In Texas, a housing development pioneers a fresh, holistic approach to sustainable design
In some respects, humans should envy turtles. They carry their homes on their backs and never have to pay rent or worry about mortgages.
Housing is a basic need for humans and, unfortunately, it’s not only prohibitively expensive for many low-income families, there are also problems related to space: as new housing communities pop up ten or twenty miles away from urban areas, they all but affirm that their dwellers will rely on a daily diet of petroleum to get to-and-from town.
In Austin, Texas, an experiment in sustainable housing design, Solutions Oriented Living (SOL), has prototyped one potential answer to America’s housing problems. Chris Krager, an architect, and Russell Becker, a civil engineer and construction manager, teamed up and spent years researching, planning, and designing a complex of forty houses, which is meant to be net-zero energy efficient and affordable for lower-income households (market-rate houses start at $190,000, and SOL has resourcefully found innovative ways to lower the prices on many of their units). Krager spoke with Dowser recently about his holistic—and robust–approach to sustainability, the need to look through both environmental and socioeconomic lenses, and how he and Becker managed to develop a site that, while perhaps not as sustainable as, say, a turtle’s shell, could be a very good model for future housing development in the U.S.
Dowser: What drew you toward sustainable architecture and sustainable building?
Krager: My undergraduate degree is in business. I worked in banking in Chicago for five years. But evenbefore I took that job I knew I would pursue another path, and I was thinking about going to school for architecture. I came down to Austin fifteen years ago to get my master’s degree in architecture, MArch First Professional at UT, which is a degree geared toward people who don’t have undergraduate design degrees. I worked as a mortgage banker and had a real estate license in Chicago, and I had a construction background from summer jobs in college. So after graduating from architecture school, the challenging thing for me was that, while I was enamored by architecture, I was put-off by its inaccessibility for most people. In other words, I came from a Midwestern, working-class background, and I didn’t know anybody who lived in a house that was designed by an architect. Within a year of finishing graduate school, I started my design and build practice. There were two primary goals for KRDB: one was to make design accessible—economically and intellectually—and the other was to focus on urban design. For me, that meant macrosustainability.
What do you mean by ‘macrosustainability’?
I was born and raised in Detroit, and I spent a good number of my formative years in the suburbs there, and then I went to live in Chicago after college—and I realized that my interest in urban design was due to that back-and-forth, and realizing that the mid- to late-twentieth century of growth was not a sustainable mode of growth. For me, it’s not even a question of whether you should—if you can, you have to design with sustainability in mind. When I say ‘macro,’ I’m saying: curtailing sprawl. And then the ‘micro’ is green building as most people think about it—the structure itself. But if you’re just doing LEED buildings, or energy-efficient buildings, and they’re out fifty miles from urban centers, I don’t consider that sustainable. When we started researching SOL six or seven years ago, and I was looking around for models of sustainable development, the only thing I was finding anywhere were projects that were kind of ex-urban projects—you know, half-million-dollar houses, many miles from a city.
How has SOL avoided replicating that model, which caters mostly to the wealthy?
We started building in Austin ten years ago, and because of the racial segregation of the city, you could go one block east of I-35 and find relatively cheap real estate. So, I was automatically drawn there—because, growing up in Detroit, living in Chicago, I was accustomed to diverse, urban environments. And for our goal of sustainable architecture, we had to go where land is affordable.
SOL has forty units, and forty percent of it is set aside as affordable housing. For us, the model of affordable, sustainable housing—which is what we were trying to produce a prototype for—was not going to just about green building; it would also be about the social and economic factors. We had sixteen units in SOL– stand-alone, single family homes–that were affordable units that sold for significantly less than the market rate.
And how do you determine what qualifies as ‘affordable’ for families in Austin?
MFI, medium family income, is the benchmark that HUD uses to determine affordable housing. In many projects in Austin, 80 percent MFI is the benchmark; the problem is, in a city like Austin, the average income is like $64,000—so 80 percent of that is in the fifties. But in the zip codes that we’ve traditionally built in, average income is in the thirty-thousand range—that’s fifty percent of the city average. So, one of the first things we did is reach out to a local nonprofit, a community housing group, the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation [GNDC], and I said, to the director, Mark Rogers, we want to have a meaningful level of affordability in this project, let’s talk about what those benchmarks would be. We looked at splitting affordable housing between rental and home ownership—so, sixteen units were set aside for affordable housing, and eight of those are rental houses that the GNDC will own in perpetuity and rent out—for people who make twenty to forty percent of the city’s median income–and eight of them are home ownership opportunities for households that earn thirty to eighty percent of Austin’s median family income. We also applied for a package of subsidies, from Austin’s HUD fund—about 1.5 million dollars. That was split between the rental and purchase units—a little more in the rental ones–and then we divided that pot of money per house, and based on the applicant’s income profile, determined how much of a subsidy would help get them in that house.
Sounds like a lot of planning, business acumen, and time went into the project.
We put the concept together first, got the partnership, got a zoning change with neighborhood approval, and then it went to the city council because we had to get approval for the funding. Sometimes people gripe about subsidies because they see it as a giveaway. But in Austin we have what’s called a shared equity program—the money that goes to the down payment assistance isn’t just given to the applicant. When that person sells that home, they pay that money back to the city, plus, the percentage of purchase price is considered shared equity—it’s like getting a loan from your grandmother, because she gets a stake in your house when she loans you money, so if you improve it, twenty-five percent of the improvement in addition to the original subsidy goes back to the city. So, it’s really like the city is investing in real estate.
Did you encounter any challenges in the actual design of the homes?
We first rezoned the project to SF 4A—small lot zoning—for greater density. But we didn’t do that just to pack in as many houses as possible. The idea was to suggest that smaller houses on smaller lots, when the houses are more intelligently designed, could help people do more with less. Then, it was an iterative process—locating the houses on the lots, thinking about issues of privacy and orientation. Prior to this, the biggest project my firm had done was eight houses. For SOL, we did something called joint-access drive to pull the parking off the street. We created a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape. We installed a pocket park lot—a park in the center of the community–and under that, we had a filtration system that handles stormwater runoff. We wanted every house to have quality outdoor space—real, usable, green space. We arranged the buildings such that there were more captured spaces—an L-shaped house, for example, with a garden around it, makes the space feel much bigger. And our goal was to have the houses be energy efficient—so each house is net-zero capable. But that entails every homeowner investing in solar panels. They are very expensive, but Austin has a very good rebate program—the city will fund up to sixty percent of that cost.
What are some of your main takeaways, things you wish you’d done differently?
The one thing I would do differently next time would be to try to do one-for-one affordable, market rate units. We had basically all our rental units pre-sold. Because the economy turned down, and getting pre-sales on apartments was a little challenging, we just went ahead and started building rental units. Some people thought that by including rental units, we were scaring some potential buyers away. Maybe that’s true, but I feel that, neighborhood stabilization requires long-term affordable rental housing. It’s been proven that that’s an effective way to stabilize an area’s market value. So, you lose some buyers, but to me it’s part of the commitment to creating a mixed-income, mixed-demographic community.
Interview has been edited and condensed.