2013 Grants Challenge

Backyard Homes: Sustainable Flexible Affordable Housing for LA

Idea by cityLAB-UCLA

cityLAB proposes to build, study, and publicly display a prototype Backyard Home using innovative, simple technologies that will create sustainable, affordable, flexible, livable housing for Los Angeles.

Los Angeles developed as a city of suburbs, where yards and gardens surround individual homes to create our distinctive neighborhood identity. But LA’s suburban sprawl also created a laundry list of problems, from traffic congestion to unaffordable home prices. cityLAB, a think tank at UCLA, along with Daly Genik Architects, have developed a new concept and construction technology for “Backyard Homes” that will maintain the beauty of the Los Angeles home-in-the-garden pattern, yet has the potential to provide a substantial supply of new housing. The idea is simple: on a house-by-house basis, owners can acquire and customize a Backyard Home. It arrives to the site packed flat, allowing it to squeeze past side yards and tight spaces. Once in the backyard, a foundation is erected, the flat-packed walls expand to become rooms, and a skin is added to the walls. Homeowners can customize a studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom arrangement, much like purchasing a new car with various interior packages to choose from.

In fact, there are 500,000 single-family home sites in the City of Los Angeles alone. Already a number of those half-million lots have illegal rental units in their garages and backyards. In 2003, the State of California passed the Granny Flat Law, to permit second units on single-family lots, and in 2009, the City Council acted to make backyard housing possible across Los Angeles. Our project recognizes that the illegal units reflect a real need for backyard housing that is safe, legal, affordable, and easy to construct. The recent state and city rulings provide the guideposts to creating safe, legal units; the cityLAB prototype will create a model of affordable, easy-to-construct Backyard Homes. With the laws and the model home, everything is in place for homeowners to build Backyard Homes that will create a much more diverse housing supply and a more livable Los Angeles.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

cityLAB, a research center at UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture, was founded in 2006 by Director Dana Cuff and Co-Director Roger Sherman. Since that time it has become one of the most well respected urban think tanks in America. cityLAB was featured in Architecture Magazine, on CNN International News, in Newsweek Magazine, and in the American Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. It gained worldwide recognition and the national spotlight with its open design competition, WPA2.0-Working Public Architecture, the results of which were presented to lawmakers in Washington DC and key members of President Obama’s urban advisory team. cityLAB’s important role in Los Angeles is increasingly evident through its frequent mention in the news, its work to revitalize Westwood Village, its studies about the ways high speed rail and transit systems can improve civic life, its role in advancing new urban policy, and its championing of good design in our region. cityLAB is successful when it explores new ideas for urban design that reach the public, students—our next generation of urban activists, and urban leaders of all stripes.

Daly Genik Architects is partnering with cityLAB to design and test the Backyard Homes prototype. Daly Genik, founded in 1990, is an award-winning design practice with a focus on craft, construction systems, and material research. The firm’s work highlights the interrelationship of research and fabrication, sustainability and livability, utility and form. Firm Principal Kevin Daly has designed some of the area’s most outstanding affordable housing for the Santa Monica Community Corporation, as well as widely recognized technological innovations that serve environmental goals, such as a model daylighting system at Art Center’s Pasadena campus.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

The project will be undertaken by the internationally recognized team of UCLA’s cityLAB and Daly Genik Architects who have been collaborating for the past six years. Our partners have included the LA City Planning Department, Los Angeles Housing Department, non-profit housing corporations, various departments and faculty members at UCLA, a range of community organizations, Habitat for Humanity, Stanford University’s Engineering Department, and Buro Happold Engineers. Because cityLAB is a university-based research center, students are involved in all the work we undertake. About 100 architecture and planning students have been part of the Backyard Homes effort to date. All collaborators have donated their services and will continue to do so.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

We propose to build a demonstration prototype specifically so that we can evaluate its performance on a number of measures. This is a real research project as well as a public demonstration of new housing technologies. We will measure the success of the Backyard Homes demonstration project in the following ways:

1. Cost. We will evaluate the prototype in terms of cost, with the goal that it should cost less than half of prevailing per-square-foot residential construction, or approximately $50,000 for a small unit.

2. Environmental Impacts. The prototype will be evaluated in terms of environmental impacts on a range of measures, with the goal that it should outperform standard home construction by a factor of 10. We will study approximately two dozen different impacts such as recyclable materials, production of carcinogens, summer smog, acidification, sourcing and shipping, assemble-to-disassemble impacts, etc.

3. Ease of Construction. The assembly of the prototype will be documented to both evaluate and record how easy it is to install. The installation in the Hammer Museum courtyard will itself be part of the exhibition, allowing the public to observe, first-hand, the methods of construction and the “backyard squeeze” in practice.

4. Public Response. We will collect responses from visitors to the Backyard Home exhibition during the two to four weeks it will be installed in the museum’s publicly accessible courtyard and will begin to develop relationships with potential developers and owners of Backyard Homes.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Backyard Homes will benefit Los Angeles by making it more livable in three substantial ways.

First it will improve our housing, by making it more affordable, more flexible, more sustainable, and more livable. According to a preliminary study by Stanford University engineers, compared to a typical house of the same size, the Backyard Home has a ten times to as much as a hundred times lower environmental impact. The simple construction system will make it possible to acquire a Backyard Home the way you might buy a car, will leave no foundation if and when it is disassembled, and will be adjusted or customized to each yard and household need. A family that needs more space can find it in their own backyard. A family that wants to reduce its mortgage payment can do so. A Backyard Home can provide a home office now, and become a caregiver apartment later.

Second, it will improve neighborhoods. Now, when a family’s circumstances change, they often need to move to a new community where housing is cheaper, bigger, smaller, or in some way more suitable to their new needs. This creates neighborhoods in constant flux. Neighborhoods will have greater stability when people can stay in place through the various stages of their lives. Neighborhood stability has profound benefits for the residents, from improved quality of life, to improved educational outcomes, to improved health outcomes. In addition, Backyard Homes is a solution that can replace unwanted infill housing development such as large apartment buildings or condominiums that change neighborhoods in unwanted ways.

Third, Backyard Homes will improve the city as a whole, by helping reduce sprawl, traffic, and greenhouse gas emissions. The innovative construction and design technology can set a new standard for housing in the city, demonstrating that Los Angeles can grow inward instead of outward, while at the same time growing more sustainably, more beautifully, and more affordably. In the same way that mid-century modernists championed a new form of home through technology and design in 50s-era LA, Backyard Homes can make Los Angeles more Angeleno for the twenty-first century.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

In 2050, if Backyard Homes had spread to just 20% of the 500,000 single family lots across Los Angeles, we would have a full 100,000 new, affordable, sustainable homes and yet our neighborhoods would hardly look any different! The beauty of Backyard Homes is that they maintain the character of existing communities, because they are tiny additions that when taken together have immense implications. Unlike the usual bulky, block-busting apartment buildings or condos, Backyard Homes are built incrementally and can be controlled not by the developer, but by the neighborhood.

If we could see inside each home, what we would notice would be fewer misfits between the old suburban house-type and the wide variety of current households: fewer families doubled up, fewer college kids struggling to make ends meet, fewer households moving when they reach the “empty nest” stage of life, fewer homeless people, fewer nannies and caregivers having to commute long distances to their jobs, fewer aging parents placed in institutions far from their families.

In 2050, we could look at measures of Backyard Homes’ success via quantifiable measures: there would be fewer home foreclosures, more affordable rental housing available, shorter commute times from home to work, increasing numbers of legal backyard units, and an abundance of new types of Backyard Homes in addition to this prototype developed by cityLAB.