Boston Housing Innovation Competition


by William Morgan

Winning entry ©D/R/E/A/M Collaborative / Wozny Barbar & Associates


“We must look beyond current options and activate new and original ideas,” declared Mayor Martin J. Walsh in announcing Boston’s first-ever housing competition. “The Housing Innovation Competition, “ Walsh continued, “ is a chance for Boston to take its place in the forefront of housing innovation.” Announced in 2016, less than a year after the creation of the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab, the competition was to address the steep costs of living in The Hub, the lack of affordable housing, and the resultant strains on residents and new arrivals. iLab joined the Department of Neighborhood Development, the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association, and the Boston Society of Architects in soliciting affordable housing schemes for three city-owned lots in the Roxbury section of town.   


As Tamara Roy, president of the BSA, said, this was “not an ideas competition–you had to have a developer willing to build workforce housing units with all the restrictions that city-owned land has. And the lots were small.” Marcy Ostberg, director of iLab noted, “We asked development teams to propose innovative compact designs.” The goal of the competition was “to show that small, affordable family units are feasible.” Living units smaller than what the city codes allow might create more opportunities for renting and ownership; plus, more diminutive housing might find spaces closer to downtown. “Through this competition,” Ostberg declared, “we wanted to find out the potential for creating these units.”


Even though the aims of the competition were positive–“to stimulate the architect, contractor and developer communities to collaborate on the creation of lower-cost prototype dwellings” (according to Boston’s Chief of Housing, Sheila A. Dillon), the level of participation was disappointing. There were more jurors–nine–from the city, neighborhood, design and building professions than submissions–seven, and one of those failed to meet the requirements.* The jury was asked to consider innovation, design, sustainability, and affordability, but the emphasis on relying less on design expertise and more on community involvement may account for low number of competitors. But it is especially surprising given that the winning project is scheduled to begin construction this year, with the possibility of employing the scheme as a template for further construction in other neighborhoods.


Nevertheless, the six finalists for the Housing Innovation contest demonstrated a certain level of success. Among the half dozen designs, there were a wide variety of styles, construction methods and materials, and even unconventional financial proposals. Clearly, competitions are now seen as a significant tool for the development of affordable housing in Boston. Competitions are understood as a way to test new ideas, and that well designed, compact flexible spaces could be an integral part of the residential landscape in the inner city.


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Designing on a Small Budget

A New Front Yard for the Berkshire Botanical Gardens

Berkshire Botanical Center House from road


The front yard of one of the oldest Botanical Gardens in this country is getting a much needed arrival gateway. To provide a design solution to complement the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s newly renovated and expanded Center House last spring, the BBG announced the launch of a design competition, inviting students enrolled in accredited landscape architecture programs at academic institutions to submit design proposals.


The site of the competition is the circa 4,000 sq.ft. Entry Garden area, which will become the new gateway for thousands of its annual visitors touring the Garden, attending special events on BBG grounds and inside the Center House, and participating in BBG’s varied horticultural and educational programs that take place year-round. Although a relative small site for a competition, its importance cannot be underestimated—both visually as well as symbolically. When the winning scheme is realized, the profile of the BBG will definitely be raised, especially for those passing by on one of the county’s main roads which borders the complex.


To adjudicate the competition entries, the fie-member panel consisted of independent designers, horticulturalists, and landscape architects:

• Page Dickey, Writer and Garden Designer (Falls Village, CT)
Fergus Garrett, Head Gardener at Great Dixter Garden and CEO, The Great Dixter Charitable Trust (East Sussex, United Kingdom);
Renny Reynolds, Landscape Architect and Co-Owner of Hortulus Farm (Bucks County, PA)
Mark E. Strieter, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (New York, NY and Charlottesville, VA)
Matthew Urbanski, Principal, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., (New York, NY).  


Although this was a competition for students only, the possibility that the winning team would be involved with the realization of the project together with a local landscape architecture firm of record was mentioned as a real possibility in the competition brief.


The first-place winner is a team from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville School of Landscape Architecture, which includes Daniel Rose, Sarah Newton, Alexa Macri, and Fern Turpin. Second place was awarded to Harry Wan Fung Lee, Adam Kai Chi Ng, and Anson Ting Fung Wong of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design; third place goes to Dylan Anslow, Colin Chadderton, Kira Clingen, and Jonathan Kuhr of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and honorable mention is awarded to Zichen Liu and Jingyi (Jessy) Qiu of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.


“The winning design submitted by the student team from the University of Tennessee impressed all of us with its clean and modern look that will work well with the traditional facade of the Center House and the surrounding established garden areas,” said Michael Beck, BBG’s Executive Director. “BBG’s staff and design consultants will provide feedback on the concept described in the first-place submission, and will work with the winning team to establish the final design that will be implemented this winter. We hope to unveil the new garden at our season opening on May 6, 2018.”


First Place Design by University of Tennessee, Knoxville School of Landscape Architecture 
(Daniel Rose, Sarah Newton, Alexa Macri, and Fern Turpin)


View more images of the first place design and runners up…




Interview: James Mary O’Connor FAIA (Winter 2017)

Playing the China Card: The MRY Example     Chun Sen Bi An Housing, Chongqing (competition 2004; completion 2010)   COMPETITIONS: Moore Ruble Yudell (MRY) has had a reputation as an international player since the 1980s. How did you manage to become involved in China?   James O’Connor: We were first invited to take part in a (developer) competition in Beijing in 2002, the Beijing ... Read more...