Growing Good Homes

How wood can promote well-being in the quest for affordability
Sponsored by Think Wood
By Erika Fredrickson
1.5 AIA LU/HSW; 0.1 IACET CEU*; 1 AIBD P-CE; AAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines; AAPEI 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.; MAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the NLAA.; This course can be self-reported to the NSAA; NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; OAA 1 Learning Hour; SAA 1 Hour of Core Learning

Learning Objectives:

  1. Describe how light-frame and mass timber construction can help meet health and safety goals in affordable housing.
  2. List some ways wood’s design elements can support occupant well-being in transitional housing.
  3. Discuss mass timber benefits for multifamily housing and single-family housing.
  4. List the ways in which wood’s carbon benefits help architects reach sustainability goals, while also serving the greater well-being of building occupants.

This course is part of the Wood Structures Academy

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A nationwide housing crisis has led to an urgent need for more housing. In response, architects and the building industry are looking for innovative solutions to quickly build more affordable multifamily structures, mixed-use developments, and single-family homes. Key to addressing the housing crisis is a creative, diverse design approach that supports the health, safety, and well-being of those most impacted by the crisis: low-income workers, the houseless, people of color, the elderly, and, increasingly, the middle-class. At the same time, the construction industry faces a grim reality—that the building industry is a significant contributor to the emissions of the greenhouse gases that impact climate change. This course looks at how structure systems like light-frame construction and mass timber can help address the urgent timeline and budget of the housing problem, and how wood’s low-carbon benefits and innovative, flexible applications can help to mitigate climate change.

Photo courtesy of Engberg Anderson Architects

Timber Lofts in Milwaukee. A direct reflection of its historic, yet trendsetting locale, Milwaukee’s first mass timber building, Timber Lofts, is an adaptive reuse project that combines a 130-year-old warehouse renovation with new construction in an adjacent parcel.16


The current housing crisis in the United States is a complex issue with no single solution. One major factor in the crisis is a housing shortage. The U.S. has a deficit of 3.8 million housing units1, according to a 2021 report by economists at Freddie Mac. The government-sponsored purchaser of mortgage-backed securities claims the shortage is driven by a 40-year collapse in the construction of homes smaller than 1,400 square feet.2 Up for Growth, a national policy network focused on housing equity, released a 2022 report that came to the same conclusion3 using data on the total demand for housing and the total supply of available, habitable units.

As the demand for housing exceeds the supply, the cost of housing increases, making it harder for low- and moderate-income households to afford a place to live. In areas where the housing shortage is particularly acute, affordable housing options may become even scarcer, because landlords and property owners can charge higher rents and sell their properties for more money. This trend causes a ripple effect in which affordable housing becomes even more difficult to find and the problem of houselessness and housing insecurity becomes more widespread.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets the standard of housing affordability at 30% of household income,4 though that metric has come under scrutiny5 for not addressing complexities enough. Within the housing crisis issue, there are two main issues when we discuss “affordable” housing. First, there is “affordable housing” which is a housing type specifically designated for qualified low-income people. Second, there is the broader issue of “affordability,” which, in this case, has to do with low housing stock and high prices making housing less affordable to many people, in general. In other words, one problem is that the lack of housing is impacting those whose household incomes are at or below 30% of their area’s median income6—and even when they qualify for subsidized housing, their ability to find a home is still limited by supply. Another problem is that many middle-income Americans who once paid less than 30% of their income on housing are now among those paying 30% or more7 because income has not caught up with rent or mortgage costs. Currently, the median U.S. household income is $67,521.8 In June 2022, the median asking rent in the U.S. rose above $2,000.9 That amount, according to the HUD definition, is only “affordable” to households earning at least $80,000 per year.

Besides having a major impact on low- and middle-income Americans, the rise of housing costs and low supply of units is disproportionately affecting communities of color.10 Persistent racial disparities in economic stability11 and wealth position people of color at a disadvantage.

And because they are more likely to experience discrimination in the rental market, including being charged higher rents or being denied access to housing altogether, a housing crisis only perpetuates the disparities. The rising housing costs also contribute to gentrification, which impacts low-income neighborhoods, leading to the displacement of long-time residents, including people of color. Gentrification often leads to the loss of cultural and social ties that communities of color have built over generations.

One reason for the shortage can be attributed to the 2007 housing crash, which hit the construction industry hard, putting small home builders out of business and rattling the survivors. The industry has only recently begun to recover in a way that reflects a pre-bubble pace of construction. According to Harvard University’s 2022 edition of its annual State of the Nation’s Housing report, a decade of underbuilding has created a backlog for housing so large that it could take a decade or more of record-level homebuilding to increase affordability.

One challenge is that a lot of new construction is being priced at the upper end of the market, not at the middle or lower end of the market where it is needed most. Another problem is that some once-affordable housing is aging out of subsidy programs, including some that was built with U.S. Department of Agriculture grants in the 1960s, which is sometimes the only affordable housing option remaining in more rural areas. And in most cases, it’s the elderly, people of color, and people on the edge of houselessness that will suffer the impacts most.

Meanwhile, strong demand and low supply have increased housing prices. In March 2022, home price appreciation was at 20.6%.12 In addition, those who can afford to buy have sometimes been bidding 30% above the asking price.13 The Pew Research Institute reports that those skyrocketing costs have outpaced income for both low- and moderate-income people.14 For low-income people, even when properties accept tenant-based rental assistance, the housing itself may not be affordable in the current market. For moderate-income people with student debt or new millennial parents who formed families over the pandemic, the housing deficit and income-housing cost gap are causing strain. The Institute’s 2021 survey reported that 70% of Americans believe young adults today have a harder time buying a home than their parents did.15 The lack of affordable housing supply and the income-housing gap being experienced by middle-income households have created an urgent need for housing that is affordable to a broad range of people.

As organizations and governments seek new policies to address the issue of housing affordability, the architecture, engineering, and construction industry must consider designs and materials that can help offer solutions. Those solutions must result in diverse housing options that support the broad range of people affected by housing affordability issues. Adaptive reuse, multifamily and multi-use projects, and sustainable designs can all contribute to closing the housing shortage gap and providing affordable space. In addition, technologies such as modular construction can help both reduce costs and timelines, so that projects go up faster, while still supporting sustainability goals and the health, safety, and well-being of occupants.20

In this course, we will focus on light-frame wood and mass timber construction as one piece of the puzzle in addressing the housing crisis.

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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in September 2023