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Baltimore firm wins for design Affordable housing gets a fresh look


A newly formed Baltimore architecture firm has won an international competition to design affordable housing for a working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Its principals are now seeking sites where their concept could be executed in Maryland and have already begun to apply their design ideas to a housing project in Mount Airy.

A $500,000, eight-unit development designed by Peter Fillat and Randy Sovich was selected over nearly 350 other entries in the competition, sponsored by Pittsburgh's Community Design Center.

Mr. Fillat and Mr. Sovich, who call their partnership Studio Wanda, received a $4,000 first prize and the design commission for the houses, which are planned for a sloping, quarter-acre site in the Garfield section of Pittsburgh.

"What we are attempting to do is to break some new ground in the design of in-fill, affordably-priced housing," said Richard Swartz, director of development for the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. Pittsburgh and a member of the jury that selected the winning design. "This site offers us a real challenge to come up with a concept that will be a break with how we have been addressing that problem to date."

"It's an innovation in urban housing -- but it's not necessarily any more costly" than other approaches, Mr. Fillat said. "What this project attempts to do is to show you can have urban housing but you can have an overlay of suburban density, too -- a little bit of private open space, a little bit of greenery."

The award-winning plan calls for the 1,200-square-foot houses to rise three stories and be long and narrow like rowhouses. One room wide and two rooms deep, each dwelling will contain three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

But in a departure from the typical row house site plan, the architects specified that each residence be separated from its neighbor by a porch on one side and a yard on the other. The free-standing houses will be entered from the porch through a door in the center of the side wall -- a design reminiscent of the "shotgun" houses in Charleston, S.C.

The advantage of the side entry and adjacent center stair, Mr. Fillat said, is that they provide access to every room with a minimum of hallway space -- a 3-foot by 10-foot corridor on each level.

When residents don't have to go through any rooms to get to a staircase, he said, the houses have more living space.

Because the houses are free-standing, they will have side windows where party walls would be on a town house. The 720-square-foot side yard and back yard will give residents nearly as much outdoor space as indoor space, he said.

The shell of each house has been kept simple, with no quirky twists or turns that would add to the cost of construction. "Basically, we're building three-story boxes," Mr. Fillat explained. simple, standard construction. Everything is on a four-foot module. What gives it design interest is the planning of the interior and the amenities of the unit."

The architects developed two exterior treatments, a "city version" with masonry walls, a flat roof and a porch like a portico, and a "country version" with clapboard siding, a sloped roof and a porch more like a veranda.

Each house will have a third-floor deck, basement and access to shared space for the entire community. Mr. Fillat said they were designed to be constructed for a cost of $50 per square foot and to sell for about $70,000. The developer will decide whether to offer the houses for sale or rent, he said. Construction is expected to begin in February and be complete within six months.

Mr. Fillat said the idea for the Pittsburgh project grew out of a plan he and others developed for a site in Annapolis several years ago. The goal, he said, was an alternative to the conventional town houses that are built as affordable housing today and to build in ways that residents can take pride in their community.

"I think this would be a great unit for Baltimore," he said. "It would be a new type of housing here. It doesn't have to be a rowhouse city, block after block. This is the kind of housing that could replace public housing in certain areas."

He said he believes one key to instilling pride in a community is to give residents a significant amount of outdoor living space. "Everybody wants a yard," he said. "Families need to have a private open space where their kids can run around."

Since winning the competition, Mr. Fillat said, he has shown his design to housing officials in Baltimore and Annapolis and hopes to find sites where the same concept could be implemented locally.

He said his office is applying similar ideas to a plan for a 30-unit development for the elderly that the Canterbury Group plans to build in Mount Airy.

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