Affordable Housing Guiding Principles, Design Trends

The exterior stair tower on this affordable housing renovation apartment added a new energy to the project with a geometric pattern that will glow at night.


Sara Webb, AIA, Senior associate, ej architecture


Since its advent in 1973, the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority has been the leading organization in the investment of affordable housing and community development, with over $13.2 billion invested into Colorado’s economy. Although this housing concept has been funded for the past 44 years, affordable housing has become paramount recently as rising population rates, low unemployment rates and increased employment growth have caused a disparity in the housing supply. These accelerated growth factors have caused the state, local municipalities, and the AEC community to bring affordable housing to the forefront to help meet this growing need in Colorado.

As more AEC firms enter this market sector, it becomes crucial to understand CHFA’s guiding principles. According to the 2017 Low Income Housing Tax Credit Qualified Action Plan, the main guiding principle for affordable housing is to “support rental housing projects serving the lowest income tenants for the longest period of time.” This guiding principle dictates longevity in these housing projects and specifies that building owners must hold the property for a certain number of years. This drives the need for durable materials with timeless designs and modifiable space options for adaptability and flexibility of usage.

In the last 10 years of working on affordable housing developments, we have noted design trends influencing this market sector, including an increase in senior affordable housing, smaller residential units but with larger community spaces, and a greater focus on the aesthetics, which results in quality affordable housing developments.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest report in June, the nation’s older population is still growing with 49.2 million people aged 65 and over in 2016.These baby boomers are more active, with design teams creating more walking and bike paths as well as larger outdoor community spaces. The Hidden Lake Homes project in Westminster serves as an example that includes a two-way fireplace in the community area that integrates the interior with the exterior and allows for about 45,000 square feet of community space through direct connections to the butterfly gardens, walking path and trellised patio.

Another trend includes the purposeful design of smaller, private residential units clustered around a large community space. This allows for neighbors to interact more without all the amenities located inside their individual units to create a community within a community. This is evident in the Golden Spike Apartments renovation, which we designed in Denver. Our team had the opportunity to create a cohesive community with two different floors for community space to cater to different functions, such as a large living room, larger kitchen and advantageous upper level views.

Overall, the goal of affordable housing is to design a project that has the outward appearance of a market-rate project. The challenge lies in finding ways to design within these notoriously tight budgets and not sacrifice quality. Our design team worked closely with the city of Boulder to meet its stringent guidelines for setbacks on the addition of front porches for the redesign of the Iris Hawthorne community. This seemingly small touch has provided the community with a way to connect with their neighbors, with these single-family homes now seamlessly woven into the Old North Boulder neighborhood.

Affordable housing will continue to play a critical role in the development of metro Denver and the Front Range. The unprecedented growth brings to light that all people deserve the opportunity to have a commendable place to live. The AEC industry should be aware of the nuances of affordable housing, all while blending with market-rate housing for diverse neighborhoods, where everyone feels a sense of pride in their home.

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Published in the December 2017 issue of Building Dialogue.


Edited by Building Dialogue