Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, was looking for a way to marry the experimental style of small teaching projects with regional aesthetics to maximize design opportunities on local projects. Affordable housing seemed like the perfect fit—until the talk turned green and the cash to fund it wasn’t so readily available. Nor were municipalities willing to break from the design status quo to give architects and builders the flexibility to use size and layouts to shrink a building’s energy footprint.

“I quickly found out it is quite a difficult field to practice in,” Scarpa said.

Scarpa spoke recently to attendees at Residential Architect’s Reinvention Symposium about his role in bringing design principles to affordable housing projects. As the founder of the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute and for the last 23 years a principal at Los Angeles-based Brooks + Scarpa (formerly Pugh + Scarpa), he has worked to develop policy that gives architects and developers more flexibility to build within local ordinances while encouraging them to take a proactive role in securing funding and changing building codes to enable sustainable design. (Read more: Brooks + Scarpa firm profile, Residential Architect November-December 2010)

“I thought what we were doing was just common sense,” he said. The challenge? Doing it well at a time when best practices and standards for green building and multifamily design weren’t fully developed or widely accepted.

In 2002 while working on the first LEED-certified multifamily project in the U.S.—a 44-unit SRO in downtown Santa Monica, Calif.—Scarpa said he was forced to reconcile the demands of a client who wanted a building to look sustainable at the lowest price possible.

“Our client said we had to do something to demonstrate to the city that the project was green,” he said. “But the client said to me: ‘It better not cost a penny more.’” 

The result: a solar panel system built into the structure’s façade and roof that meets most of the building’s peak load electricity demand. Because outfitting the 30,150-square-foot building with a solar façade—along with a natural-gas-powered turbine and heat-recovery system—cost more, Scarpa says, he looked into financing options and found a lesser-known local program funded by an energy surcharge. The fund had collected more than $8 million that no one had yet tapped.

He applied for the funding. “There were more questions to me than there were answers, like: ‘How’d you find out about us?’” he said. He roped in his local congresswoman and “almost overnight, that money disappeared,” he said.

The realization that financing for sustainable projects was hidden within the annals of municipalities and private advocacy organizations confirmed that the kind of projects Scarpa wanted to build—affordable with a serious green bent—were possible. But it also introduced a caveat: with too many strings attached, financing can do a project more harm than good.

One example: Scarpa’s now-defunct Livable Places non-profit. “We were not the first to provide housing, but [were the first] to affect change,” he said. “As a group we decided we could only exist if we could have a major role in policy.” The group began in Los Angeles, working with local zoning officials to craft an ordinance that allowed multiple, smaller single-family  residences to be constructed on single lots as a multifamily design alternative. But unencumbered funding was hard to come by and the resulting lack of financing sunk the organization, Scarpa said.

In his latest venture, Scarpa’s Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute enlists the expertise of top architects, designers, and urban planners while its partnership with the Enterprise Institute takes the work of securing funding and appeasing donors out of Scarpa’s hands.

Now the challenge is persuading clients to sign off on plans that integrate basic green design principles—natural light, cross-ventilation, and proper building orientation—with layouts that more closely model the single-family home; all while maintaining the sustainable compactness of urban design and envelopes that find creative ways to meld with local design. For example: the movable exterior shades that clad the firm’s 2010, 20,500-square-foot Cherokee Lofts mixed-use urban infill project in Los Angeles, which residents can adjust to regulate light within their own living spaces while simultaneously reconfiguring the structure’s exterior look.

Whether influencing design or influencing policy is more likely to move a green affordable housing project through the system, Scarpa still advocates for the latter. “At the end of the day, policy has more power,” he said. “Rules are needed for good reasons but sometimes they eliminate the best of the best along with the worst of the worst.”

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