Creative design for affordable homes

Designing affordable housing isn’t as glamorous as designing the typical high-end homes Tony Crasi, Frank Bain and John Edwards are hired to design and build. These men, however, aren’t seeking glamour or recognition for the affordable homes they create. They’re after something more rewarding.

Working with not-for-profit organizations using federal grant funds in most cases, these professionals provide thoughtfully designed homes for those in need of affordable housing, and receive the pleasure of improving life in their communities while fine-tuning their craft. For Tony Crasi, president, Crasi Company in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, involvement in such programs has come full circle.

“When I was 14 I worked in the inner city with my father, helping those in need. Now almost 40 years later, I’m back working in the inner city,” he says. “Everyone deserves a good-looking home. I believe in it, and I’ve realized I can make a difference. I was lucky, having stumbled into the high end of the housing market, but at the same time, when I show my high-end clients the affordable homes I’m designing, I’m more proud of them than my high-end work.”

Many times, Crasi says, affordable homes found in the inner city look like small boxes, but he has always believed society can do better for those who live in homes like these. Crasi’s most recent affordable project in Akron, Ohio, went on the market in late April. It’s a 1,400-sq.-ft. home selling for roughly $90,000. Designing it to be easy to build is one key to keeping costs down, Crasi says.

“I’ve wanted to prove that it can be done. I wanted this house to look like homes that have been here since 1928. The key is that everything in it is stock, square and simple to build. It’s about scale and proportion. Everything works. Affordable is knowing how to produce good design and knowing how to make it look right. I even have some nice detail on the stairway, and nice colors on the cabinetry. This is what you can do if you pay attention to what you’re doing.”

Affordable control

Crasi was pleased with the home control system his colleague Ric Johnson designed for this home; Johnson is president and CEO of Right@Home Technologies near Lima, Ohio. Crasi challenged Johnson to create an affordable way to control the home, and Johnson delivered it for a cost of $1,500. Motivation for the affordable technology system was building codes that force people to spend what could be $2,000 on a new air-conditioning system that saves them $78 a year, when a home control system that is less expensive can accomplish that, and more.

“I told Ric the most important part of his system would be energy efficiency. The second key is security. I talked to my local guys and they came up with a system for five thousand bucks. I told them I can’t do it. Ric stepped up and said, ‘You supply the house, and I’ll control it,’ ” he says.

Within three days, Johnson designed a system that controls lighting, security, Internet connectivity and energy management for $1,500. The most critical function of the technology system was allowing the homeowner to control his or her energy costs.

Johnson selected Home Automation Inc.’s Omni LT as the brains of the home (see box left). The device limits thermostat settings to preset highs and lows. “The owner can’t crank up the thermostat at will. Tony built the house tightly so we know the house will feel warm at a lower thermostat setting. The homeowner could always put on a sweater to stay warm, but probably won’t need to.”

In addition to energy management, the Omni LT provides eight zones of security and lighting control. “We tied perimeter and interior lighting to the security function so a path of lights will illuminate a safe passage in or out of the home,” Johnson says.

“We used Omni LT, three door sensors and a couple of inexpensive motion detectors. We also ran Cat 5 to all the TV locations, so instead of paying for cable, the client can hook the TV to the Internet to watch shows on demand, or get a Netflix subscription for $9 a month to watch movies. They can run cable if they want to, but the Internet connectivity is a way to keep costs down,” Johnson explains.

“What I liked the best was when the housing authority people came in they understood what Tony and I did right away. They understood that this woman can afford this house because they know they can preset the thermostat limits and protect her against escalating costs down the road. I was glad they understood it so quickly,” Johnson says.

Rewarding efforts

Improving the community motivates those involved with affordable housing projects at Neil-Prince Studio in Greenville, S.C. “Even Frank Lloyd Wright worked on affordable housing,” says Frank Bain, project manager, who works with project architect John Edwards on such projects in their community.

“When someone moves in, we’ll take a Friday afternoon to help the new owner. Typically because it’s a single mom or older person, they can’t pay for moving costs so we try to help out as much as we can. It’s a day when everyone feels really good about what we’re doing,” Bain says.

Neil-Prince has participated in affordable housing projects for 16 years, beginning in Charleston. The typically high-end design/build firm works with three organizations, using grant funds administered by the state. To secure most deals, Neil-Prince provides a land-use plan, floor plans, sketches and renderings of what a home will look like. Affordable homes they design can be priced anywhere from $99,000 to $139,000, and range from $79 per square foot up to the mid-90s, Bain explains.

Ideally, everyone wins; Neil-Prince makes a little money, the nonprofit organization can be sustained and the community’s greater good is met. “But, with some agencies, we’ve had to help them on a volunteer basis to get them in a position where they can be viable. We try to tailor our assistance based on the individual project,” he adds.

Creative solutions

Each affordable housing project is an exercise in creativity, says John Edwards, project architect, who attempts to squeeze in as much design as possible into a tight budget. “These are great exercises to sharpen our functional design skills. It’s about choosing wisely, and for longevity. Most of the affordable homes we design are fiber-cement sided with long-term roofs. They’re simplified versions of the homes in the neighborhood, contextually. Greenville [S.C.’s] philosophy is to drive down the street and not know you’re driving past affordable housing,” Edwards says.

The majority of affordable homes Bain designs are in existing neighborhoods that have a stock of small homes from the 1920s and ’30s that were smaller and more efficient than today’s homes, Bain explains. “We can draw on those design motifs, the layouts and floor plans to create our floor plans and maintain continuity within the neighborhood,” he says.

Packing design into a small budget requires creativity, and sometimes a trick or two, including floor plan manipulation, open space, or the use of over-scaled details so houses look larger than they are, Edwards says. Typically, Neil-Prince’s affordable homes are 1,200-sq.-ft. two- or three-bedroom semi-custom gems. “We have plans that fit the context of multiple Greenville neighborhoods, and there’s great variation in terms of lot sizes so there are more occasions than you would think where we would have to come up with a new prototype for a new development.”

Some homes have been as small as 800 sq. ft., which Bain believes — as well as Crasi — are good practice during times when homeowners are looking for smaller homes. “By creating these homes, it has kept us grounded to where we can get maximum efficiency through solid floor plans and minimal square footage,” Bain says.

“Edwards notes: “We’ve been surprised by the amount of detail we get into these homes by developing community-sensitive details. Many of these homes have craftsman details, tapered columns, roof overhangs, exposed rafter tails, and we sit down with the contractors who bid on these homes and said, ‘Here are the details we want to accomplish.’ We work with construction so they know how to do these things, which might appear cost-prohibitive, in economical ways.”