J.J. Carroll House, opened January 2024, has 142 affordable apartments for older adults and located in Brighton, Mass. When certified, it will be the largest Passive House building in the state.
MASS Design Group J.J. Carroll House, opened January 2024, has 142 affordable apartments for older adults and located in Brighton, Mass. When certified, it will be the largest Passive House building in the state.

Confronting the depths of our housing crisis is an unavoidable reality. Statistics paint a picture of urgency, with record unaffordability and near-record housing shortages in the U.S. It might seem as if the architecture profession has limited options, primarily focused on quickly providing as much housing as possible to address the urgent need. However, viewing the crisis solely through the lens of how many units are built, overlooks the opportunity to enact lasting change for communities

Addressing this crisis requires a dual focus on both quantity and quality. The systems behind affordable housing development and financing are notoriously difficult to disrupt. The quality crisis is often ignored, with budgets typically limiting projects to the cheapest materials and finishes. But what if architects prioritized financially viable solutions that also considered community, health, economic growth, and justice in housing design?

Our housing team at MASS Design Group took a fresh approach to affordable housing, showcasing cost-effective, replicable design responses to the housing crisis in Massachusetts, demonstrating design’s potential as a vehicle for meaningful change.

Centering Community: Breaking the Box

The new entrance of J.J. Carroll has 17,000 square feet of open space, including a 5,000 square foot gathering plaza area designed for residents and the community.
MASS Design Group The new entrance of J.J. Carroll has 17,000 square feet of open space, including a 5,000 square foot gathering plaza area designed for residents and the community.

In March, 2Life Communities celebrated the opening of J.J. Carroll House, an affordable senior residential development in Boston, designed by MASS. With few housing options designed for aging in place, older adults face multiple crises: housing, economic, COVID, and as the U.S. Surgeon General recently highlighted, loneliness. The Imagine Boston 2030 report predicts a 53 percent increase in senior households by 2030. 2Life aims to counter isolation’s adverse effects by empowering elderly residents to thrive within vibrant communities.

Achieving the right balance between density and construction affordability often results in a “5-over-1” building model–with five stories of wood-framed construction over a one story steel and concrete podium. This model can restrict building logics, resulting in traditional apartment layouts that adhere to the ubiquitous double-loaded corridor plan. This typology often yields impersonal, lengthy hallways devoid of opportunities for social interaction and lacking daylight and fresh air.

J.J. Carroll House Level 2 projection: Five “neighborhoods,” or apartment clusters, plug into a central common space connected to three courtyards and 2Life's Brighton campus.
MASS Design Group J.J. Carroll House Level 2 projection: Five “neighborhoods,” or apartment clusters, plug into a central common space connected to three courtyards and 2Life's Brighton campus.

Pushing against these constraints and putting health and community as a central consideration, MASS reimagined the building as a collection of “neighborhoods.” By dividing the neighborhood structure into small clusters with surrounding communal areas, we facilitated a sense of connection among smaller groups of residents. The clusters are positioned along the central spine of the building, accompanied by spaces for integrated social programs.

The design of J.J. Carroll exemplifies a shift from conventional construction approaches to a focus on health and community. A large cantilevered canopy, serving as a celebratory entrance, symbolizes this new direction, aiming to create aspirational yet inviting spaces uncommon in affordable housing. “Now, at 71 years young and happily settled here at 2Life, I am ready to live,” said resident Beverly Gilbert. “I am already meeting new people, am moving around more, and am starting to find new ways to help my community.” Her experience underscores the potential of thoughtful design within affordable housing constraints.

Balancing Density: Housing as agent for equitable growth

Everything starts with housing,” stated Boston Mayor Michelle Wu in her 2024 State of the City address. Housing is foundational to both the social and urban fabrics of our communities. Strategic housing investments can shape a progressive and restorative vision for neighborhoods promoting equitable growth. This was the goal as MASS collaborated with the City of Boston and the Mattapan community, a vibrant community of color facing socio-economic challenges, exacerbated by historical racial injustices. While Plan: Mattapan considered various aspects of urban life, housing emerged as the most impactful area for meeting community goals.

Plan: Mattapan illustrative perspective translating community priorities of expansive housing, green space and economic opportunities, for growth of neighborhood.
MASS Design Group Plan: Mattapan illustrative perspective translating community priorities of expansive housing, green space and economic opportunities, for growth of neighborhood.

Plan: Mattapan considered jobs, mobility, and civic infrastructure; however, it was clear that designing a thoughtful housing approach was the most impactful way to meet shared neighborhood goals. Through engagement, we uncovered the crucial need to establish mutually understood and shared metrics by which the community would gauge successful design and urban planning. This included more diverse housing options to support large families, the creation of wealth-generating opportunities, places to shop locally, and more open space. Our team at MASS developed a plan to bring the necessary density to Mattapan, but on their terms. These decisions shaped guidelines to influence future neighborhood development.

Planning diagram for Mattapan overlaying key neighborhood areas of focus along with environmental justice issues including heat island effect and open space.
MASS Design Group Planning diagram for Mattapan overlaying key neighborhood areas of focus along with environmental justice issues including heat island effect and open space.

Mattapan’s arterial corridors contained the capacity to support a transformational increase in density. In response to this, we introduced larger buildings, providing critical housing mass, setting the stage for a robust and active public realm with the desired streetscapes, storefronts and greenspaces. We reduced the building lot coverage to support more open spaces where trees could be planted to combat the effects of Mattapan’s heat island effect, where urban areas experience higher temperatures than the suburbs due to fewer green spaces.

MASS Design Group team leading comunity engagement exercises with residents
MASS Design Group MASS Design Group team leading comunity engagement exercises with residents

The community-led design process provided concrete strategies and recommendations to guide investment in Mattapan, centering on the long-term health and restoration of the neighborhood. MASS acted as agents of the community, understanding their needs and the development systems, asserting the need to invest at a scale that enabled growth at an agreeable pace. The success of this project meant shifting the planning process and housing design from something to fear (housing=gentrification), into something that can serve to restore community and trust. Housing shaped a shared vision, acting as an agent for equitable growth.

Centering Justice: Policy as a Metric of Success

In redefining quality and success in housing design, the importance of justice and systemic change cannot be understated. Housing offers architects a platform to advocate for broader social changes, acknowledging the lasting impact of their designs.

J.J. Carroll addresses very real needs of an aging population, striving to achieve more within the constraints of our housing delivery systems. The team at 2Life developed and evolved existing design standards for senior living, mapping a path for increased access to healthy senior living. Leveraging the insights gained from successful affordable senior housing projects, 2Life’s leadership was recently appointed to advise Massachusetts state leadership on the housing policy and the development of a comprehensive housing plan.

Plan: Mattapan was built around leveraging housing investment to cultivate a healthy and equitable community. As a result of this planning work, the city of Boston is adopting new zoning for the Mattapan neighborhood to structure growth based on shared goals and priorities. Unlike previous generations where zoning and public policies often marginalized communities of color, today's zoning is designed to restore and revitalize Mattapan, promoting an equitable vision for its future.

The inclusion of 2Life leadership in state housing policy discussions and the adoption of new zoning regulations for Mattapan are testaments to the potential of design work to shape policy, reinforcing the need for policies that support community vision and equitable growth.

Raise the Bar

MASS envisions a future where true costs, benefits, and outcomes are measured beyond dollars per square foot and zoning compliance. Instead of conceding to typological conventions, let’s use design to meaningfully engage with industry standards as a strategy to deliver projects with an impact that is deeper than the sum of its parts. We must continue to find new metrics of success: raise the stakes and conduct a holistic examination of costs and benefits, focusing on the long-term outcomes for residents, buildings, and communities alike. Current forces leading housing design that are left unconsidered will yield mediocre results. However, if we disrupt the current norms and discourse on how we all measure the successes of housing design, perhaps we can disrupt the very system itself.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine.

Read more about MASS Design Group on: Learning from Native America | The Power of Public Monuments | The Power of Provenance|The Architect's Philanthopist| Learning from Poughkeepsie| A Guide to Rewilding|Advocating for Disability Justice in Design|AIA Firm of the Year.

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