Typically, a house is the most expensive purchase a person makes. Home-ownership remains one of the boxes to be checked in pursuit of the American dream. As an emotional imperative, the dream of home-ownership generates trillions of dollars in value — known as the housing market — but its logic is prone to overextension and failure, as seen in 2008’s economic meltdown. Housing in Texas urban areas is increasingly expensive, meaning that fewer people are able to own their residence and reap the economic benefits of owning a home.
To help some families make this crucial transition, Edward M. Baum, FAIA, created “Prototype Housing for Modest Means,” a design proposal for affordable housing in Dallas. Baum’s Prototype begins with the efficient design of a fourplex. Cruciform CMU walls divide the two-story units, providing fire resistance and muffling sound. Bathrooms are stacked, and flexible space on the second story enables the unit to be expanded to include as many as four bedrooms. Interiors would be fitted out with IKEA components, and an attic fan cools the unit before the use of air conditioning is required.
Outside, a single angled metal roof caps a facade of veneer brick that is painted various colors. Brick as a material, explains Baum, is both “aspirational” and cost-effective: It signifies a middle-class permanence, and in Dallas it prices out cheaper than stucco. Sliding HardiePanel screens mounted on Unistrut channels shade inward-opening casement windows. Each unit has its own partially covered outdoor area for secure parking and leisure. Scored concrete presents a uniform street material to both pedestrians and cars, and tree planters help calm traffic noise. The perspectival procession of solid/void, the units’ minimal fenestration, and the fluid woonerf streetscape give the images a Dutch quality, an urban effect highly desirable in the sea of sprawling North Texas subdivisions. The layout fits 14 units per acre, but the more stunning spec is the cost: $80/sf! Though the cost was estimated four years ago and doesn’t include the price of land, it is still astonishingly low.
This proposal delivers on its title “Reverse-Engineering the Rent.” To learn about this housing typology and the people who will likely be its residents, Baum studied apartment complexes in central Dallas, which are largely populated by working-class Hispanic families. He learned that secure covered parking is critical for low-income families, as they often keep work trucks at home overnight, stocked with tools or materials, and that each family often has multiple cars to provide transport to jobs or school. His proposal delivers 2.5 spaces per unit, on and off the street. Baum asked the question, “How can rent be converted into ownership?” and translated the average monthly rent paid by a family into a mortgage payment, extrapolating from this the overall principal of the hypothetical mortgage. That amount set the budget for each unit.
Design of this Prototype began in 2010. Throughout, Baum worked closely with his client, Vision Impact, a Dallas nonprofit that provides housing to low- and moderate-income families. Don Romer, a builder, leads the organization, and he provided feedback during the design process. The scheme won unbuilt awards early on, including an American Architectural Award and an award from Residential Architect in 2011. It also appeared briefly in the “On the Boards” section of the January/February 2012 issue of TA. Baum’s proposal includes block-sized urban strategies, and he has “test-fit” the arrangement on potential sites in and around Dallas, but currently there are no plans to implement the strategy.
Baum’s careful work is the result of a career concerned with smart Modern architecture. Hailing from Indiana, he studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and after receiving his M. Arch he worked for Josep Lluís Sert in Cambridge, Mass. Baum recalls the office’s concern with details, a focus that is increasingly rare in contemporary work. “Really good architecture pulls itself together when you’re a foot away from it,” he muses. He fashioned a career between teaching and independent practice, eventually serving as the Dean at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture from 1987 to 1999. His courtyard houses on Throckmorton Street were widely published (they received a state Design Award in 2004), and his Dallas Police Memorial, designed with John P. Maruszczak, stands along Akard Street next to I.M. Pei’s City Hall downtown. Baum now lives and works in Brooklyn, though he retains active projects in the Metroplex.
Radical ideas of access, economy, and simplicity are embodied in this architectural proposal. Such themes can be traced to origins in the Modern movement, which sought, in part, to open the possibility of design to a wider audience. Baum took this precept to heart. His previous courtyard houses, for example, were realized using only products from big box construction stores. Budget limitations can make one grow weary, but Baum believes that “good design proposes ideas that account for the facts. Constraints are liberating.” Simplicity and affordability also increase the chances of a building being realized to match its original architectural vision, instead of going under the inevitable scalpel of value engineering. “So many buildings fail because they’re trying to look like expensive buildings, but they don’t have the money,” he adds. Baum’s Prototype offers a method for building dignified, handsome housing in a pleasing configuration at an affordable price. This, in his words, is “what the Modern movement promised.”
Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is an architectural designer at Baldridge Architects in Austin.