Better Design for Low-Cost Homes Low-income housing doesn't have to look like low-income housing. After tossing the issue around, The Institute of Classical Architecture, or ICA, joined with the home builders Habitat for Humanity. Together, they came up with blueprints for homes that are both affordable and stylish.
NPR logo

Better Design for Low-Cost Homes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Better Design for Low-Cost Homes

Better Design for Low-Cost Homes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


NIMBY, it's an acronym for Not In My Back Yard. When it comes to low income housing in middle class neighborhoods, NIMBY can become a community slogan. But does low income housing have to look like low income housing? That question was tossed around in the halls of the Institute of Classical Architecture, or ICA, the New York based group got together with the Homebuilders Habitat For Humanity and together they came up with blueprints for homes that would fit into the neighborhoods and not stick out like many low income homes do. Paul Gunther is President of the ICA. He joins me now from our New York Bureau. And Detricka Brown is a single mom. This past weekend, she moved into her new Victorian-style home. It's in the historic Thomas Square street car district at Savannah, Georgia. Welcome to you both.

Mr. PAUL GUNTHER (Institute of Classical Architecture): Thank you.

Ms. DETRICKA BROWN (Homeowner): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So Detricka congratulations. How was this whole moving in and the ceremony?

Ms. BROWN: Oh it was wonderful. We had a good time and a lot of people came out and congratulated me. It was just a wonderful event. I was very excited.

CHIDEYA: Now Habitat has this model of putting in a lot of sweat equity and contributing to the cost of the house. What did you actually have to do to get this house in terms of you know, your own labor, your own money, all that?

Ms. BROWN: Well I did put in a lot of hours of labor. We had to do 350 hours of sweat equity. I did a lot more hours than the 350 because I was out there all the time. You know, especially when they got to my house. So I was out there you know, how everything was going, helping out as much as I could because I know it was a lot of volunteers that did - you know they came out and during the month that was slow, was during the holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, so I went out there whenever I could.

CHIDEYA: Tell us about your kids and what kind of place you were living in before.

Ms. BROWN: Okay. We stayed on the south side of Savannah. It was a, it was a pretty all right neighborhood. But then it kind of got bad after a while. Kids was breaking in. It was kind of overcrowded out there, and I mean, and I was renting, so it definitely wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to always be a homeowner, so that's what I put in my mind to do when I got it done thanks to Habitat.

CHIDEYA: So Paul, this collaboration, describe to me what the home that Detricka moved into looks like. What - you know, some people are familiar with Victorians, if you've lived in San Francisco, for example. But you know, what's that style mean in this case?

Mr. GUNTHER: It respects - there's two things that go on in Habitat. They of course are, above all, sheltering individuals, and your preceding interview reminded me that in a funny way Habitat has taken on the role of some of these communities as the proverbial local banker, because unlike some of the recent activity with mortgages, they actually scrutinize these homeowners and help them make sure they can meet their needs. It's quite an interesting passing of the baton in that respect.

But this is a neighborhood in Savannah. Savannah had a great redevelopment and rebirth the last 20 years. The Victorian wooden houses in the neighborhood are marvelous. They were respected, perhaps less - it followed the interest in the grid section of Savannah, and this house is a simple wood frame Victorian house, not much decoration, in line with the budgets of Habitat, but a nice, solid, well-proportioned Victorian house that I think graces its context beautifully.

CHIDEYA: So when you mentioned that it doesn't have a lot of decoration, some of the Victorians, the classic Victorians, are known for being really ornate and sometimes being painted in these outrageous ways, but it sounds like the house still has good bones.

Mr. GUNTHER: Well, I'd be curious to hear what Detricka thinks so far.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, what do you think?

Mr. GUNTHER: But I think so.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, Detricka, what do you think?

Ms. BROWN: Yes, it does have - it's a very sturdy house. It's, you know, made out of good pine wood, and I mean, it's hurricane-ready. Actually, it looks just like all of the other houses in the neighborhood. I mean, so it doesn't sit out like, you know, a horn or anything. It just - it really blends in well with the neighborhood.

CHIDEYA: And how many bedrooms does it have because you've got a 15-year-old and a 9-year-old. Do each of you get your own bedroom?

Ms. BROWN: Yes, it's three bedrooms, two and a half baths, two stories.

CHIDEYA: Fantastic. Now Paul, when you think about bringing good architecture to affordable housing, what's the history been? I mean, how has affordable housing looked in this country, and what are you trying to do that's different?

Mr. GUNTHER: Well, of course, the history of affordable housing is an extraordinarily complex one in Europe, around the world and in America, and the institute is a school, it's a membership organization. It's based in New York, but in fact it operates across the country via regional chapters, and we're not pretending for a second we're the first ones to think about this. Others have endeavored to do it, other NGOs, Habitat certainly.

But we try to take a national approach, to come up with a systemic model-based system that other affiliates and chapters could follow. So that's - I want to stress the sort of inherent humility in all of this.

It's just that, you know, urban centers have been abandoned, the subdivisions and the suburbs have spread out, the neighborhoods have sort of disintegrated, and now that Habitat and other NGOs are thinking more about urban infill, they are encountered NIMBY, as you stated at the outset, and greater concern for not only the individual structure but the surrounding community that would result.

And so by de facto, or by necessity, they have to think about these issues, and I think other communities are too. So I guess the bottom line there is as we think about today in the 21st century moving back in, and with the promise of cities - I know some people are conjecturing now that these fringe suburbs will be the sort of new ghetto, if you will, because of the cost of fuel and the problem with obesity, that indeed people are looking back to the city - and I hope we're at the vanguard of trying to help those with lesser means to not only build in the city but to enhance the community along the way, just as Detricka said her house seems to do, which is very good news indeed.

CHIDEYA: And when it comes to something like this, you gather together a lot of different financial partners and foundations, and you're looking at doing different models but the same concept in other parts of the country. Give me quickly just one example of what you might be looking to help design and build.

Mr. GUNTHER: Well, another one of the prototypes in our program was in Rochester, New York, which has a very dynamic Habitat affiliate, and it - they called it Ten Doors from History because it's 10 doors down from the Susan B. Anthony House, which is a federal landmark, and in fact it can be said, besides Seneca Falls, New York, really the cradle of suffrage, women's suffrage in America.

So it's this incredibly interesting neighborhood. It's very - it's solid, it's mixed. It never really went down completely. On the other hand, it's - you know, it's had some tough times. So in that case, it's a more restrained I guess you'd say federal style house, which was what - the Greek revival, even, but again very restrained because that was the more predominate vernacular in downtown Rochester, New York at the time of that neighborhood. So you have a contrast with the Victorian prototype in Savannah. But again...

CHIDEYA: Let met get Detricka...

Mr. GUNTHER: It's a big deal. It's right there at this incredibly important place in American history, and now a single woman has a beautiful home, and the neighborhood's very pleased with the result.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, I want to ask how pleased you are, Detricka. I mean, how do you feel about your neighbors? Just like, do you think that you guys are going to learn to get along and hang out and not just be side by side but also have some kind of heart connection?

Ms. BROWN: Oh, my neighbors are wonderful. I've met all the neighbors in the neighborhood. I mean, they don't treat me any different. I mean, when I see them, we chit-chat a little. I mean, it just - we get along fine.

CHIDEYA: And you're looking forward to this?

Ms. BROWN: Oh yes. I love it. I already love it. I mean, the house is wonderful. The neighborhood is wonderful. Habitat is definitely wonderful because they give - you know, gave me this experience, and I'm just a blessed person, you know, very blessed.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Detricka and Paul, thanks so much.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.

Mr. GUNTHER: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Detricka Brown is a single mom and a new homeowner living in the historic Thomas Square Streetcar District of Savannah, Georgia; and Paul Gunther is president of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, ICA for short, and he joined us from our New York bureau.

For more on the ICA's book of designs and to check out photos of Detricka's house, go to our Web site,

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.