Architectural Record : Innovative Housing Portfolio

Habitat for Humanity mainly builds single-family homes, “but single-family shouldn’t be the model for housing everywhere,” says Michael Hsu, founder of Michael Hsu Office of Architecture in Austin, Texas. The firm, best known for stylish stores and restaurants (and Austin’s South Congress Hotel), proved his point with a row of 11 attached houses in Mueller, a planned community on the site of the city’s old airport. Austin Habitat for Humanity’s first multifamily project, it had to satisfy a design-review board, the Mueller New Construction Council.

At the same time, Hsu aimed to give residents a sense of ownership. “We wanted to make sure it didn’t look like quote-unquote affordable housing,” Hsu says. “But on these jobs, every dollar counts. There is no fluff.” So, to give each unit a distinctive look, he had to be resourceful. Unable to vary the massing of the three- and four-bedroom units, he customized them with a range of cladding materials, including tile, brick, and fiber-cement soffit boards, whose ventilation holes he used as a decorative element. Residents (all of whom committed to 30-year mortgages) helped choose the tiles and paint colors for their entries. Many of the facade materials were donated by manufacturers, as were the cabinets inside. The houses sold for an average of $186,000, at a time when the median home price in Austin is more than $500,000.

To enhance the townhouses’ presence on the street, Hsu tucked parking in the rear and placed a sidewalk and a gravel path for pedestrians and bicyclists in the front.

Originally published by Architectural Record