Designing for Density: Redesigning the Built Environment for More People

By 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Outside traditional city-centers, urban adjacent suburbs and mid-sized cities and towns are also seeing rapid growth, fueled in part by a shift to remote working in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the demand for affordable housing is outpacing supply, with new multifamily units renting at prices that are cost-prohibitive for middle- and low-income renters. Nearly two-thirds of renters nationwide say they can’t afford to buy a home, and saving for a down payment is out of reach when home prices are rising at twice the rate of wage growth. These challenges, along with a year-long pandemic, has only intensified America’s housing problems.

Skylab Sideyard street view exterior

Demand for Mixed-Use Development to Support Population Growth

At the same time, infrastructure, amenities and mixed-use commercial space is needed to support population growth. But land available for such development is costly and scarce, highlighting the need to optimize the use of existing space in urban centers. And now, these same cities must now consider how to adapt mixed-use development for a post-pandemic world. 

Given all these challenges, how can developers, architects and contractors boost affordability and reduce multifamily housing costs? How can they make better use of available land and optimize the use of existing mixed-use commercial spaces?

An illustration of a light-frame building with a wooden structure.

What Impact Can Design Teams Have On Density and Affordability?


To answer these questions, designer and urbanist Hannah Hoyt, Gramlich Fellow at Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies interviewed 30 professionals working in the development sector. The findings? To help make housing more affordable, the report recommends design team’s consider multiple strategies that can curb development costs in all three categories: land costs, soft costs and hard costs, with a focus on what savings are within their day-to-day control and can be passed on to occupants.

Land costs refer to the cost of acquiring land—and amounts to approximately 10% to 20% of total development costs for a typical multifamily project. Examples of strategies to maximize land value include selecting a site that offers economies of scale, considering design solutions for oddly shaped lots or scattered sites and renovating, converting or co-locating housing with existing buildings. A standard approach to site evaluations that considers everything from soil and site clearance to grade and zoning can, according to the report, go a long way to identifying scalability and avoiding unexpected site preparation costs.  

Hard costs are the costs of construction, which can be divided into four sub-categories: substructure and site prep, shell and structure, interiors, and services. Hard costs amount to 50 to 70% of the total costs. Examples of strategies that can have a positive impact on hard costs include designing units for maximum flexibility and efficiency, investigating new techniques and materials and investing in energy and water performance to realize long-term savings for a project.

Finally, soft costs include all other costs—financing, design, engineering, permitting and any impact fees. In this category, engaging general contractors early and as partners can help realize savings and sharing more information with subcontractors can result in more accurate cost-estimating.

Making Housing and Mixed-Use Density More Affordable

On the opposite coast, architect CWS Architects and general contractor Zachau Construction are adopting some similar tactics in their affordable housing project, Wessex Woods. It’s a four-story, 40-unit affordable senior housing development in Portland, Maine’s Nason’s Corner neighborhood for Avesta Housing.

By using mass timber, the team cut the hard costs related to long drawn-out construction schedules. “Traditionally it’s always been CMU (concrete masonry unit) for elevators and stairs,” said Ben Walter, president at CWS Architects. “But we were able to demonstrate that a new material, and a different set of details to install it, fit nicely here.” They compressed the shaft’s expected three-week construction time to one day, reducing their budget by $75,000, while realizing additional cost savings related to lower labor, heating and tenting requirements.

Drew Wing, chief operating officer at Zachau Construction, witnessed the project’s time-saving benefits of CLT and wood panel construction first-hand. “In addition to erecting stair towers and elevator shafts in a day, it also allowed the framing of the building to happen concurrently; something we could not have done with masonry,” said Wing. “We also were able to easily lift and crane the panelized components into place, saving an enormous amount of time on the project schedule overall.”

Drew Wing
Chief Operating Officer
Zachau Construction
The design team, construction manager and owner all worked together. That's what allowed CLT to happen in this fashion.

Mixed-Use Infill Project in Atlanta

Infill housing and mixed-use development is a powerful way to bring more housing and amenities to community areas while enriching and blending with existing neighborhood culture and appearance. 

The architects of the Emery Point project, a vibrant, mixed-use apartment complex in the core of Atlanta, Georgia, employed a number of strategies to create an affordable solution that also boosted density. 

The property’s central location maximizes what they can do with the site. Its access to public transit ensures that residents can live comfortably without a car, reducing local traffic and carbon emissions, as well as the need for parking.

By building with wood—which allows for pre-fabrication off-site and quick construction—the developers met an aggressive schedule resulting in significant cost reductions of labour and construction.

“Cost for the structural frame portion only of the building was about $14 per square foot,” according to Brad Ellinwood, engineer on the project. “In comparison, a 7-inch post-tensioned concrete slab and frame would have cost $22 per square foot. So, the wood-framing option yielded about 35 percent savings in the structure.”


Could A Century-Old Building Material Offer New Ways to Increase Density and Affordability?

Wood’s light-weight advantage when it comes to density and city building is pointed out in a research paper: Lightweighting with Timber: An Opportunity for More Sustainable Urban Densification.. Read more

The Future is Flexible and Versatile

Collectively, these case studies show how design teams across the country are getting creative and tackling density and affordability challenges with many of the strategies suggested in Hoyt’s report.

The Sideyard building from the corner

Another example is a 9,000-square-foot berm space in Portland, Oregon that might have looked like an orphaned space to passersby, but Key Development saw its potential: “It was an uncommon, remnant space that perhaps wasn’t considered in the city’s redevelopment plans, and we saw an opportunity to make it stand out,” said Claudia Munk-von Flotow, chief operations officer for the developer.

Tapping into the clever insights of their design team—a local architecture studio, Skylab, and contractor, Andersen Construction—Key Development converted this oblong lot into a striking 5-story mass timber masonry-clad building, given the moniker Sideyard. The project discretely adds 20,000 square-feet of mixed-use space to the Burnside Bridgehead neighborhood.

Flexibility and ingenuity became even more relevant as they completed construction in the midst of COVID-19. When tenants began to terminate leases and change office space requirements, the team found immense value in their ability to reconfigure the design.


Sideyard uses wood on the exterior awnings
As the global population continues its rapid growth in a post-pandemic world, design teams are showing how we can boost affordability and density in today’s complex urban environments through creative, nimble and flexible thinking when it comes to hard costs, soft costs and land costs.
Architecture transcends pandemics and social changes. Over time [Sideyard] can transform and support different users.
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