La Casa
Anice Hoachlander

It’s no surprise to see a fancy new apartment complex rising in Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. In tandem with the 14th Street Corridor located several blocks south, this is a burgeoning community in a city that has seen more than 87,000 new residents in the last year alone.

But the building at 1444 Irving Street, NW, isn’t another condo-heavy edifice aimed at affluent Millennials—with in-building gyms, in-unit washer/dryer stacks, and festooned roof decks. Instead, this is the first new construction permanent supportive housing project for the District’s Department of Human Services (DHS), which serves largely disadvantaged Washingtonians looking for a toehold in an otherwise booming city.

Known as La Casa, the project is part of a supportive housing movement that is garnering increased amounts of attention in both architectural and homeless care circles. The Star Apartments in Los Angeles, designed by Michael Maltzan, FAIA, and created with the intention of providing respectable, well-designed housing for the city’s jam-packed Skid Row, has defined the movement in architectural circles to date and, in some ways, set a standard for what’s possible when high design meets a critical urban need.

La Casa follows the same trajectory. Developed as a joint venture by Studio Twenty Seven Architecture and Leo A Daly, and commissioned by D.C.’s DHS and Department of General Services (DGS), it contains 40 furnished, single-occupancy units for homeless men with on-site access to supportive services.

It’s a compact structure on track for LEED Gold certification, with a green roof that also functions as a stormwater management device. Art inspired by the experiences of the residents adorns the walls of each floor’s elevator lobby, which are larger and more well-lit than usual to encourage community. From its carefully constructed guts to the psychological impact of its layout, it’s meant to provide stability and comfort for people lacking both.

“In terms of image, DHS and DGS asked us to design a project that is on par with market-rate housing,” said Jim Spearman, La Casa’s project architect at Studio Twenty Seven. “The image is very explicitly not that of a homeless shelter; it’s of a permanent housing building.”

And La Casa is indeed meant to be permanent housing. In a nod to the micro-housing movement, the smallest unit comes in at 300 square feet but still manages to pack in a tiled bathroom, kitchen, living area, bed, and storage. The rooms are supplied with tables and chairs, and equipped with utensils, pots, pans, and other cooking necessities.

Pair that interior with a modern, window-heavy exterior that alternates two different types of glass to balance solar heat gain and visible transmittance and you’ve got a building light-years beyond what is typically regarded as supportive housing.

“We had someone from the mayor’s office present renderings, and we said, ‘Now tell us which one is the homeless shelter.’ And they picked every one but our building,” said Lisa Franklin-Kelly, capital and operations manager at DHS.

Each unit is subtly unique, with a slightly raised ceiling here or a repositioned window there, all of which adds a sense of individualization that Spearman is hoping resonates with the residents. “The question we tried to answer is ‘How do you do mass housing when what you really want is to have a unique place for each person?’ ” he said, “and we wanted to find those design elements that make each unit special.”

What unifies the units most is the light. Windows, mirrors, and exposed areas abound; the hallways are adorned with LED fixtures that start up quickly, over a period of one second, so as to recognize and beckon newcomers. And the rooms, in particular, are open and airy, designed to receive as much natural light as possible. “During the day, you don’t have to turn on the lights if you don’t want to,” Spearman said.

From a design perspective, La Casa is a testament to what can happen when architects and civil servants strive for the same goal. And it’s a strong step forward for the permanent supportive housing movement in general; while DHS officials noted that there are no current plans for another building of this sort, similar initiatives are being explored for both families and individuals. For now, La Casa’s continued presence can only reinforce the growing notion that all people deserve access to quality housing.