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Affordable housing: Essential considerations to find the right architect

Always write a request for proposal for your project to help you organize your thoughts about the basic needs of budget, schedule, consultants, process and program. Use this as a guide and refer to it often during your selection process to make sure it’s an apples-to-apples comparison.

Joe Poli, AIA
Principal, Humphries Poli Architects, PC

There are many guides on how to hire an architect with an inevitable “top 10” list of things such as fees (cost per unit vs. percentage fee); process (methodology and software); website (manifesto/photographs/ dogs in the office); and leadership (beards/bowties/turtlenecks). We’ll assume you are already a pro with multiple buildings under your belt – preferably a micro-brewery, a coworking office space and a couple of infill town home rows. Maybe a gallery and a coffee shop? Now you find yourself in the process of pursuing your first affordable multifamily development. What are the essentials to find the right architect for this building type?

To begin, write a request for proposal for your project. It will help you organize your thoughts about the basic needs of budget, schedule, consultants, process and program. Use this as a guide and refer to it often during your selection process to keep an apples-to-apples comparison going, as selecting a design professional can send you quickly down the proverbial rabbit hole if your own vision is not crystal clear. Design professionals speak a common, nuanced language, but their skill sets and the outcomes produced are anything but the same.

The affordable housing universe is unique, and selecting an architect for your team requires the equivalent of a doctorate in reading the differentiators. Rest assured that the lending institutions, state financing authorities and your local municipality all have navigated their portion of the maze and will likely not allow you through their portals without experienced partners. The “why” of this equation is that there simply are not enough subsidies available in our state to adequately bridge the gap between providing enough affordable multifamily projects and the need. It has resulted in a very competitive marketplace where every detail matters.

Set your goals high and expect nothing less from your design professional. The right decision will affect your project’s success, your development team’s performance and, arguably, an entire neighborhood’s future. If you intend to eventually do more projects, the success of your project will be your calling card for years to come.

Find an architect who is an expert. By association you become an expert. The architect will know how to zig when everyone else zags. She will understand the nuances of the marketplace and can hit the bullseye time after time. The right hire will buy you the time you desperately need to survive a volatile economy, unyielding schedules and high-maintenance neighbors. And having that time will give your architect the ability to spend her energy getting to know you and your goals, even if you haven’t done this building type before. It is important that open communication and teamwork are part of your entire project culture. It is invaluable when the inevitable barriers to affordability present themselves.

Decisions should be made with a long-term lens, not the eye on a real estate investment trust’s buyout the day after lease-up strategy. The defining difference for design consideration as well as the entire development process is that the construction of affordable housing is a long-term investment in a building, a neighborhood, a city and the people who will live in that building. The right mechanical system? Flexibility for your maintenance staff of addressing a breakdown in that mechanical system on a below-zero day? A building with excellent power and state-of-the-art connectivity? A beautiful building that extends a pride-of-place for tenants, staff and neighbors? Yes to all, of course! This building type demands a creative process where everything matters. It is a totally different, whole-brained proposition.

The craft and simple hard work that goes into designing any exemplary piece of architecture must be present in your architect’s DNA. The long-term ownership and operation required by the tax credit program demands that the developers apply their vision and personality to the selection of a team of professionals who understand the road maps of entitlements and building departments. They must sweat the details of sustainability and accessibility while seamlessly designing great kitchens, closets and bathrooms that would win over the most discerning market-rate tenant. In an affordable environment you may not be providing a pool, spa and pseudo-brewery in your commons area, but the joy of a sun-drenched courtyard, a place to repair a bike, meet neighbors or groom a dog are appreciated. An inviting storefront or connection to the neighborhood shopping district is a long-term, no-cost amenity that joins tenants to a district and must be leveraged.

As an architect, I will tell you that design excellence is first, last and everything in between to achieving your goals. Never be afraid of high design – it will always pay dividends and has quantifiable value. The ability to deliver quality design is the essential characteristic of the qualified groups you should be talking to, and possibly the last defining attribute of the professionals you choose. Ask for references. Tour a project. Talk to a resident or a neighbor. Do you feel the joy of the place? Do your homework, and the decision – and a long-term relationship – will be easy.

Featured in CREJ’s May 2019 Multifamily Properties Quarterly 

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.