education of an architect

Pyatok was deeply influenced by his upbringing in a rent-controlled tenement in Brooklyn, N.Y. His mother was a strong advocate for tenants' rights. "Despite the meager physical conditions—a density of 100 units to the acre and 600-square-foot apartments—many things about those old neighborhoods worked well," he says. Because the rent was fixed, working-class families didn't have to spend more than 25 percent of their income on housing. And with the transit system nearby, a dime could get them to a network of employment opportunities anywhere within four boroughs. Other amenities made Pyatok's neighborhood livable too. Prospect Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, was a short stroll away. And a two-block walk in any direction provided access to the drugstore, hardware store, fish and meat markets, and the local school. Says Pyatok: "Those are lessons I brought to my professional work later on."

In 1966, Pyatok finished the five-year undergraduate program in architecture at Pratt Institute. While in school, he lived at home, using a drafting board set on top of his bed, and commuted by train. "The realities of the conditions in which I was surrounded contrasted quite sharply with the kind of education I was receiving," he says, "which depicted history as a string of heroes and major institutions as the main source of architecture."

After graduating, Pyatok left home to continue studies at Harvard Design School. Professors from the Modernist movement, such as Walter Gropius, Jerzy Soltan, and José Luis Sert, reinforced his passion for addressing social-justice issues through community design. Assignments included designing affordable housing for countries around the world, researching their needs and systems of construction. "All of that was fairly eye-opening," Pyatok says. "Harvard opened up some doors in showing me intellectually what others had been thinking along those lines."

democratic design

"Each one of Pyatok's projects is unique," says Professor Jeffrey Ochsner, FAIA, who heads up the University of Washington's Department of Architecture in Seattle, where Pyatok is a tenured professor. "If he has a trademark, it's his response to the people who are being served. Because his breadth of knowledge is so deep, he can respond to what his clients know."

Pyatok is considered a trailblazer in his participatory approach to design. Under his guidance, community groups plan their own neighborhoods using a scaled site model and a kit of parts that includes residential and nonresidential elements. For an hour, each team assembles all the ingredients for the site and a several-block radius. Then, the groups present their ideas and try to reach a consensus.

In the next workshop, they look at unit layouts, exploring the possibilities for unconventional living and working arrangements. "Maybe someone wants a space to do untidy manual labor," Pyatok says. "How does that occur so it doesn't overpower the house?" A final session plumbs attitudes about what domestic architecture should look like. "Neighborhoods with rich cultural diversity are looking for a jacket that may hark back to their origins but also fit the context of neighborhoods built in the early part of the [20th] century," Pyatok says.

Because of small budgets, the firm has had to be clever. Many of the homes are simple boxes, but the use of bay windows makes small rooms feel bigger and brings in more light without adding to the foundation. And they lend a sense of security by allowing the resident to step into the space and look up and down the street. The firm also tries hard to create orderly roofscapes by collecting all the vents in the attic and bringing them up through a chimneylike cupola. "It costs a little more," Pyatok says, "but we try to hold onto those with cost savings elsewhere."

A core group of experienced and socially committed contractors makes that job a little easier. The firm prefers a negotiated bid in which the contractor is on board at the schematic stage. Engineering consultants accustomed to market rates or commercial conditions tend to overdesign, notes Pyatok. "The contractors show us ways of making savings in all those systems that don't necessarily affect the touch, feel, and look of the place."

into the future

Over the past several years, Pyatok Architects has had to tweak its own formula for profitability. The firm now seeks out institutional work, such as the residence halls it's designing for the University of California at Berkeley. Those commissions pay 12 percent of construction costs, compared with the 6 percent to 8 percent paid by nonprofits—often too small a fee to cover community process and construction administration. The new work has enabled Pyatok to offer paid vacation, holiday, and sick leave for the first time in the firm's 17-year history. "In order to sustain a conventional approach to salaries and benefits, we can't just do nonprofit work," he says. "Moving away from that is a concern to me and something we'll be monitoring as we go along, to make sure we don't lose sight of the primary purpose of the office, which is to help the households most in need."

Pyatok oversees the firm's design work, but he's training junior partners William Bonville, Thomas Eanes, and Peter Waller to carry on its mission and institutional memory. In another five years, Pyatok plans to have accumulated enough war stories for a second book about affordable housing. His first book, Good Neighbors: Affordable Family Housing (McGraw-Hill, 1996), written with Tom Jones and William Pettus, covered dozens of case studies from around the country.

"I'd like to do another book about our own work, to try to help others achieve high-quality affordable housing," Pyatok says. "The mission for the office is to set the bar as high as we can, to encourage everyone else to realize the debt they owe to the poor for performing work that's not well-paid but that makes the country strong."

He's optimistic about the future of affordable housing. Nonprofit corporations are patrons of architecture, he says, because they're driven to provide the best for the people they're serving. And good design is good business, because it proves to politicians and lenders that they're not decreasing others' property values. Buoyed by his triumphs, Pyatok lectures constantly to universities and neighborhood groups nationwide, making sure the grass-roots affordable-housing movement spreads evenly, not just in the aesthetically and politically sophisticated Bay area. And that's good news for everyone.

Cheryl Weber is a contributing writer in Severna Park, Md.