Lauren Nassef

Shelter is a basic need, and across the country, the cost of housing has slowly been creeping beyond what many families can afford. Nearly two-thirds of renters say they can’t afford to buy a home. Additionally, zoning laws are largely stacked in favor of single-family housing, limiting rental options.

In the spirit of seeing a problem as an opportunity, architects and other AEC industry innovators across the country are tackling shelter issues with more than just a blueprint— they’re rolling up their sleeves and building them, too. These are just two examples in Ohio and Oregon.

Moody Nolan Legacy House, Columbus, Ohio

Jonathan and Curtis Moody, of Moody Nolan Architects in Columbus, Ohio, saw a dire problem in their city’s underserved neighborhoods—a lack of investment in single-family residences. They envisioned the Legacy Project as a solution whereby families who were unable to afford a down payment on a house, but had the means to maintain one, received a mortgage-free home. The first Legacy Project House measures approximately 750 square feet with three bedrooms, a kitchen, two bathrooms and a family room. The first home was gifted to a family, selected by the YMCA of Central Ohio and Southeast Inc., at the end of February.

Moody Nolan, the largest African American–owned and managed firm in the country, operates 12 offices and is headquartered in Columbus. Planned as an annual gift, the Legacy project will involve the firm designing and overseeing the construction of a home in each of the 12 communities in which it operates.

Curtis Moody, a principal at Moody Nolan, says that the firm is already seeing the ways in which their commitment to this project is serving as an example for the profession and the larger industry. “The goal is that, as architects, we don’t just do pro bono services and then walk away,” he says of the model he and his firm are promoting. “It would be better if there’s something really tangible that is left. Not just that we happen to help somebody, but that it lives on.”

Relevant Buildings, Oregon City, Oregon

Relevant Buildings, headquartered in Oregon City, Ore., takes advantage of an underutilized resource—used shipping containers sitting empty in West Coast shipyards—to create the option of a more affordable and sustainable home.

Inspired by student housing in the Netherlands, founder Carl Coffman, a former excavation contractor, says that the company’s goal is to be at least as cheap as a more traditional wooden house—while meeting code and producing a more durable product for a climate-changing world. “We hope our homes inspire others to consider man’s impact on Earth’s resources in a more sustainable fashion,” he says. The company’s offerings range from small accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to more complex three-container structures, and range in price from $50,000 to $230,000. Coffman hopes to sell future developments to nonprofits for use as affordable housing.

The homes offered by Relevant Buildings also have the advantage of being modular—an entire unit can be built and shipped to a construction site, and all models have a solarready option.

“We hope our efforts to provide a model of living in smaller, upcycled homes will jump start other initiatives in that direction, and provide a day-to-day reminder of our need to live lightly,” he says.