Architect Mike Pyatok has designed more than 35,000 units of affordable housing in California and across the West.

An influential figure in the industry, Pyatok has won numerous local and national awards for his designs. These days, he is thinking a lot about creating affordable housing that is more than a place to sleep and eat. He wants spaces that allow residents to nurture their entrepreneurial skills and earn an income out of their homes.

His Oakland, Calif.-based firm, Pyatok Architects, Inc., also designs student housing and market-rate housing developments.

Pyatok share his thoughts with Affordable Housing Finance on the design trends to watch.

Q: How did you get started designing affordable housing projects?

A: I came out of school in 1967 at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War. As a student I was involved in civil rights. As a young professional right out of school, that was my weekend activities. I would leave work and go to demonstrations. I was working in New York and then in Baltimore, which gave me easy access to Washington, D.C. During that period, all kinds of authority came under question as to its ability to really make sensible decisions on behalf of lots of folks. Those of us who were protesting the so-called experts at the Pentagon and those leading the charge on the war would naturally turn our sights toward our own profession and begin to question what the profession was doing. We began to question the whole urban renewal process and the destruction it was reaping on low-income neighborhoods. An outgrowth from that was to begin to develop participatory design methods so that people in disenfranchised communities could begin to understand how the whole process works and what they could do to intervene and make proposals of their own that reflected their values and cultures.

In the late ’60s, that’s what I began to do. One of the ways of doing that was to become a full-time academic, so from about age 24 to 33 I taught design studios at Penn State and Washington University in St. Louis. In the process, I would make an effort to use the studio in some form or another as a community service. Get the students to become engaged with the community and then to develop planning and design methods that would allow large numbers of people to directly participate in the decision-making process.

When I moved to California after I finished my career as a full-time teacher, I continued to teach part-time. I’ve been a tenured professor at the University of Washington for the last 22 years. It allowed me to have a foot in academia to experiment and a foot in practice.

Q: What do you like about designing affordable housing properties?

A: We design student housing as well as market-rate housing. All of them have their own interesting challenges. They require the same sensitivity toward understanding who is in that demographic that you are trying to design for. I came from a welfare family, a single-parent female-headed household. I lived in the same tiny one-room tenement apartment for the first 22 years of my life with my mother and brother. I didn’t leave it until I went to Harvard. I came from those roots. That’s why I identify with it.

What I have learned as I matured professionally was that we have to go out and to make sure we are gaining the involvement of the people at the neighborhood level in these low-income communities so that they have a chance to shape their future and their community but also understand how the whole real estate development process works both politically and technically. It’s a great learning opportunity for folks. At the same time, we learn what people want from directly engaging them in site planning and determining the appearances of their communities. The same is true in student housing.

We give people modeling kits to help with site planning and help design dwellings. When they get to do it themselves, all kinds of ideas come out that could never come out by just using language. 

Q: In what ways do you think recent affordable housing designs have shined?

A: In many respects, they are on the cutting edge, particularly in this age of the pursuit of ‘sustainable design’ and ‘sustainable living.’ Lower-income folks are of limited means and have limited subsidies that might assist them in their housing expenses. The housing that results from those circumstances by necessity has been smaller than the average American house. The last numbers I saw showed that the average American home was around 2,400 square feet. The average affordable home we design is around 950 square feet. Our one-bedroom units are 550, our two-bedrooms are 950, our three-bedroom townhouses are 1,150, and four-bedroom townhouses are around 1,350. The fact of the matter is the average American home in 1950 was about 950 square feet. In the last 50 years with the advancement of technology and all these amenities, we have been overconsuming and not thinking twice about it. Everything has grown in size–our houses, our cars. In recent years, all that has come into question when we start talking about how we have to live more sustainably.

Lower-income folks have been living modestly by necessity forever. Before sustainability became a buzz word, the nonprofits and housing agencies were doing it already. We were designing housing that by necessity was close in to the existing infrastructure so you could use the existing gas lines, sewer lines, water lines, electrical lines, and roads. They would choose sites that were close in and that would also allow their residents to have easier access to work and carry out the everyday chores of life without having to rely on an automobile. They could rely on mass transit. They were also being designed at higher densities. To be feasible, these projects have to have more units per acre more often than the densities of the surrounding neighborhoods. They were conserving resources, conserving travel time. They were being sustainable by necessity.

Q: Where do you think affordable housing design is lacking?

A: During the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era, it was recognized that there were so many people who could not afford a roof over their head or they were spending inordinate amounts of their income just to have a roof over their head. They passed the act that created public housing. Federal dollars would go toward the creation of publicly assisted housing to make up for the gap between people’s incomes and the costs of housing. Right from the get-go, it was assumed that the business of housing people is just that. It’s providing housing. When you look at the history of how low-income people survive, they have always used their housing first and foremost as what I call a homestead. It was a place of work from which you earned money. It produced income.

The home was a place where you slept and ate, but it was a place where you grew things, made things, repaired things. You used it as a place of work. Immigrants as they came into the country in waves in the late 19th century and early 20th century, that’s the first thing they did. Housing was available to them in the inner city, and they found a way to put it to use to earn income. It was an active income-producing, entrepreneurial incubator. When public housing was created and all the various subsidy programs for housing that evolved after that in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, housing was consistently conceived as simply a place where these people were expected to eat, sleep, live, and recreate.

How can we get these funding sources to recognize that what they should be doing is creating places that will encourage people to be creative about how to earn an income. To me, this is a melding of both the right and the left. It’s the conservative mantra of organic, natural, innate, individualistic, entrepreneurial activity and the left saying these folks are at a disadvantage and we want to give them a more level playing field. Let’s give them a boost.

Designing housing that allows people to have home-based businesses is my big deal these days. A lot of people from the middle- and upper-middle class use their homes to earn income, but it’s usually through the computer screen. For people in the lower income, they might be making things. They might be repairing things or providing services like meals or catering. We need to make reforms to allow this to happen.

It may mean you have to design it differently. The spaces have to be organized differently. The durability has to be built in those areas of the apartment where it could potentially be used for income.

Q: Looking at the affordable housing that you have designed, what is one of your favorite design elements?

A: Regardless of the density–and I would say above 35 or 40 units an acre it’s hard to do–it is important that every family gets some sort of outdoor room. I call it a room because it needs to be defined. It is outside and may be in the form of a patio or at least a decent-sized balcony. In California, it is easy for us to provide some sense of enclosure or trellises above. The trellises allow people to decorate their outdoor rooms with plants and wind chimes, with sacred images. At various holiday seasons they can hang holiday lights or Halloween decorations. It’s an armature that allows them to leave their personal signature on their dwelling. As renters, [with rental housing being] the majority of what we do for lower-income folks, they can’t make much change on the inside. With that outdoor room, if it has that enclosure, they can do all kinds of wonderful things to personalize them and make them their nest. The more they are able to do that, the longer they stay and the lower the turnover. That’s good for management because high turnover can be expensive. The longer they stay, it means more consistency for their kids’ education. Kids aren’t changing schools. I’m not saying these outdoor rooms are critical to low turnover, but it’s one more ingredient along with a nice affordable rent.

A second one is through-ventilation. While you need to have some flats because some people will be in wheelchairs, we try to give everyone a two-story house. We stack these two-story houses so that there is a corridor only on every other floor. You cut the number of corridors and you make those outdoor walkways, which means a unit then has an exterior exposure on both the front and back side and it has windows on both sides. Now, you can get fresh air blowing through a unit. The outdoor corridors are also under easy observation by everyone who lives there, particularly if you wrap it around a courtyard. It provides good surveillance. You don’t have to artificially ventilate these spaces, and you only have to artificially light them at night. It dramatically reduces the load on energy necessary to maintain the common areas. It dramatically improves the livability of the dwellings.

The third, as I mentioned earlier, is designing a unit so you can build in flexibility to use a portion of the unit as a work space without disrupting the household.

Q: Are there any design trends in affordable housing design that developers should be watching?

A: I would like to believe it’s going to be a heightened awareness of how to make housing more than housing and to treat it as a place where people can allow their entrepreneurial skills to flourish and design housing that has these flex spaces that will permit people to use them as a place of work. The ones that I have been attempting to design shrink every part of the house. It’s like taxing every part of the house by 10 percent to create a flex room. I believe this would be acceptable just by watching how immigrants have used their dwellings over the years. You can make smaller bedrooms and smaller kitchens and smaller living and dining rooms if in the process of extracting 200 square feet out of a typical unit you created a 200-square-foot room that was totally flexible and you told the tenant ‘do whatever you want with this room.’ You want to use it to put in a sewing machine and run a little business, more power to you. You want to use it to silk-screen T-shirts, more power to you.

Q: What is restricting this from happening?

A: Zoning codes for decades have been separating these various land uses out into different pieces of geography of a city. The residential districts are here. The retail districts are there. The offices are here. It is counter to the way cities organically used to function. Part of it is existing zoning laws, but those can be changed. Part of it is also building codes. Building codes have evolved around the zoning codes, making it sometimes difficult to mix certain uses for fear that one is more likely to cause a fire than the other.

Q: What about the regulations tied to various affordable housing financing?

A: Sometimes it is that. The funding may put some restrictions on how the dwellings are used. I think the financial types recognize that this is a good thing to encourage people to be entrepreneurial.