Three years ago, Public Architecture, a San Francisco nonprofit group, launched an initiative to bring high design to Habitat for Humanity clients.
Two homes nationwide resulted from that project. One of them sits at the corner of North Eighth Street and Troup Avenue in Kansas City, Kan.
It’s a low-slung bungalow with a metal butterfly roof that looks like it flew in from a midcentury modern ranch in Palm Springs.
And there are, undoubtedly, plenty of architecture buffs who would jump at a chance to buy it.
Yet the home — or prototype, as it’s called — has been vacant for the better part of its nine-month existence, despite a $140,000 asking price and Habitat clients waiting for other volunteer-built homes to be finished.
No one is sure why.
Paul Bell, who lives two doors away on Troup Avenue, likes the prototype better than the two traditional — and occupied — Habitat bungalows that sit diagonally across the street.
“I think it’s cool,” said Bell, 58. “Every time I take the dogs for a walk I go that way because it’s interesting to look at. Whoever the architect is, he’s good.”
Mike Smith, 51, was surprised to learn that the prototype was a Habitat for Humanity House. He moved into the house directly behind it two months ago and says that, given a choice, he’d take it over the traditional bungalows.
“I like the way it’s built,” Smith said. “It’s like an office building.”
The original client interested in buying the prototype — a woman who lived with her disabled grandson — backed out of the deal. A second family stayed for only three months.
Tom Lally, president and CEO of Heartland Habitat for Humanity, declined to comment further on those clients, stating that they weren’t a good fit.
Public Architecture’s 1% Program is an initiative that encourages architecture firms to provide pro bono service, stating on theonepercent.org: “If every architecture professional in the U.S. committed 1% of their time to pro bono service it would add up to 5,000,000 hours annually — the equivalent of a 2,500-person firm, working full time for the public good.” The program has received National Endowment for the Arts funding.
Four Habitat affiliates nationwide applied for the program when it began. Only the Heartland Habitat and the affiliate for the Mississippi Gulf Coast were finished according to plan, said Amy Ress, director of Public Architecture, in an email.
A project in Franklin, W.Va., was canceled, and the completed home in Sheridan, Wyo., doesn’t reflect the architect’s intent because the point person for the affiliate left during the construction process.
Since then, 18 more affiliates have applied.
Lally figured an architecturally significant house would drum up publicity for Habitat’s mission and “start a conversation about affordable housing: what it can and should be.”
Public Architecture partnered Heartland Habitat with El Dorado, an award-winning architecture firm in Kansas City that has worked with Public Architecture on several such projects over the years.
“A lot of times architects and designers only work with a certain type of client,” said Josh Shelton, principal at El Dorado. “Public Architecture focuses on bringing it specifically to communities that have less of a voice or have suffered from blight or segregation or disinvestment.”
An open feel, inside and out
Shelton and his colleagues had to follow some guidelines. The prototype had to be about 1,300 square feet and have three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a garage, like other Habitat homes. He carefully studied several Habitat lots before picking the one in the neighborhood.
“I loved the trees and the way it sits on a higher elevation so you can see the neighborhood from the lot,” he said. “And it gets great summer breezes.”
The prototype is particularly striking in the context of the surrounding homes that are crumbling and have bars on the windows. The two homes across the street are condemned.
The prototype is covered in soothing gray and sky-blue siding. A sleek yet spacious wood-slat porch is welcoming as it spans the front and wraps around the side to a covered concrete courtyard that separates the home from a detached garage.
Shelton intended the courtyard as a three-season room that can be walled off with removable wooden gates to block views from the streets on either side. For now, the gates are in the garage.
“We talked a lot about how eventually a resident could learn to love the outdoors,” Shelton said. “In the Midwest, we get in a mindset that more than half the year we must stay inside with the doors and windows shut. One thing that makes communities healthy is people getting outside, gardening, sitting on their front porch.”
The siding allows air to flow between it and the interior walls, providing extra insulation during extreme temperatures. The electrical, heating and cooling systems all meet the highest Energy Star standards.
“It’s very low-tech with a water collection system, cross-ventilation and really well-insulated walls,” Shelton said.
Inside, an open living/dining area and polished concrete floors create a loft feel. The bedrooms are small to fit with Habitat for Humanity’s philosophy of providing simple, affordable yet decent housing.
The main bathroom has a roll-in shower, and one of the bedrooms has extra electrical outlets for medical equipment, features added for the original client’s disabled grandson. The kitchen also has a dishwasher, which is not typically installed in Habitat homes, though, according to Lally, that policy might change soon.
Because the home doesn’t have a basement, FEMA required the main bathroom to be built with steel plates in the walls that are bolted to the concrete slab foundation, making it resistant to storms.
Originality at work
Habitat broke ground on the prototype in spring 2013. It took 15 months to build, about four times longer than Habitat’s traditional houses. The ones down the street, for instance, are tiny bungalows with taupe siding, white trim and gabled roofs.
Many of the materials used in traditional Habitat homes can be bought at Home Depot or Lowe’s, Lally said. That wasn’t the case with the prototype house. A lot of features, such as the corrugated metal roof, had to be custom-ordered and took longer to install.
“The site supervisors were scratching their heads sometimes,” he recalled.
Habitat clients buy homes at cost and interest-free from Habitat for Humanity, which acts as the mortgage holder. The client can sell at anytime.
Traditional Habitat homes cost about $110,000 to build and buy. Lally estimates that the prototype cost about $200,000 to build, but Habitat clients can buy it for $140,000, which results in a monthly mortgage of $388.
Habitat clients have told Lally that they don’t like the prototype’s concrete floors and the detached garage, which led to safety concerns.
If they can’t sell it to a Habitat client, Lally said, they might consider selling it to a nonclient at a profit with third-party financing.
When asked if Heartland Habitat would build another house like the prototype, Lally said they’d certainly incorporate a lot of features from it but would probably go with a traditional roof and an attached garage.
But he has no regrets about the project.
“It has really done what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “You can drive by this location and think, ‘Gee, that’s a Habitat house?’”