The Best New Homes of 2020, As Rated by Architects

By: Utopia Staff

The jury for AIA’s 2020 Housing Awards presents seven winning projects, from a modern infill housing development to a tranquil multi-generational retreat. 

Broadway Housing, Sacramento, Calif., designed by Johnsen Schmaling Architects. Photo: John J. Macaulay, courtesy AIA

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the American Institute of Architects’ Housing Awards program was established to recognize the best in housing design for new construction, renovations and restorations.

Each year, projects are awarded based on four different categories: one- and two-family custom residences; one- and two-family production homes (no recipients selected this year); multifamily housing; and specialized housing. 

This year’s winners were selected by at five-member jury of design experts:

• Emily Roush-Elliott, AIA (Jury Chair), Delta Design Build Workshop, Greenwood, Miss. 

• Valarie D. Franklin, AIA, NOMA, NCARB, Gresham Smith, Nashville, Tenn.

• Michael E. Willis, FAIA, NOMA, Oakland, Calif.

• Guido Hartray, AIA, Marvel Architects, New York

• S. Claire Conroy, AIA Allied Member, SOLA Group Inc., Chicago

The jury evaluated the entries based on overall design excellence, sustainable design, affordability, durability, innovation, social impact, client needs, and addressing the natural and built contexts. 

The 2020 Housing Award recipients are (project descriptions and images courtesy AIA

Broadway Housing, Sacramento, California | Johnsen Schmaling Architects

Photo: John J. Macaulay, courtesy AIA

Project essay:
On a long-dormant site in Sacramento, this compact urban infill development features nine small production homes targeted at young families seeking homes near the city center but without the insurmountable price tag.

The cluster of two- and three-story homes responds nimbly to the context presented by two different streets, one busy and one quiet, while creating a carefully proportioned rhythm in the neighborhood.

The team developed the two prototypes for the project based on a shared kit of components and materials to address the varying urban conditions that surround the site. Each home, despite its scale, offers 1,500-square-feet of living space organized within interlocking stucco and wood forms. The six two-story homes that sit along Yale Street echo the modest local housing stock, while the trio of three-story homes along Broadway have added height to stand up to the vehicular thoroughfare.

Photo: John J. Macaulay, courtesy AIA

Exteriors of stucco and black poly-ash boards are complemented by redwood siding, and, where the wooden boxes front the street, large apertures with shifting wall panels present an unapologetically cheerful burst of orange. The restrained palette helps assemble the project into an easily recognized ensemble of modern homes. Inside, the living space is consolidated into one continuous open space and stairs lead to the bedrooms. Throughout, off-the-shelf components and finishes, including cabinetry from IKEA, helped the total budget by 10 percent and make the homes more affordable.

The development sits in Sacramento’s Richmond Grove neighborhood, which, for decades, has suffered disinvestment and a stagnant economy. Like many similar neighborhoods across the country, it has attracted young professionals, artists, and students as an affordable and viable alternative to downtown. Created for a small development firm with an interest in redevelopment, Broadway Housing is the neighborhood’s first ground-up development and represents the power thoughtful design can have, regardless of budget. While many doubted the validity of the project due to the challenges posed by the L-shaped site and the contemporary vernacular of the homes, it has catalyzed nearly a dozen similar housing projects aimed at lower- to middle-income families.

Courtyard House, Seattle | mwworks

Photo: Kevin Scott, 2019 @k7scott, courtesy AIA

Project essay: 

This home, which sits on a sloping site overlooking Seattle’s Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains beyond, accommodates the daily life of a family of four while intermingling the site’s natural elements. Open and modern but still deeply connected to the landscape, this single family house is a calm respite from the hustle and bustle of Seattle.

Free flowing spaces that connect with one another as well as the land prevailing theme throughout the space. Among the 3,500-square-foot home’s volumes, garden courts provide meditative moments between the active and living spaces. Its upper volume secures the bedroom spaces into the tree canopies, where daylight, privacy, and sweeping views are modulated through a series of delicate Alaskan yellow cedar slats. The house was designed to protect a number of significant trees, and an arborist aided the team in designing foundations and fences that protect key root systems.

Photo: Kevin Scott, 2019 @k7scott, courtesy AIA

Sitting on a double lot in an urban neighborhood, the house abuts another to the south and as a busy residential street to the north. The team lifted the grade to the east to allow for the landscape to screen the garage from the kitchen and living spaces. Additionally, the team fought the urge to place the upper volume closer to the view, opting instead to push it back to the west. In doing so, the masses better suit the neighborhood, and the lower volume’s planted roof becomes a green plane that provides the sense of being alone in a private garden above the street. At the street level, masses, hedges, and steel plate fences create privacy and protect outdoor living areas from the glare of headlights.

Photo: Kevin Scott, 2019 @k7scott, courtesy AIA

Designed for longevity and little maintenance, the house’s spaces were formed with clear rectangular solid volumes and concrete walls that accommodate ribbons of glass that slide in between when needed. The interplay of interior spaces and landscaped courtyards creates new experiences in each room. After just a few months of living in the house, one of the owners said that “the house has made me a better person,” noting that being in it calms him and promotes a greater appreciation for light and nature.

Sonoma Farmhaus, Graton, California | SkB Architects

Photo: Suzanna Scott, courtesy AIA

Project essay: 

Situated in the small town of Graton, California, this home accommodates the owner’s request to be near Sonoma County’s picturesque cycling routes and a tight-knit community. Designed for a cycling enthusiast with a globally demanding career, it consists of two forms, a main house and a guest house that doubles as a bike barn. Its farmhouse evokes notions of sustenance and community, and its simplicity and restraint clearly emerge as the overarching themes.

With significant experience in commercial development, the client had an appreciation for the design process was an integral part of the design team. When not in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, or other locations around the world, the client views cycling and spending time with friends—also avid cyclists—as their two greatest passions. To create a true refuge from the demands of the client’s career, the team paired the home’s main volumes with a central outdoor gathering space that is anchored by a fireplace and community table made of reclaimed redwood.

Photo: Suzanna Scott, courtesy AIA

The interior spaces are open, with little distinction between public and private spaces. In the main house, the kitchen and dining area, living room, and master bedroom flow freely as one contiguous space. Only steel-clad casework and a two-sided fireplace separate the living room from the master bedroom. Connections to the outdoor spaces throughout, both visually and physically, drive the experience.

The site is located on the fringes of residential and agricultural zones, and an easy consensus was reached to rely on materials that echoed the surrounding terrain. The exteriors—steel roofing, glass, fiber cement panels, and walls of earth blocks fabricated from the soil on site—allow the home to retain coloration akin to the landscape. Drawing from the agrarian vocabulary of the adjacent farm structures while retaining the scale of neighboring properties, the home is a friendly compound, where spaces between structures are intended to be shared and host gatherings.

Photo: Suzanna Scott, courtesy AIA

Though self-financed with sporadically available funds, the home conforms to California’s stringent CALGreen building code requirements. The earthen blocks were an inherently sustainable construction material, fabricated just 50 miles away. Their mass and location on either end of both main volumes help regulate the interior temperatures year-round. Operable walls and garage doors that allow for continual cross-ventilation are coupled with the strategic placement of ceiling fans, allowing for comfortable temperatures without the need for supplemental cooling.

Whidbey Farm, Whidbey Island, Washington | mwworks

Photo: Kevin Scott, 2019 @k7scott, courtesy AIA

Project essay: 

Built for a multi-generational family, the home respects both the woodlands and pastoral land, blending seamlessly into its surroundings and honoring the island’s longstanding tradition of protecting the land.

Perfectly balancing rustic and warm with simple and open, this home is a retreat and part-time residence for a multigenerational family with strong ties to Washington state’s Whidbey Island. It is tucked into the edge of a deeply forested hillside, above the family’s historic farm and its turn-of-the-century agricultural buildings and surrounded by stands of Douglas fir, hemlock, and Pacific madron trees. Respecting both the woodlands and pastoral land, it blends seamlessly into its surroundings and honors the island’s longstanding tradition of protecting the land.

Photo: Kevin Scott, 2019 @k7scott, courtesy AIA

Throughout the design process, client meetings often involved the owners, their three adult children, and, sometimes, the owners’ teenage grandchildren. To accommodate summer cookouts, fishing expeditions, and family gatherings, the team designed the house to be both flexible and durable. Perfectly comfortable for just two people, it easily welcomes up to 20 in its four-bedroom main house and accompanying compact bunkhouse.

The home comprises a palette of naturally weathered woods, concrete, and locally sourced stone, ensuring little maintenance and continued beauty as the home ages. The interior includes a number of doors and pieces of wall art carved from solid cedar slabs crafted by one of the owners to create a deeper connection between the family’s past and future. The solid plank cedar master bedroom is an additional carving project for the owner, who also raises organic cattle and works the land below.

On its site within the forest, the home’s discrete volumes are nestled among tall fir trees and wrap around a modest clearing. Great care was taken during the placement of each wing of the home to protect as many trees as possible, and, at the owner’s request, caring for the trees was prioritized over construction speed. The required treefall was kept on-site and used for lumber, fencing, and seasonal firewood for a fire pit that overlooks the farm.

Photo: Kevin Scott, 2019 @k7scott, courtesy AIA

This home is a beacon for gathering, strengthening bonds, and creating new memories. The owners have ensured that future generations can continue to do so. In a show of their appreciation for all involved, the owner had a custom bronze plaque fabricated with the names of every person who contributed significantly to the design and construction of the house.

MLK Plaza, Bronx, New York | Magnusson Architecture and Planning

Photo: David Sundberg, ESTO, courtesy AIA

Project essay: 

With 167 apartment units, ranging from studios to three-bedroom models, this new building in the Bronx serves individuals and families from a wide range of income levels, including the formerly homeless. LEED Platinum-certified, the project’s active design interventions focus on community health, relying on research on place-based disparities to shape an affordable and supportive building.

MLK Plaza is situated in an industrial section of a mixed-use neighborhood, where much of the building stock dates to the 1930s and ’40s, except a handful of developments built within the last 20 years. The site was not zoned for residential use, so the development became one of the first in New York to use the city’s Zoning for Quality and Affordability regulation, allowing for the shift from manufacturing to residential.

Photo: David Sundberg, ESTO, courtesy AIA

An homage to the site’s manufacturing past, the building embraces the neighborhood’s identity in the dark grey brick that makes up the majority of its facade. Golden metal panels provide a bright counterpoint to the brick, with a swath along the seventh floor that aligns MLK Plaza with an adjacent six-story building. Nestled within the band of gold is an open-air terrace that punctuates the block-long facade and regularly hosts activities such as yoga or tai chi instruction. At ground level, a double-height, fully glazed lobby pulls in ample daylight and lends illumination to the streetscape at night. Inside the lobby, the building embraces the graffiti found throughout the neighborhood in a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. created by local artists, Tats Cru.

Thirty-three units have been set aside for formerly homeless households. In addition to the financial support provided to residents by the community, the owner and architect worked together to ensure the health and wellness of the building’s occupants. A gym on the seventh floor, a rarity among affordable housing projects, is a free and convenient way for residents to stay fit without having to leave the building. The team relied heavily on natural light, proven to enhance mental health, throughout the project, evident in the large windows found in the lobby, gym, and individual apartments.

Photo: David Sundberg, ESTO, courtesy AIA

MLK Plaza’s height, which is taller than most neighborhood buildings, provides ample opportunities for exceptional views of the city and sharing them was a key design intent. The open-air terrace and gym ensure that every resident can enjoy the city vista, while the upper corridors provide even more views.

XS House, Philadelphia | ISA

Photo Sam Oberter, courtesy AIA

Project essay: 

Built on a plot of land so small it barely registered as a development parcel, this project added seven apartments to Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood on a site measuring just 11 feet by 93 feet. In addition to rejuvenating an overlooked site, XS House serves as a prototype for urban living through the maximization of density; acknowledging the zietgiest of a post-COVID world . While housing markets continue to boom and lots become more and more scarce, this project proves that even the smallest projects possess the potential for significant impact.

XS House’s roots are tied to Philadelphia’s urban renewal, during which the sunken Vine Street Expressway left a 100-foot east-west rift through a number of neighborhoods, Chinatown included. Disconnected by the construction, Chinatown saw many of its blocks chopped up into awkward and odd-shaped parcels, many of which became surface parking lots. This project radically rejuvenates one of these sites, boosting street life and supporting walkable lifestyles.

Photo Sam Oberter, courtesy AIA

From the outset, the site was nearly invisible. Topped with asphalt, it had been a tandem surface parking lot for an adjacent property owner. The team expanded the extremely narrow footprint through the clever use of bays and mezzanines. Though it is a four-story building, the project connects seven levels of occupied space and features unit stairs that lead to private mezzanine levels and create dramatic volumes. A single shared staircase runs through the center of the building and provides access to the upper units, while the lower units can be accessed at street level.

With a total of nine bedrooms, the building can easily accommodate between 10 and 20 residents and visitors. It sits near Philadelphia’s Center City and its historic attractions as well as a number of train and bus lines. The units’ loft-style layouts are suited for contemporary life with galley kitchens, open floor plans, and breakfast bars that offer expansive views of the city’s skyline.

Photo Sam Oberter, courtesy AIA

The design team partnered with a private developer interested in multi-family housing projects on underused land. By choosing the narrow site, the client was able to invest in high-quality building elements while keeping rents reasonable. The team, through its transparent process, balanced constraints with a range of design options that allowed the client to make the best decisions for the site and surrounding community.

PPR Residence Hall, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania | DIGSAU

Photo: Copyright © Halkin/Mason Architectural Photography, LLC, courtesy AIA

Project essay: 

The new PPR Residence Hall along the edge of Swarthmore College’s arboretum campus, located in suburban Philadelphia, anchors a dynamic resident village on a constrained site. Surrounded by three 19th century residence halls and the outfield fence of the school’s baseball field, the project delivers 128 beds in suite-style apartments and activates an isolated corner of the campus. It reverberates with the college’s Quaker legacy of simple life and social responsibility and marks the first building on campus to implement its bold sustainability framework.

With nearly 95 percent of students living in college housing each semester, resident life is an integral experience and is often viewed as an educational extension of the classroom. Much of the college’s previous housing sits in the campus core, so this residence virtually doubles the student population living along the campus edge. Recreation and athletics help students live balanced lives, and the building’s adjacency to the main baseball field emphasizes student wellness and community. To create a new threshold where the athletic and residential landscapes converge, the western edge of the building doubles as a reconfigured outfield fence and hosts public spaces for spectators.

Photo: Copyright © Halkin/Mason Architectural Photography, LLC, courtesy AIA

The process relied heavily on a number of workshops and surveys that provided critical feedback for the apartment-style residential model, the first on campus. The overarching concept encourages student interaction on all scales. Its common spaces provide an environment for collaboration while meeting students’ ideals for study spaces. Each unit features four to six bedrooms organized around a central room that boasts living and dining spaces appropriate for a small group of friends. Suites are clustered into three “cubes” and joined by a series of bridges that offer both public gathering spaces and sweeping views of the leafy campus.

The design team worked closely with students, staff, and administration to create a facility that encourages lifestyle choices that foster environmental awareness. Currently, the school’s waste is sent to an incinerator that contributes to the poor air quality in a nearby predominantly low-income city. Swarthmore is committed to becoming a zero waste campus and has an interim goal of diverting 80 percent of its refuse from the incinerator by 2022. Students are encouraged to compost in their kitchens and participate in the local economy by shopping for and preparing their own meals.

Photo: Copyright © Halkin/Mason Architectural Photography, LLC, courtesy AIA

Among the hall’s sustainable features are comprehensive water management systems, landscapes that restore more than 15,000 square feet of native plantings, and a range of energy production and conservation systems designed to help the college meet its net zero and carbon-neutral goals. Photovoltaic panels on the roof provide 13 percent of the building’s power, while LED fixtures allow for a 13 percent reduction in interior lighting power and a 30 percent reduction in exterior lighting power.

In addition to the new building, this project also featured renovations of two historic structures on campus. The new hall provides an accessible entrance to the buildings and, by weaving together new and old, creates the feeling of a true residential campus.

For more about the winners, visit: https://www.aia.org/resources/6288682-2020-housing-awards