Michael Hsu and Habitat for Humanity Partner to Build Townhomes for Middle Income in Austin

As is happening in cities across the United States, Austin is in the throes of a housing affordability crisis. As the poor find themselves in increasingly precarious situations and the number of homeless people continues to rise – a number that is expected to rise suddenly and exponentially with the expiration of the federal ban on evictions – the middle class itself is also running out of options. This year, fueled in part by the pandemic migrations of well-heeled professionals from the northeast and west coasts, the median price of Austin homes has hit $ 500,000, dashing the dreams of many potential buyers of owning a home in the city. . In this context, Austin Habitat for Humanity recently completed 11 townhouses in the Mueller neighborhood. Designed by the Austin-based Michael Hsu Office of Architecture (MHOA), the 1,350 to 1,480 square foot two-story units were sold to qualifying families for approximately $ 186,000 each.

This typology of housing – attached by party walls, medium density, medium affordability – is an attempt to fill in the “missing link”, a term coined by Opticos Design founder Daniel Parolek in 2010. The development code of the City of Austin has banned such residences for decades, as part of a general reluctance on the part of city leaders to embrace Austin’s emergence as a large city with infrastructure. big city. The discomfort of life in big cities is not only a hallmark of City Council, it permeates the culture and expectations of many Texans, who are more accustomed to small town or suburban environments. In this context, the Mueller terraced houses are both an experiment and an ambitious gesture.

“Habitat had to prove that this typology would work in Austin,” said Phyllis Snodgrass, CEO of Austin Habitat. “Part of what we had to negotiate was a change in the design of the house, from a detached building surrounded by a yard and fence, to attached townhouses with shared outdoor green spaces.”

The experimental nature of the development and the possibility of setting a positive precedent are what drew MHOA to the project. The firm, one of the city’s leading design firms, has been instrumental in defining the city’s architectural character, primarily through its hospitality and commercial work. It was an opportunity to extend this influence in the form of urban housing. “We wanted to do something with Habitat for a long time and when we saw this project we thought it was something we could do well and support,” said Michael Hsu, founding director of MHOA. “It was interesting for us to engage in a more data-driven process and less on the normal architectural approach to formatting volumes. These are very simple from a volumetric point of view, which encouraged us to focus on things that improve the user experience, like the size and placement of windows for good daylighting. throughout the interior.

A breakdown of the different materials used to give each townhouse a touch of color and texture to the entrance (Courtesy Michael Hsu Office of Architecture)

The Mueller district, located at the city’s old airport, is a bit of an experience in itself. Developed as part of a public-private partnership between the city of Austin and Catellus, a developer specializing in the conversion of contaminated sites into mixed-use urban neighborhoods, it combines a dormitory community of small houses on tiny lots; large apartment buildings; lots of public green spaces, including two public swimming pools; a commercial headquarters area; a private early childhood school; health services; a lifestyle and entertainment district with shops, theaters, restaurants and a children’s museum, as well as big box stores and chain stores off of I-35. It also includes 25% affordable housing, both rental and purchase. Affordable units are scattered throughout the neighborhood and are designed to be indistinguishable from market-priced housing on the outside.

MHOA townhouses, in fact, are much more charming than most market-priced homes nearby. In order to keep the budget within its tight limits, the architects designed three facades which are repeated on the 11 units: one in brown bricks laid in vertical and horizontal rows; one of the white fiber cement soffit panels, the ventilation holes of which create an interesting pattern; and one of the gray fiber cement planks and slats. The recessed walls of the front porch are unique and, along with the front door, were chosen by the owners from the tile and thin brick options provided by the architects. These unique touches give each unit its tailor-made identity in repeated general order.

Interior photo of a kitchen with blond wood and white walls
In one of the townhouse kitchens (Chase Daniel)

Inside, the space is efficient and airy with 10 foot high ceilings (which are required by Mueller) and great daylight entering through vinyl casement windows in the front and back. of the building. The floors are engineered wood. The ground floor has an open plan living / dining / kitchen and a shower room. The second floor has two bathrooms and two or three bedrooms, depending on the unit. A skylight at the top of the staircase keeps the upper landing of the staircase alive and bright. Townhouses have received a five-star rating from the Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR rating system.

Austin Habitat also acted as a general contractor and built the townhouses for around $ 132 per square foot. The team was able to secure many materials, including cabinets from IKEA, which allowed them to invest in decorations that you wouldn’t expect to find in sub-market housing, like canopies. decorative steel, window frames and address plaques.

As for changing the housing expectations of Austinites more accustomed to large private yards, townhouses haven’t been a hard sell. Elizabeth Alvarado, a contract specialist with State of Texas Health and Human Services, picked up one to live with her two sons after they left her husband’s home in South Austin. She earns too much money to qualify for low-rental housing, but too little to buy anything on the market. For her and her family, Habitat townhouses were the best option. Alvarado said A that she loves her new home. There is a park just across the street, prominently from the front windows, where her boys can play if they want to. “It’s perfect,” she said. “I am not a gardener.”


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