Chicago Calls On the World’s Best to Design Infill Housing on Its Thousands of Empty Lots

A new competition is engaging local and international firms to envision residences for the city’s disinvested South and West Side neighborhoods.

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"The City of Chicago owns more than 10,000 vacant lots," says Marisa Novara, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Housing. The city’s 2021 architecture biennial reimagined many of them with public works projects, some of which were temporary installations. But now, the Chicago Architecture Center is determined to take advantage of the remainder, for good.

Recently, it announced the selection of a shortlist of 42 firms invited to present housing concepts as part of the Come Home Initiative, a design competition led by the city of Chicago and Chicago Architecture Center that aims to spur community development via home ownership in six neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods.

Growing out of Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot’s $2.2 billion INVEST South/West Initiative, which began in 2019 by targeting commercial corridors in historically disinvested and depopulated neighborhoods for large-scale redevelopment projects, the juried competition supported by a $230,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust represents the next wave of investment, says Eleanor Esser Gorski, a licensed architect who was named CEO of the Chicago Architecture Center in October. Guidelines call on architects to support "missing middle density" infill housing by creating designs for single family homes, two and three-flats, row houses, and six-flat condos.

Jonathan Tate, principal at the New Orleans design firm Office of Jonathan Tate, launched the Starter Home program to build middle-class homes in increasingly expensive parts of the city. He’s now one of the participants in Chicago’s Come Home initiative.

Photo by William Crocker

Local shortlisted firms selected by the jury, including Chicago studio Future Firm, and invited U.S. and international firms such as New Orleans–based OJT, New York firm MOS, and Mexico City’s Productora, will exhibit 30-by-40-inch poster designs at a Chicago Architecture Center show that opens Tuesday, March 7 at 6 p.m. in the Skyscraper Gallery. A chosen selection of the exhibited work will be published in a pattern book of pre-approved models builders can "take off the shelf, or use as starting points for projects," Gorski said.

More than just a design competition, Come Home aims to address what many see as a lack of middle-market new construction housing in the targeted neighborhoods by building new homes and providing attainable financial options for people who currently rent in these areas to move into them.

"I think that this could be a game changer. I really do, and I’m not saying that just as a dream."

—Eleanor Esser Gorski, CEO of the Chicago Architecture Center

In February, Gorski says, a group of 8 to 12 firms will be awarded a stipend and paired with emerging Chicago real estate developers to create construction drawings and pricing schedules, with the goal of delivering 30 to 100 affordable units across Auburn Gresham, Bronzeville, East Garfield Park, Englewood, Humboldt Park, and Woodlawn. Home construction is expected to begin the second half of 2023.

Participating architects say site selection is key to the redevelopment strategy, and a guiding constraint for the competition. By identifying and grouping vacant parcels, typically 25 by 125 feet, 50 by 125, or 100 by 125, near corridors of commercial activity and ripe for infill housing, Gorski adds, the city aims to fill in the "missing teeth," where foreclosure and demolition have laid bare large swaths of vacant land.

"We want this competition to mend the fabric that the vacant lots create," Gorski said. "What better way to do that than the typologies that already exist here?"

Beyond filling in neighborhood housing gaps, organizers hope new design ideas and case study homes will drive awareness of existing city programs to revitalize vacant lots and energize a kind of capillary action that inspires broader investment in historically disinvested Black and Latinx communities.

Over the years, architects Ann Lui and Craig Reschke of Chicago studio Future Firm, one of the initiative’s entrants, have discovered design solutions that also save money in home design. Here in the loft of an infill prefab project, Hem House, an off-the-shelf material palette coalesces to create a refined living space.

Photo: Daniel Kelleghan

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Ann Lui, the founding principal of Future Firm, says the competition comes at a critical juncture as architects and developers are turning their attention to the need for middle-income housing in historically underserved communities of color, where there is often a stultifying price gap between subsidized housing options and homes in the $600,000 to $800,000 range.

Hem House, one of the studio’s past residential projects, could be a window into the types of strategies design teams will use to bring down construction costs, while limiting long-term maintenance fees and improving livability. The 1,300-square-foot stand-alone in the East Garfield Park neighborhood is clad in corrugated metal sheeting from the home improvement chain Menards, and was intentionally plotted to a 16-foot width so that structural members could be implemented off-the-rack. At the same time the narrow design defers material costs, it leaves room for a modest side yard and windows inviting in abundant natural light. In summer 2021, the home sold in just three days at its listing price of $399,000.

"Traditionally, Chicago has erred toward certain materials [such as brick, fiber cement, and vinyl] for building exteriors," Lui said. "But I think there's a lot of room for exploration to do really beautiful contemporary design with a range of different materials, some of which might actually be more affordable, but also more beautiful."

Related Reading:

How to Build an Affordable America

Here’s How We Fix a Hole in the Middle of the Housing Market

Los Angeles Fast-Tracks ADUs by Offering Homeowners Pre-Approved Plans


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