World-renowned architect Helmut Jahn is known for designing corporate headquarters and international airports. He can now add affordable housing to his resume.

The man who created the stylish Sony Center in Berlin and the Munich Airport Center is the designer behind Near North Apartments, a 96-unit single-room occupancy facility for formerly homeless and low-income people in Chicago. Mercy Housing Lakefront is the developer.

Jahn shares his thoughts on his latest work.

Q Why did you agree to design an affordable housing development?

A I wanted to do the Near North SRO project because affordable housing need not be of lower standard and lesser quality. Designed with different goals and spirit, this project aspires not only to contribute to the lives of the users, but also to improve the quality of the city.

Q Describe your design for Near North in Chicago.

A The project is located on Clybourn Avenue just north of Division Street in a rapidly redeveloping mixed-income residential community [near] the site of the former Cabrini-Green public housing project. There are four floors of SRO units with community spaces on the ground floor complementing the activity and life of this resurging part of the city. Each unit (approximately 250 square feet) is self-contained with a full kitchen and bathroom. The goal is to provide spacious, well-designed units within the limited area.

The site plan grows from a response to the urban condition. The linear building respects the street wall of Clybourn Avenue. The irregular configuration of the site toward the west lends itself to landscaped, open spaces for the tenants and required parking.

The materials are simple, minimal and visible: concrete for the structure and glass with profiled stainless steel for the facade. At the stairs and edges, the metal is perforated. Individual punched windows give the units a feeling of individuality and maintain the surface in the metal façade. Fritted glass panels give the end façade and ground-floor spaces a luminous quality.

Q What was the challenge of designing this project? How did you overcome that challenge?

A The challenge really is parallel to the reason we took the assignment—to show that we can achieve quality design in affordable housing on a tight budget—and beyond that, integrate cutting-edge sustainability concepts and achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Our client, Mercy Housing Lakefront, was incredibly supportive in this regard. As a nonprofit corporation, Mercy was eligible to compete for government funding grants not available to commercial residential developers. Project grants from the Illinois Clean Air Community Foundation and city of Chicago made it viable to incorporate high-tech wind generated electricity and recycled graywater systems, which are first-of-a-kind groundbreaking technologies which will help protect the environment.

Q What advice do you have for affordable housing developers when it comes to designing a development?

A You have to keep your standards high—low cost doesn’t have to mean cheap.

Q There may be some feeling in the general public that affordable housing lacks good design. What’s your feeling?

A The issue of good design in affordable housing is not much different than the issue of good design in all residential development. Most residential development doesn’t insist on high design quality. I believe that if we as architects, developers, and builders demand of ourselves quality design, we can be successful on projects ranging from low cost [to] luxury buildings on tight budgets and generous ones.

Q What statement does Near North make about affordable housing?

A It is our hope that this project will underscore the point that there is no such thing as a second-class design assignment. Whether a project is affordable housing, a subway station, parking garage, utility plant, luxury hotel, or corporate headquarters, we as architects need to search for fresh, appropriate, innovative solutions to the intrinsic issues of each design by pushing the envelope with progressive technologies, new ways of using old materials, collaborating with great engineers, and integrating sustainability to create quality living and working environments and enrich our cities and urban experience.