More Than One Winner

The Housing Innovation Competition

New Urban Mechanics
Jul 6, 2017 · 4 min read

The Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab’s recent Housing Innovation Competition (Compact Living — Garrison Trotter) is an example that innovation in housing is more than possible. The competition resulted in six distinct proposals from six unique teams. Each of the proposals offered a well researched and developed approach to creating affordable, compact units for families and elderly in Garrison Trotter.

Compact units are smaller than Boston’s currently implemented minimums — specifically designed for middle-income families and the elderly outside of the city’s downtown core.


The proposals also served as a reminder there are typologies missing from Boston’s housing stock. These proposals explore new housing opportunities for Boston and offered actionable approaches to take them on. Upon reflecting on these possible options, several insights became evident for how the City of Boston can add to its affordable housing approaches.

These insights are:

Too often, the theme behind “innovative housing” is exclusively targeted around technology or increasing “smart home” capabilities. While technology surely has a place in innovative housing, a limited definition of this type leaves many marginalized publics unaddressed and does not necessarily forward an affordability agenda. The ideas generated through the Housing Innovation Competition, however, demonstrate the kind of relevant innovation necessary for affordability’s sake; Building spaces, which meet community needs and desires, in untraditional ways and use non-conventional tools. Examples of this kind of innovation are detailed in some of the ideas below.

A good start for this kind of innovation, is acknowledging unexpected demand for housing typologies from untraditional publics — whether it is families looking for compact living or students’ interested in living with seniors, we can’t guess at who wants what. Rather, we must ask and then identify ways to meet those preferences.

Choosing to live in a relatively smaller space should not mean sacrificing living large. As the Hearth House proposal, amongst other proposals, points towards, it is essential to think about spaces outside the home itself where residents can feel welcome, connected, and free to express themselves. Thus, as we begin exploring more options for living, it is essential to think beyond the four walls and a ceiling and to also think about the other spaces, which truly make home, home.

More research and experimentation is being completed with this in mind by other folks within the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.

One design in particular, by Urbanica, did an excellent job demonstrating the value of designing intentionally flexible homes. These types of “starter homes” offered increased affordability and opportunity for personalization by residents. This typology can be simple, but does not need to sacrifice livability. In fact, flexible spatial design, ideally at an affordable price, gives freedom to owners or renters to use the space how they see fit and to adapt it without overly burdensome costs of construction or renovation.

Livelight’s proposal demonstrates the potentially, tremendous affordability prefabrication and modularity could offer. A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute points to a similar insight. At scale, pre-fabrication poses as a currently unconventional, but potentially massive cost-saver. While questions definitely exist around localization and trades involvement in relation to prefabrication, it is important to begin exploring what alternative construction methods and materials could look like and how they could impact housing affordability, not to mention economic development, here in Boston.

Multiple proposals, including DOMA Homes, Urbanica, and Dream Development, offered alternative mechanisms for financing rental or mortgage payments. All three point to increasing capacity for owners to rent portions of their home in order to subside mortgages. DOMA Homes proposes a flexible, modular style home that adjusts to the shifting needs of a family, so they can rent various portions of the unit — ranging from a studio to a 3-bedroom unit. Dream Development and Urbanica points to the advantages an Additional Dwelling Unit could play — not only to subsidize mortgages for owners, but also to create space for multi-generational living, i.e., a grandparent, uncle, niece, or child. These proposals acknowledge innovative housing does not just offer a new product or physical component, but also could offer alternative mechanisms for financing one’s living arrangement.

These are only a select few of the insights gathered from the Housing Innovation Competition proposals. As discussed here, this competition model is an essential piece to creating outlets for new, affordable housing ideas to be generated or collected. Ideally, these initial learnings and ideas are only the beginning of a trend toward a more affordable City of Boston.

What’s Next for the Housing Innovation Lab

  • Creating a Compact Policy — Building off what we learned about resident interest and development feasibility (through this competition) we are developing a Compact Policy for the City of Boston that would allow for the creation of well designed, flexible, compact living spaces that provide more affordable living.
  • Housing Innovation Competition 2.0 — The Competition has proven to be a successful tool for identifying necessary pieces to solve Boston’s affordability challenge. After gathering input from judges, development teams and city staff about the process, we are working to create an even better competition to tackle a new development challenge.
  • Exploring New Pilot Ideas — In addition, we are exploring other alternative living models and systems, such as Limited Equity Coops and Accessory Dwelling Units. Our aim is that these explorations lead to new pilot projects in the coming year.

New Urban Mechanics

Written by

The Mayor's Office New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.

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