Affordable housing projects have not historically been associated with architectural innovation. Bogged down by budget constraints, resistance from neighbors and municipal red tape, there are many logistical considerations that make it difficult for architects to feel inspired by accessible housing.
But for architect Lorcan O’Herlihy, finding room for creativity within these constraints is part of what makes affordable housing such an exciting and rewarding part of his practice. It’s also why affordable housing is central to the mission of LOHA, the architectural firm O’Herlihy founded in 1994.
Isla Intersections, the latest modular housing concept from LOHA, currently under construction in Los Angeles’ Culver City neighborhood, is representative of many of the challenges inherent in the construction of affordable housing.
Affordable housing challenges
The opportunity to build Isla Intersections came about when Los Angeles made publicly owned land parcels available for the construction of housing for the city’s homeless population.
“There were over 1,700 city-owned parcels that were available to affordable housing developers,” O’Herlihy said. “But the problem is that most of these sites are in very, very challenging locations, right next to heavy traffic corridors, because we ran out of land in Los Angeles—it’s a very dense city. Our challenge is to take these sites and make them robust.”
The site where Isla is being built is home to one of the busiest intersections in the country, according to O’Herlihy, a composite of five stitched together parcels of land. LOHA’s goal in the initial design stages of the project was not only to make this uniquely difficult sight livable, but to actually use the design of Isla’s built and green spaces to create a structure that would improve the experience of the local community as well as the new residents who will live in the project upon its completion.
“I believe that architecture is a social act,” O’Herlihy said. “The role of the architects is to do work with consequence. I don’t want to create these isolated objects that turn their backs to the city. We want it to be part of the community, something that’s much more engaging, making sure that the outdoor spaces are engaging.”
Saving time with modular
In any construction project, time is money. And with a project that’s partially funded by taxpayers, it’s particularly important to build as quickly and efficiently as possible. For Isla, the solution to maximizing the efficiency of construction came from using modular techniques and prefabricated components, building each unit out of a shipping container.
Building units off-site means that work can proceed simultaneously on two different aspects of the construction, saving time and money.
“The idea was to be able to use containers and have them fabricated in a factory while we’re doing the site utilities,” O’Herlihy said. “We’re saving close to nine months in the schedule by then building these remotely while we’re doing all the other work.”
The solution of doing simultaneous off–site building makes it possible for LOHA to speed up construction, getting the future residents of Isla off the streets as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Although building using shipping containers does require extra effort to ensure the structures are spacious, comfortable and compliant with the requirements of all the national and local agencies involved in building affordable housing, O’Herlihy said that the method makes a difference in construction costs and time requirements.
“We may end up saving a year on this project by using modular construction,” O’Herlihy said. “Building on three different sites with no water, no electricity and no plumbing may take 9-10 months before we’re ready for the containers. But once it’s ready, the container units can be stacked and anchored in the building in one week, because the whole site is prepared for it. Time is of the essence in these types of projects, and the sooner we get it done, the better.”
Incorporating organic elements
One of the most innovative aspects of the Isla project is the way LOHA plans to incorporate natural elements into the design.
“We came up with an idea to approach the city about creating a shared stream on the street approaching Isla,” O’Herlihy said, “meaning we can use the street not only for pedestrians and bikes, but also use the opportunity to grow large umbrella trees that will mitigate toxins from the freeway.”
The project’s landscape design was planned around the idea of a “green lung,” which will absorb as much toxins and sound from the freeway as possible. “We’re working closely with our consultants to make sure we’re planting the right trees and landscape elements to absorb the most pollution,” O’Herlihy said.
This tree-lined approach will create common space for residents and neighbors alike, improving air quality and sound pollution throughout the area. “That’s very exciting for us, because it’s an opportunity to see that you can use this opportunity to support housing, but benefit the community as well,” O’Herlihy said.
The shared stream area will also be used as a space for community programs such as continuing education, job training and a weekly farmer’s market.
“This area in South Los Angeles has always been considered a food desert, meaning there’s just very few restaurants, very little access to fresh food,” O’Herlihy said. “Food is essential. It has this sense of optimism; it provides opportunities for people to have good nutrition and self-care.”
With some on-site agriculture as well as the weekly market, Isla will give residents of both the project and the neighborhood at large access to fresh produce on a regular basis, mitigating some of the detrimental health effects that residents living in a food desert face.
O’Herlihy said he hopes that creating community-focused design will help remove some of the barriers between homeless residents and the rest of the community.
“Providing these outdoor community spaces, not only for the tenants, but for the neighborhood and the community at-large, is a great way to approach these projects,” O’Herlihy said. “It breaks down those barriers that exist between them and us, the homeless and those who are not, who are fortunate enough to have a place to live.”