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Denver Microhousing Competition Attracts Global Interest

By David Hill
June 3, 2013
Studio de Arquitectura y Ciudad (Querétaro, Mexico) - 1st place

When Jeff Sheppard, principal of Denver’s Roth Sheppard Architects, launched the "Micro Housing Ideas Competition" back in January, he had no idea where the entries would come from. The contest—sponsored by the Denver Architectural League—was open to just about anyone in the United States or abroad associated with the architecture profession, including registered and non-registered architects, interns, and students. As the models and drawings began pouring in, Sheppard noticed that many were coming from outside the U.S.

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By the time the competition closed on May 9, there were 70 entries from 20 countries. And when the winners were announced on May 17, all four were from outside the U.S. Mexico-based architect Armando Birlain López, principal of Studio de Arquitectura y Ciudad, won top honors, which came with a $3,000 prize. Tadeja Vidoni of Spain took second, with honorable mentions going to A43 Arquitectura (Portugal) and Ahmed Hamdi (Egypt).

“Clearly, there’s a global interest in microhousing,” says longtime Denver architect George Hoover, who chaired the six-person jury. Certainly there is a national push for housing with units of 300 square feet or smaller. Projects are being explored and built in such cities as Boston, New York, and San Francisco, where the cost of living is high. In those cities, microhousing is increasingly seen as an affordable option for people who don’t need a lot of space.

But is Denver ready for microhousing? It’s a sprawling metropolis with a relatively low cost of living. For now, at least, there’s no big push for tiny living spaces. But that could change, as more young urbanites flock to the city’s booming downtown. Sheppard, who believes much of Denver’s new apartment buildings are banal and formulaic, says he created the competition simply to “push the envelope a little bit for a building type that may need some pushing.”

The contest called for a hypothetical multi-family complex—eight units, each with no more than 375 square feet—on an actual site on a riverbank just north of downtown, in Denver’s River North neighborhood. The proposed building was required to be an “ecologically sensitive, thriveable environment” with net-zero energy usage and covered parking for two Smart cars and six bicycles.

Studio de Arquitectura y Ciudad’s winning entry uses an exterior scaffolding to support detachable “pods” filled with plants, providing added insulation in the winter for the housing units. In the summer, the pods come off the building and float in the river next to a platform for kayakers, while lush vines cover the building’s grid-like façade. The units themselves are modular and can be reconfigured depending on whether they house singles, couples, or families.

Hoover, who sees potential for microhousing to help serve Denver’s homeless population, says there was “immediate agreement” among the jury that López’s entry deserved top prize. “It looks way beyond the particular site and creates what you might think of as an archetypal solution for the city itself,” he says.

Contest entries will be on display at Roth Sheppard Architects, 1900 Wazee Street, Suite 100, in downtown Denver, during the AIA National Convention, through June 21.

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