Aspen Lumberyard Project: Envisioning What Affordable Housing Can Be

The term “affordable housing” has at times come with a certain stigma, but this should never be the case, and as imaginative designers, we have the power to change this perception. Everyone deserves a healthy, desirable, affordable place to live. Affluent places such as Aspen, Colorado, thrive because of the people who power commercial, civic, and service-based jobs. In this fast-growing resort town, the city is working to address affordable housing needs through human-centered development, while at the same time, meeting climate action plan goals for a sustainable, resilient future.

What can affordable housing look like when the priorities are driven by the people who will live there? That’s what our design team set out to explore with the Aspen Lumberyard Affordable Housing project, a planned mixed-income housing development on 11.3 acres adjacent to the Aspen Airport Business Center.

As the director of affordable housing at Cushing Terrell, this was a project I was excited to take on. For much of my career, I’ve been designing, planning, and advocating for this fundamental human necessity: a place to call home. More than just a roof over your head, a home is where you feel safe, where you sleep and eat your meals, where you take care of your family. It contributes to your health and well-being and your ability to be a productive member of society (i.e., obtain and keep steady employment).

The Aspen Lumberyard project recently achieved 100% schematic design approval, and to reach this milestone, our Cushing Terrell team developed creative, data-driven scenarios to help the client and community visualize the different possible options. This visualization was key to making important design decisions and ultimately, choosing the go-forward plan for the project.

Community space was prioritized for the Aspen Lumberyard Affordable Housing project, with a central plaza serving as the gateway upon arrival to the site. The amenity space within becomes the “living room” for the site, welcoming and gathering people together. See the full set of schematic design renderings.

First, What Is Affordable Housing?

To put it in perspective, affordable housing is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as housing for which the occupant is paying no more than 30% of their gross income for housing costs, including utilities. When an occupant is paying more than 30%, they are considered “cost burdened.” The U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2020 (the most recent data available), nearly half (46%) of renter households in the U.S. were cost burdened, including 23% who spent at least 50% of their income on housing. (Source: Pew Research)

Renters across the U.S. have seen the average rent rise 18% over the last five years, outpacing inflation, according to consumer price index data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, housing rates have dropped over the last decade, meaning there are fewer houses for sale and rentals units available for the number of people who need them.

From these stats, you can see why a lack of affordable housing can be detrimental, not only for individuals and families, but also for a large section of society.

Image 1: The common amenity space is characterized by transparency with the wood-slatted walls and large windows. The building has a green roof, which drains into a rain garden below and enhances the view for the units above. Solar panel overhangs for the top units double as shade devices. Image 2: The central plaza serves as the gateway to the site, as well as a hub for community activity. Image 3: Landscaped areas provide a variety of settings with pathways that meander throughout, creating functional, green connections between buildings.

The Difference Design Exploration Can Make

When it comes to designing affordable housing, we don’t just “deliver projects,” we create neighborhoods. And to be successful in this endeavor, it’s important to bring people into the process and find ways to convey design intent, as well as assess wants, needs, and priorities. One of the hallmarks of the Aspen Lumberyard project is the collaborative, transparent process that drove the design exploration sessions and community outreach. To supplement in-person meetings, the team gathered input via an online survey and detailed project website with City Council meeting minutes and project presentations available to the public.

Through these different platforms, the team presented multiple design options and asked community members to choose the best “kit of parts” based on their weighted priorities. These weighted priorities focused on informing the community about the cost of different components and clearly showed what trade‐offs people would make based on a realistic financial picture of the project and what potential residents hold dear in terms of quality of life. Kit of parts components included things such as open space, parking, unit types and layouts, and storage preferences.

Additionally, open house attendees and survey participants were asked to provide open‐ended comments, which were categorized by topic. While prospective and non-prospective residents had similar top priorities, they ranked them slightly different. For those who see themselves living at the Lumberyard, they understandably want to spend money on enhanced amenities and architectural design. Both groups indicated net-zero buildings as their number one priority.

Being able to compare design options side-by-side and vote on top priorities through a kit of parts, gave the client and community members incredible visibility into all the ways the project could be designed, providing agency in decision-making, and increasing confidence in the process and the final decisions.

Community members were asked to vote on different programmatic elements, with prospective residents voting with orange stickers and non-prospective residents voting with blue.

Design Explorations — A Look at the Schemes

Four base schemes were developed with different mixes of programmatic elements, including open green space and trails; above- and below-ground parking; building height; daylight and views; unit character, mix, and count; and net-zero performance. These schemes were named to coincide with their shapes: Hinge, Latch, Pivot, and Flange.

Hinge understands how we live. Our friends come to visit. We run quick errands. And sometimes, this happens in a car. Hinge provides parking on the street to accommodate our daily lives. It also provides parking underground for less frequent trips. Hinge is a walkable neighborhood with architecture defining streetscapes on the public side and cloistered courtyards on the private side.

Below-grade parking: 40% | Usable open space: 1.77 acres | Net-zero ability: 48.9%

Latch provides connected, public-facing open spaces on the site. Imagine children playing on the central green space or walking your dog along the landscaped pedestrian alleys. Latch realizes more green space by putting more parking underground. A vehicular loop skirts the perimeter of the site providing functional access while maintaining the pedestrian-friendly environment.

Below-grade parking: 56% | Usable open space: 1.25 acres | Net-zero ability: 43.2%

Pivot explores two-story units that aren’t back-to-back. This approach provides more access to daylight and views as well as opportunities for cross ventilation. Separating the buildings in this way creates a series of pedestrian streetscapes occupied by front stoops and balconies, which encourage smaller communities to flourish within the Lumberyard.

Below-grade parking: 73% | Usable open space: 0.6 acres | Net-zero ability: 42.3%

Flange explores providing all parking through a variety of street spaces, lots, and carports to maximize the challenging site boundaries. Rather than building underground parking, Flange locates a single structured parking garage as a buffer to the site on the west boundary, thus reducing the cost and environmental impact of concrete use. The resultant neighborhood is a walkable balance between vehicular use and other modes of connection and transportation.

Below-grade parking: 0% | Usable open space: 0.5 acres | Net-zero ability: 42.4%

The Sustainability Factor

In 2017, the City of Aspen developed a detailed Climate Action Plan that serves as the guiding framework for the city’s ambitious goal to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 to meet global climate reduction targets. It was important to align the Aspen Lumberyard project with this goal as well as with the community-identified priorities we ascertained through our outreach. Being in alignment with climate goals and reduction targets sets an example that it is possible to achieve these ambitious goals in affordable housing and creates a path to follow for other projects.

For a project that will be built later this decade, the client felt it was critical to look to the future and design a community that will align with what is needed when the project is constructed — from an emissions, resiliency, and equity standpoint. It must do all things; align with local goals, climate change targets, Climate Action Plan requirements, and stakeholder/community needs.

Guiding Principles of the Aspen Lumberyard Project

The design team took great care to understand the City of Aspen and Aspen/Pitkin County vision statements related to affordable housing, as well as the city’s Climate Action Plan to surface defining elements of the project. Those defining elements became the guiding principles of the project with design decisions were made through this lens.

Key elements:

  • Adequate parking on-site so as not to negatively impact neighboring areas.
  • Pedestrian walkways throughout and connecting to existing trails and the Airport Business Center.
  • Maintain and improve the bike paths.
  • Ensure vehicular connections to primary highways and thoroughfares.
  • Include space for a transit stop and for multi-modal transportation alternatives.
  • Provide community spaces where neighbors can engage with one another.

Key elements:

  • Electrified buildings with a target of 75% site-generated energy offset.
  • Incorporate forward-looking electric vehicle infrastructure.
  • Leverage passive solar strategies.
  • Incorporate enhanced building commissioning and metering.
  • Leverage advanced water metering combined with low-usage building systems and fixtures.
  • Incorporate native plantings and xeriscaping.
  • Provide construction and demolition waste management and planning.
  • Prevent construction activity pollution.
  • Utilize healthy, sustainable building materials.
  • Incorporate  dedicated and filtered fresh air.
  • Increase daylighting and leverage well-controlled electric lighting.

Key elements:

  • Create tree-lined, well-lit sidewalks adjacent to but separated from streets by tree lawns.
  • Provide sidewalks throughout site that directly connect to adjacent trails.
  • Ensure safe lighting levels at all pedestrian circulation areas throughout site.
  • Maximize solar access at sidewalks and outdoor public spaces.
  • Incorporate snow storage areas and awareness of snow shed safety clearances to pedestrian areas.

Key elements:

  • Maximize day-lit indoor spaces with access to views.
  • Provide storage space for outdoor lifestyle equipment as well as maintenance and repair facilities.
  • Provide easy access to outdoor spaces.
  • Ensure convenient access to parking and public transportation.
  • Utilize quality design and finishes to promote a sense of ownership.
  • Provide comfortable spaces to allow for gathering of friends and family.
  • Utilize quiet, efficient, and reliable fixtures and equipment.
  • Ensure increased accessibility both on site and within dwellings.

The Go-forward Design Scheme

Each design concept was analyzed against the project’s guiding principles, feasibility, construction cost, and operations and maintenance factors, as well as the priorities chosen through stakeholder feedback. Through this evaluation, it became clear that the hinge concept most closely aligned with the guiding principles and ultimately was chosen to advance into the schematic design phase.

The design comprises three buildings, two with rental units and one with units for sale. The mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units prioritize daylight, adequate storage, appealing architectural design, and are surrounded by greenspace.

Investing in Community

The Aspen Lumberyard Affordable Housing project is an example of a city government investing in the health of its community. Beyond providing a much-needed necessity, the City of Aspen chose to break the mold with this affordable housing project, ensuring it aligns with the city’s climate action goals, while providing a place people would gladly call home.

Design elements such as front porches with low-lying concrete walls, tiered plantings, and informal pathways provide just the right amount of privacy while still welcoming friendly interactions with neighbors.
Randy Rhoads

Randy is Cushing Terrell's Executive Director of Affordable Housing. He has more than 30 years of experience in the design of residential, commercial/retail, education, and government projects. He has led the design of over 6,000 mixed-income, multi-family, and senior living apartment units in 14 cities across the United States. Randy has also served as the lead architect for over 30 Low Income Housing Tax Credit-financed developments, including the first multi-family, mixed-income building in the U.S. to incorporate Universal Design features in every unit, one of the first affordable housing developments to be certified under the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria, and one of the first mixed-income rental developments to achieve LEED for Homes certification and LEED for Neighborhood Development certification.