a 3D-printed house, and a high rise (yes, on a 25-foot-wide lot) — but not as many Dr. Seuss houses as you might think an architecture contest would attract.
The contest drew 130 entries, and a jury picked three finalists. WBEZ talked to them about the contest and their designs.
Greg Tamborino: Adaptable House
By day, Greg Tamborino designs high rises for Perkins & Will, one of the city’s largest architecture firms. His dad was a home builder in Wisconsin “so I was swinging a hammer at 12 years old.“
His entry in the contest is a two-story, wood-frame, peak roof home that’s meant to be adaptable to people at all stages of their lives — another challenge presented to the architects.
“You might be a single person, you might be a large family, you might be an elderly person that is aging in place,” said Tamborino.
Tamborino’s “Adaptable House” can be a two flat, a single-family home or a live-work space. Fixed elements of the home, such as stairs and plumbing, are all located at the center, “and then … open spaces where you have plenty of windows towards the front or back of the house are the flexible spaces, so you could use the dining room for an office or a master bedroom suite if you converted it that way, a work-at-home studio, on and on,” said Tamborino.
All the finalists say cost was the biggest challenge of this competition. Tamobrino’s solution is unadorned and compact — the footprint is just 800 square feet — but he said he splurged on what’s important.
“I wanted a lot of natural light, so tall, large windows. I wanted it to be approachable from the street, so I almost exaggerated the porch. It reads as welcoming, and it reads as this connection to the community.”
Tamborino said architects are used to presenting their ideas to professors, peers or even city officials. But for this project, finalists also had to take feedback from dozens of neighbors at community meetings near the vacant lots where they’ll be built. It was a little nerve-racking, said Tamborino.
“This is in their backyard. These people really care about what you’re doing,” said Tamborino. “My favorite was the people that would wait until the meeting had ended, and they would approach you after to give you some of their own ideas. You could just tell they were excited about it,” said Tamborino.
Joel Huffman: The Green Flex
Architects from all over the world turned in designs for the contest, and even though finalists were chosen through blind selection, it turns out all three work in Chicago. Joel Huffman, a principal at Vertu Architecture & Design, does not think that’s an accident.
Local architects are used to designing for Chicago’s long, skinny 25-by-125-foot lots, which gives them a leg up, he said. The other constraints of the contest pushed architects to think in new ways.
“So it really allowed us to get out some ideas that may have been pent-up,” Huffman said.
The most distinctive element of Huffman’s home is what’s behind it — a coach house. The “accessory dwelling unit” is not yet legal in Chicago, but it was tremendously popular at the community meetings where he presented his idea.
Zoning laws are expected to change soon to allow for coach houses, something affordable housing advocates have pushed for.
Between the main house and the coach house, Huffman imagined “a central courtyard that would allow for the occupants to intermingle and connect with each other. … It’s a great place to grill, to have a raised planter. … This space could ultimately be partially enclosed to make a three-season room,” said Huffman.
Both the front house and the coach house are highly insulated and set up to accommodate solar panels, Huffman said.
Petya Petrova and Georgi Todorov: The Urban Cabin
Husband-wife team Georgi Todorov and Petya Petrova moved to Chicago from their native Bulgaria five years ago after winning the visa lottery. By day, Todorov is an architect at Pappageorge Haymes. Petrova is an interior designer with Pierre-Yves Rochon. Architecture contests have become a way for them to combine forces; they won honorable mention in a Chicago “tiny homes” contest.
“The primary material in our project is wood,” said Petrova, who said the team was going for warm, cozy, modern and sustainable — inside and out. The exterior of their “Urban Cabin” submission features wood slats that can be affixed horizontally, vertically or in a herringbone pattern.
They’re proposing pre-fab walls made of cross-laminated timber, which are small pieces of wood glued together into large, rigid panels.
“It is super cost-effective. This house can be erected in one day, which is amazing,” said Todorov. “The quality is amazing, and since it is wood, it can be left exposed at the interior. This is how we’re achieving savings — from drywall, from painting.”
That’s the kind of creativity contest organizers were hoping to spur – innovation in materials or construction that leads to lower costs.
And contest organizers’ bigger goal might also come true: Petrova and Todorov have already been approached by developers interested in building their home.
Editor's note: Greg Tamborino's "Adaptable House" was announced as the contest winner on July 10, 2019.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.