These Winning Low-Rise Designs Are a Blueprint for Better Housing—and Better Living—in Los Angeles

The City of Los Angeles has announced the winners of its latest design contest, which crowdsourced innovative housing solutions that are sustainable, affordable, and equitable.
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Amid Los Angeles’s ongoing housing crisis, the city and its chief design officer, Christopher Hawthorne, have announced the winners of Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles, a $100,000 design challenge to promote affordable and sustainable models of low-rise, multifamily architecture.

"The wide-ranging expertise on the jury—and the requirement that all entrants watch the community-engagement listening sessions—has produced results that are noticeably different from a typical design competition, which was very much our hope," says Hawthorne. 

Frogtown Four, a design by Los Angeles–based firm Bestor Architecture, took second place in the Fourplex category. The arrangement, which provides four new units under a common roof, is meant as a low-key intervention that doesn’t disrupt the existing streetscape. 

First-place winners were chosen in each of the contest’s four categories: Los Angeles locals Omgivning, along with landscape architects Studio-MLA, took first in the Fourplex category; Louisa Van Leer Architecture, another practice from Los Angeles, won out in Subdivision; New York–based multidisciplinary design firm Vonn Weisenberger took first in Corners; and Arts + Creatives Designs Ltd., from the UK, won for (Re)Distribution. Each firm was awarded $10,000.

"These winners offer a really comprehensive set of ideas and solutions for new housing options," says Hawthorne, "rather than design experimentation for its own sake."

Launched in November 2020 as part of a larger research initiative supported by the James Irvine Foundation, the design challenge builds on Los Angeles’s ongoing efforts to crowdsource design solutions. In 2019, the city held a streetlight design competition, and the winning submission will soon add or replace lighting across Los Angeles. In March of this year, to help residents fast-track the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), the city pre-approved design submissions by a swath of emerging architecture firms.

Bureau Spectacular’s entry, a runner-up in the Subdivision category, proposes pre-approved construction sites and permitting to keep costs low from the start. 

Although the Low-Rise contest was established in kind, it takes its cues more specifically from the Case Study Houses program, a midcentury initiative to commission inexpensive architectural designs from greats like Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen, and the Eamses. Unlike the Case Study Houses, however, the winning Low-Rise proposals have been evaluated on a wider set of criteria beyond aesthetics and affordability. They also include considerations for climate change, healthy post-COVID living models, and the history of racism and environmental injustice in Southern Californian housing policy. 

While the city has yet to address these broader issues head-on due to stalled policy debates, competition organizers view the design challenge as at least a "single step" toward opening up the conversation about practical solutions.

"They will set the stage for a process of reengagement with L.A.’s low-rise neighborhoods—one that will be well timed to inform the ongoing updates led by the Department of City Planning," reads a statement by the Low-Rise contest organizers. "They will be part of a larger process to reimagine what it means to live the good life in Southern California—and to understand the ways in which the good life, to be good for everyone, must also be sustainable and equitable."

Fourplex Category Winners: Omgivning and Studio-MLA

Titled Hidden Gardens for its emphasis on indoor/outdoor connections, the winning Fourplex proposal implements three individual two-story housing blocks on a 50-by-150-foot lot. Adaptability, community, and sustainability are the main themes of the garden-filled model, which advocates for a flexible design that can adapt to various user needs, including multigenerational living within different units on the same lot. 

Hidden Gardens comprises an array of units in different sizes to accommodate the individual needs of families.  

The concept is designed to implement passive solar strategies to minimize the building’s environmental footprint. For example, strategic building massing, as well as trellises, recessed windows, and large shade trees, can help reduce unwanted solar gain in summer.

Outdoor space wraps around the units, each of which features an "upside down" layout that places the living areas on the upper level for better access to daylight and ventilation. In addition to private outdoor areas, the designers have also carved out space for a communal area and a street-facing community park.

Each Hidden Gardens unit features a private 277-square-foot outdoor space that overlooks a 680-square-foot communal area with shared vegetable beds.

"Comprehensive personal wellness remains a guiding principle for growth," explain Omgivning and Studio-MLA. "This framework promotes a balance of both private and social spaces, both indoor and outdoor, for residents to work, create, play, and relax. Density is increased without compromising adequate space, light, and airflow throughout the property, creating a healthy environment and connection to nature, even in the city."

The proposed structures of Hidden Gardens would be built of mass timber and structural insulated panels for fast, energy-efficient, and cost-effective assembly. Low emissivity glazing and local construction materials would also be used to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint.

Subdivision Category Winner: Louisa Van Leer Architecture

The winning Subdivision design, by Louisa Van Leer Architecture, goes beyond the challenge-brief that called for a standalone duplex on a 2,500-square-foot site. The project, called Green Alley Housing, proposes a network of public spaces made from underutilized public alleys. The alleys would be pedestrian-friendly, and would serve as the connective tissue for adjacent duplexes. This would build a sense of community, and improve foot traffic to the duplexes, which could be converted into weekend restaurants or other micro-enterprise ventures. 

Louisa Van Leer’s alley idea offers a few options for the placement of duplexes: the basic duplex infill design, the inclusion of cooperative housing with shared green spaces, or the creation of a duplex with multi-unit housing on a single lot.

A net-zero design philosophy informed the integration of rooftop solar panels, which, together with electric battery storage systems, could be connected to create a virtual power plant for sharing renewable energy across the entire neighborhood. The design team developed their bottom-up housing solution with help from community design meetings in Los Angeles’s Garvanza neighborhood.

A backyard view of a duplex co-op solution features a shared green space.

"UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation identified over 900 linear miles of alleys across the City of Los Angeles alone," says Louisa Van Leer, referring to a 2015 study. "In the Garvanza [neighborhood], our team calculated space for roughly 100 units of new, low-rise duplex infill housing along the 1/2 mile of alleyways. In theory, if those numbers could be replicated throughout the City of L.A., that would mean 180,000 new units of live/work Green Alley Housing that could add density while preserving neighborhood character."

In addition to a community-based virtual power plant, Green Alley Housing proposes a wide array of net-zero design elements, from a gray water recovery system for irrigation, to the inclusion of electric-vehicle charging.

Corners Category Winner: Vonn Weisenberger

Vonn Weisenberger’s submission, California Branch-style Housing, placed first in Corners, which challenged participants to create a design that includes six to ten units and an accessory retail unit across a combination of neighboring lots that include a corner.

A single lot of the California Branch-style Housing concept by Vonn Weisenberger includes a space for a front patio and back deck area. The dark blue volumes are the modular "core" structures that would house mechanical components for the development, and are positioned between every two housing units. 

Inspired by midcentury architect Cliff May, who is often referred to as the "father of the California Ranch," the winning proposal combines three types of Passive House–guided, mass timber housing units with a corner community space across two lots. Created to emphasize indoor/outdoor living, sustainability, and community, the California Branch-style Housing concept clusters different housing types under low, sweeping gable roofs to create the appearance of a single, cohesive building.

The central commons of the Branch House idea features communal tables and a biotope planting area.

"Although they range in size from one to four bedrooms, they all feature a flexible area that can serve as an additional bedroom, workspace, or secondary living space," says Vonn Weisenberger. "Every unit has a main corridor that passes through its entire length, providing natural cross-ventilation and a strong connection with the outdoors."

Depicted here are the walkway through the center of the site, the central commons to the left, and a permeable parking area to the right. Green sedum tops the sloped roofs.

(Re)Distribution Category Winner: Arts + Creatives Designs Ltd.

In the (Re)Distribution category, participants were asked to choose a home from a provided list of iconic Los Angeles designs and divide it into four units. The winning proposal by Arts + Creatives Designs Ltd., titled Modern Subsistence, recreates the Schindler House in West Hollywood by turning it into a four-unit apartment arrangement that can accommodate up to 15 people. 

In Modern Subsistence, a concept by Arts + Creatives Designs Ltd., each apartment would have private areas for sleeping and working, and a more open flow between the kitchen and living areas. Thermoelectric and solar energy systems power the heating, lighting, kitchen, and bathroom facilities.

The apartment designs, which vary from one- to four-bedroom units, cater to diverse family structures with a focus on communal living. Two of the apartments, for instance, share a kitchen, and a study and living room to encourage coworking and shared childcare. The design also encourages self-sustainability: With space set aside for permaculture, and an included playbook to establish a community land trust, residents would have the option to build temporary insulated and waterproof structures to add elements like a green roof or gray-water system.

A diagram shows how sustainable features like a green roof or a rainwater catchment system can be added to the apartment’s design.

"The key issue with the [Schindler House] is that many rooms are cold and dark, as they are heavily shaded and not insulated," explain the designers. "Our proposal offers insulated box rooms as a solution that doesn’t alter the architectural character of the existing building, and allows living rooms to be open to the garden but bedrooms and studies to be warm at night." 

The landscape plan, designed for sustainability, implements wetlands that filter wastewater. Drought-tolerant grasses and low-maintenance native species would be planted in favor of water-intensive species. 

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