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live / 2014

SCI-Arc/Habitat LA Housing Project

SCI-Arc/Habitat LA Housing Project

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc)

SCI-Arc and Habitat for Humanity are partnering to develop creative, innovative, sustainable, and affordable housing for residents in LA.

Please describe yourself.

Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

SCI-Arc is an independent, accredited school of architecture in Downtown LA’s Arts District, offering undergraduate and graduate programs.

Does your project impact Los Angeles County?

Yes (benefits a region of LA County)

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

  • South LA
  • Westmont; LA County

What is your idea/project in more detail?

SCI-Arc, one of the top architecture schools in the US, and Habitat for Humanity, Greater Los Angeles are launching the SCI-Arc/Habitat LA Housing Project. The initiative is an exciting opportunity to innovatively redevelop neglected properties in LA and positively impact the communities they exist within. The collaboration will include a series of SCI-Arc classes in which students creatively design affordable and sustainable housing to be built on land transferred to Habitat by LA County. The project champions the idea that beyond the crucial role of providing shelter, a well-designed home, both inside and in context to its urban fabric, can help improve the lives and well-being of its residents, as well as the community beyond its walls.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

In order to implement this project, starting in September 2014, SCI-Arc and Habitat LA will begin a series of design-build studios whose structure is set up to complete one SCI-Arc/Habitat home per academic year. The fall semester (Sept-Dec) of SCI-Arc’s academic schedule will be devoted to the student design of a home, the spring semester (Jan-April) will complete final documentation of the project, and during the summer semester (May-Aug) SCI-Arc students will join Habitat LA’s volunteers in order to acquire firsthand building experience during the construction phase of the project. During this time, students may also use facilities at SCI-Arc to build components of the home at the school to then attach to the building on site.

Managed collaboratively, the SCI-Arc/Habitat LA Housing Project will be a partnership which bridges Habitat for Humanity’s mission to bring people together to build homes, communities, and hope with SCI-Arc’s mission to educate architects to engage, speculate, and innovate. Engaging with Habitat LA, residents, and the local community will play a vital role in the student design and build process. Offering students the educational opportunity for community-based involvement, whether through Habitat and resident input, or volunteering on site, will not only inform the project design itself, but can also have a meaningful impact on subsequent projects and the student’s future careers in architecture.

SCI-Arc’s goals include: 1) examine everything about the built environment—from design and materials to culture and experience; 2) ask provocative questions to prompt new theoretical constructs; 3) lead the discussion on the future of architecture; and 4) create designs that change how people interact with each other and their environment. Each of these goals complements the very nature of this initiative and collaboration, which on the one hand brings innovative design with a focus on health and sustainability to the development model of Habitat LA, but also offers SCI-Arc students the opportunity to engage with real-world clients, local residents, and their greater LA community towards the final goal of a home for someone to live in and enjoy.

How will your idea/project help make LA the healthiest place to LIVE today? In 2050?

Understanding that where one lives contributes greatly to one’s physical and emotional well-being, this project will help make LA the healthiest place to live by helping low-income residents access mindful, creative, and environmentally sustainable design within their own homes and communities. Just as Habitat believes that everyone deserves a decent and affordable place to live, SCI-Arc believes that everyone equally deserves that place to be the best design and quality it can be.

Innovative designs which respond to specific contexts and users allow a building to become more than a space that supplies crucial shelter, but also one that elicits great pride and ownership, and in turn improves emotional and mental well-being. In addition, tailored design decisions with a focus on health and sustainability can allow for a reduction in future energy costs, as well as increased quality of air, and life, for the residents.

With a timeline that would complete its first home in 2015, this project would begin making LA a healthier place to live with its first studio. Bringing good design to all levels of society is a goal that can improve the well-being of individual residents and help foster overall community pride. Allowing room for respectfully adventurous architecture in affordable housing can reinvigorate a sense of civic belonging in a place, something that can have lasting effects beyond one home.

Looking to 2050, the intention for the project, a replicable model, is to evolve and grow in the coming years, keeping in mind the long term goal of making LA a healthier place to live. Last semester, SCI-Arc held a seminar on mitigation strategies that reduce air pollutants and foster healthy home environments. This research focused on a problem that is not only of national concern, but also a very real issue in the car-commuter culture of LA. SCI-Arc plans to continue studying such strategies for near-road conditions, especially given that project sites in the future may be freeway adjacent. Together with partners at UCR, modeling software will be used to test reductions in pollution from mitigation measures that can be implemented in future designs. Lastly, as the architects of tomorrow, this opportunity to develop creative, innovative, and sustainable design, in consultation with Habitat LA, residents, and the local community, is a tangible way to inspire students to work on these types of civic centered projects throughout their future careers.

Whom will your project benefit?

The spectrum of whom this project will benefit extends from individual homeowners, to students, to the wider population of LA County.

Habitat for Humanity will determine an eligible owner for each home, which will be built in partnership with the families and individuals it supports, with each taking part in the construction of their home with up to 500 hours of ‘sweat equity.’ Once the home is complete, homebuyers are offered a 0% interest loan from Habitat LA.

SCI-Arc is lucky to partner with an organization that already offers such an important program to an underserved segment of society in LA. In turn, as with many successful partnerships, this project hopes to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. SCI-Arc’s collaboration with Habitat LA will further benefit residents because the collaboration invites participatory design into Habitat’s existing model. Important health metrics are not only physical, but must include emotional and mental well-being. As an architecture school, SCI-Arc believes strongly in the power of design to better people’s quality of life. This tenet crosses all programmatic barriers, and this project advocates that the same rule does and must apply to affordable housing as well, as every individual in society deserves the positive impact of design.

In addition to helping low-income families afford homeownership and have access to creative design, this project equally benefits the students participating in the project. As the architects of our next generation, these students will be defining the future of building in the years to come. More immediately, this project allows them the invaluable chance to design and help construct homes, as well as learn firsthand about the challenges that the real-world presents and the skillsets it demands.

More broadly, this initiative benefits the greater population of LA County. Planned as a multi-year and replicable initiative, the project has the potential to make a meaningful impact on the urban scale, with multiple homes planned for underserved communities in LA. Conceived as a project informed by its context, the communities where SCI-Arc and Habitat LA will be involved will play a crucial role in design development. Not only will these houses become a place to call home, each resident is a meaningful contributor to the civic process, helping to shape the communities they exist within.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.


  • Habitat for Humanity, Greater Los Angeles
  • Office of LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and the LA County Community Development Commission

In Development:

  • University of California, Riverside, Bourns College of Engineering

While SCI-Arc’s main collaborator for the project is Habitat LA, the partnership would not be possible without pronounced help from LA County, who has provided the necessary land for this initiative. The first year’s home will be designed in Westmont, an unincorporated area in South LA. In addition, SCI-Arc has also been working with faculty and PhD students from UCR’s Bourns College of Engineering who have developed dispersion modeling software which can be used to measure reductions in pollution from mitigation strategies that will be tested on SCI-Arc’s campus and ideally implemented in future designs. This is the first time SCI-Arc has worked with all three above mentioned parties.

Three factors that are critical to the success of the SCI-Arc and Habitat LA partnership are:

1) Shared project goals: The SCI-Arc/Habitat LA Housing Project is a collaboration in which all parties hope to further build upon a mutually beneficial platform. Through the initiative, SCI-Arc is excited to expand its design curriculum to reach underserved communities of LA, and to include a program that allows its students to be involved, for their educational benefit, from design to construction of a real-world housing project in their community. Habitat LA is eager to test new grounds for design innovation within its affordable homes and to integrate new strategies of sustainability into its model.

2) Pace/Patience: Keeping up with the annual ‘design-document-build’ timeline is crucial to the project’s success. It must, however, be done thoughtfully in order to respond to the needs of the residents and community. As the project progresses, resident input, both past and future, can be a key part of this process.

3) Commitment/Leadership: The success of the collaboration is also dependent on the full commitment to the project by both main collaborators. To highlight each other’s commitment, both parties have drafted an MoU to better frame the goals and timeline of the initiative. In addition, SCI-Arc has appointed faculty member Darin Johnstone as the project coordinator and lead. A practicing LA architect, Darin is also the director of DID, SCI-Arc’s introduction to design program for high school students.

How will your project impact the LA2050 “Live” metrics?

  • Exposure to air toxins
  • Number of households below the self-sufficiency standard
  • Rates of homelessness
  • Percentage of tree canopy cover (Dream Metric)
  • Environment design’s impact on well-being

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

Through SCI-Arc’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity this project will impact the number of households below the self-sufficiency standard and rates of homelessness. Being able to partner with such a well-respected affordable housing organization allows the initiative to have an immediate impact on families and individuals in LA. Because, however, the partnership will ensure that creative design, innovation, and sustainability are at the forefront of the affordable housing model, this project will also impact the LA2050 ‘LIVE’ metrics through an added metric of how an environment’s design can impact how we live.

In addition, from SCI-Arc’s seminar on mitigation strategies that reduce air pollutants and foster healthy home environments, as well as planned continued research at SCI-Arc on these mitigation strategies, this project can impact exposure to air toxins and increase the percentage of tree canopy cover. The seminar concluded with the premise that aggregated active and passive mitigation solutions can improve air quality of project sites and their neighboring properties. Through strategies such as filtration and barriers from traffic (walls, building materials, trees, and landscape), different approaches can greatly benefit how healthy a built environment can be. While initial project sites will not be freeway adjacent, pollution is still a very real issue in the car-commuter culture of Los Angeles and it is important that these strategies still inform design decisions, all contributing to a healthier home environment.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

While SCI-Arc and Habitat for Humanity, Greater Los Angeles will obviously measure success with the construction of the first SCI-Arc/Habitat LA home, many factors will play a part in how this success is measured throughout the project and beyond.

First, continued dialogue between both parties during the student design development phase will be an important measure towards project realization. Habitat LA’s in-house architect will remain part of the student design process by attending crucial review points at SCI-Arc during the semesters. As with any architectural project, Habitat and its homeowner will act as a ‘client’ to the process, and will need to be consulted in order to better understand the needs that the home’s design will have to respond to. In turn, Habitat will also bring representatives from its Youth Programs and Speakers Bureau to the school in order to give students a better sense of the organization’s mission and goals.

Second, as mentioned, success will be measured by the positive completion of construction of the first SCI-Arc/Habitat LA home, planned for summer 2015. Together with Habitat LA’s existing volunteer structure, students will spend the summer semester gaining on-site building experience constructing the home. In addition, because the school has space and equipment suitable for building, students can also take advantage of SCI-Arc’s state of the art facilities to produce certain elements of the home on campus. The important element within this metric is student learning, with the design-build opportunity of the initiative being for their educational benefit

Third, the future of the project will be evaluated based on the combination of the two aforementioned measures of success. Conceived as a multi-year initiative, this first year will set the groundwork for what has the potential to be a long term partnership. Ideally, with the success of the first year’s project development and execution, the next year’s students will have the chance to continue to make an even larger impact on the urban fabric of LA County.

Lastly, the true success of this project will lie in how the ultimate users, the homeowner and community, evaluate the home and space. While the design of the home is impossible to surmise before the students create it, we do know that key to what informs their decisions will be a focus on context, sustainability, a healthy home, and a space worthy of those who occupy it.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

Having been involved in the U.S. Department of Energy’s challenge to design, build, and operate a solar-powered home for the Solar Decathlon with Caltech, SCI-Arc is well aware of the great benefits that come from a sustainable design-build project. Cognizant of the positive effect of good design on the public, this opportunity is made even more impactful by knowing that these student-designed homes will influence the lives of real clients and, in turn, an entire community.

SCI-Arc also understands the importance of providing a setting for students to have access to the affordable housing development model. As the architects of our next generation, these students will be defining the future of building in the years to come. Having the opportunity to develop their creativity and innovation in the affordable housing field is a concrete way to inspire them to work on these types of projects throughout their future careers.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

Implementing the first SCI-Arc/Habitat LA Housing Project within the next twelve month is not only an achievable goal, but is also within the existing timeframe both partners are currently working with. As mentioned, starting in September 2014, SCI-Arc and Habitat LA will begin a series of design-build studios whose structure is set up to complete one SCI-Arc/Habitat home per academic year. With the agreed upon ‘Fall: Design, Spring: Document, Summer: Build’ timeline, the first iteration of the SCI-Arc/Habitat LA Project will be complete at the end of the summer in 2015. Taking advantage of the strengths of both partners, the design studios will be a chance for students to both design and document the home within two academic semesters. Following this, the home will begin construction under Habitat’s organized building schedule, whereby Habitat LA acts as general contractor and is supported by their existing framework of volunteers.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

The first challenge SCI-Arc anticipates will be aligning each individual organization’s timeline so that each phase can fall within the academic calendar structure of the initiative. As with any partnership, SCI-Arc and Habitat for Humanity, Greater Los Angeles will need to remain in close collaboration to ensure the project stays on course towards a 2015 summer build for the students.

The second anticipated challenge will be raising costs towards advanced technologies and construction methods. While remaining respectful to the project’s intended program and its urban fabric, SCI-Arc’s focused role of design innovation and sustainability within this project will likely raise the cost of construction of the individual home above Habitat’s existing budget. It is important to note, however, that these decisions are made in consideration of the occupancy cost over time as opposed to the upfront construction costs, as many elements would ultimately decrease energy costs for the user as well as allow for more durable materials. In order to do so, SCI-Arc has committed to secure additional funds to cover the cost of advanced materials, construction techniques, or sustainability measures that may be incorporated into the project.

What resources does your project need?

  • Network/relationship support
  • Money (financial capital)
  • Volunteers/staff (human capital)
  • Publicity/awareness (social capital)
  • Community outreach