Torti Gallas’s Church Hill North development in Richmond, Virginia
Torti Gallas + Partners Torti Gallas’s Church Hill North development in Richmond, Virginia

From the curb, “missing middle” housing might not look much different from its single-family counterparts—and that’s the point. However, its ability to contain multitudes is what makes it such an innovative option in today’s cost-prohibitive and space-strapped housing market. This typology enlivens neighborhoods and communities without sacrificing single-family scale or the convenience of neighborhood walkability. It’s also what Brian O’Looney, AIA, of Washington, D.C.-based Torti Gallas + Partners, specializes in designing. O’Looney credits Dan Parolek, AIA, an urban designer and architect at California-based Opticos Design, with coining the term.

O’Looney spoke to attendees on this topic at AIA’s 2023 Conference on Architecture, held in June in San Francisco, in a session titled “Enriching Neighborhoods: Building Types for Community Beyond the ‘Missing Middle.’” He encouraged AIA and its members to take a stand for better design in missing middle housing, which, he believes, can support more varied and dynamic neighborhoods.

We chatted with O’Looney about why this typology is becoming increasingly necessary.

First of all, why is missing middle housing important?

Our current housing stock—and its accompanying economic system—is improperly oriented to single-family housing. Younger generations are struggling to afford and access this type of housing, making the innovation of alternative housing types essential. Compounding the issue is the fact that within the last decade, increasing numbers of single-family homes have been built and/or purchased by institutional investors—making wealth accumulation out of reach for millions of Americans.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I released a book [Increments of Neighborhood: A Compendium of Built Types for Walkable and Vibrant Communities] of 140 building types that make good walkable communities. It’s broader than what is typically defined as the “missing middle.” There are a lot of housing types that allow for multifamily living aside from a large, institutional, multifamily building. So, there are scales of residential buildings that are below institutional, but there are also a lot of types that aren’t in the conversation—residential over ground-floor retail, for example.

At one point, according to urbanist Christopher Leinberger, there were 19 types of structures that were built (and financed) in a typical suburban development, all of them served by surface parking lots. None of them allowed for any type of mixed density or mixed-use development: for example, building types that mix residential and retail—or what I call “live-work”—or structures that are served by stacked parking garages or public transit. In the last 10 to 15 years, innovations in this type of housing have gained traction in and around major metropolitan areas.

However, just because you loosen the definition for “missing middle,” it doesn’t mean you’re going to get good buildings. There’s a lot of crappiness out there.

What are some bad examples of missing middle?

A few examples include the Bayonne box, named after the area in New Jersey where it originated, which is top-heavy and vehicle-oriented, so it doesn’t look great from the sidewalk. The “snout house” features an unwelcoming front wall, and “pop-up” row houses in Washington, D.C., tower several stories above their neighbors on either side.

What are some good examples of this type of housing?

There’s a great project called the Cotton District in Starkville, Miss., which is a student neighborhood built by someone who just kept adding rental buildings to an existing student housing development. Some are one-room studios, others are lofted units with a kitchen on the ground floor and a bathroom above. It’s a very clever mix of types.

Other good examples include the two-over-two town house, basically a row house divided into two two-story units, and Charlestons, which offer balcony access. A variety of mixed-type master plans allow for flex space between retail and residential spaces, like several projects I’ve worked on with the grocery store chain Safeway in Washington, D.C., featuring a grocery store on the bottom and housing on the floors above. In the Lightsview development of Adelaide, Australia, even with front-loaded homes, the pedestrian scale still has primacy.

Other types are more complex self-park types: so alley-loaded types that have three units in them and are very dense, but on the street side feel like houses.

Some of the projects we’ve worked on go a little bit beyond our typical live-work typology. The conventional live-work building usually has about 900 square feet on the ground floor. If you can combine the buildings side-to-side, you’re able to get tenant sizes that work for other types of tenants besides hair salons and nail salons, which are typically found in this type of structure.

Some other good neighborhood types that supplement this kind of development type are full-service grocers on the second level, so you can park below. There are some wood office buildings that people don’t realize you can do as long as you stay below height restrictions. These allow for neighborhoods that are less homogeneous.

Milwaukee’s Westlawn Gardens is a high-density project conceptualized to meet the needs of a variety of individuals and families.
Torti Gallas + Partners Milwaukee’s Westlawn Gardens is a high-density project conceptualized to meet the needs of a variety of individuals and families.

There have been a lot of conversations recently about converting underused office buildings into housing. What’s your experience with this?

I call certain areas “stagnation zones” when they’re not living up to their potential for housing as a result of unnecessary zoning distinction and regulation between office and residential uses. Design issues like “buried bedrooms”—bedrooms on interior walls that don’t have windows—are easily solved by utilizing elements like frosted-glass pocket doors to allow more light in. The greatest challenges for these types of conversions are regulatory, not design-centric. I’m in favor of eliminating regulatory red tape to make these types of conversions easier for building owners to complete.

So much of this is about mobility. One of the things that we talk about in the firm is how, if we provide surface parking for a project, privatized mobility hurts the yield of the site.

There’s a preconception that it can be tough to get these types of projects financed. Is that the case?

The typical finance mechanism that’s being used is an FHA loan. Most people don’t know this, but the single-family lenders can lend [for development up to and including] fourplexes. So that’s an easy loan mechanism that’s out there. When you talk about missing middle and getting it financed easily and quickly and empowering folks to do it, that’s the No. 1 way. I’m not the expert on that. I would point anyone to the [Incremental Development Alliance]. Accessory dwelling unit allowances are a second mechanism. You can easily get your home refinanced and build an ADU.

Jurisdictions like Bryan, Texas, have predesigned unit types. They’ve hired architects to do some designs for multiunit buildings that look like houses. You can just go to the city and pick up the set of plans, and if you’re a landowner, you’ll have a preapproved set of contract documents that allows you to build.

There’s definitely a lot of passion for this type of growth. There’s been a proliferation of ADUs in California and in cities like Portland, Ore. Getting involved in master planning preapproved ADUs and other missing middle housing types can give architects an opportunity to carve out a niche for themselves in a space where they’ve previously been excluded.

If there are new financing streams that come into play for these buildings, you’ll start to see them happen. There are organized YIMBY communities that are going to push for this, which I’m very hopeful and excited about.