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Five minutes with Liz Falletta

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Patricia Quintero Estades

The Bedrosian Center recently sat down with one of our new faculty affiliates for this school-year year, Liz Falletta, to talk about her current research on design and multi-family housing in LA. Professor Falletta is a licensed architect who teaches design skills in both the urban planning and the real estate development programs at USC Price. She is currently writing a book about multi-family housing with a multidisciplinary perspective. Spend five minutes learning about design, housing, and her important research from Professor Falletta herself!

Where did you get the idea to write a book about multi-family housing? Why does it look at the topic from the perspective of different disciplines?

The book stemmed from the teaching I do at Price. I am a licensed architect but I teach in both the Real Estate and Urban Planning programs here so I am always teaching design across disciplines. I teach design skills and design perspectives to students who don’t have design as their foundational discipline, helping planners and real estate developers understand the value of design, and also understand how to communicate with designers who are often different breed.

So the book came out of two things. First, there are really no resources to do this, to teach design with a multidisciplinary perspective. So a big part of the project is simply generating a set of case studies that I can use for teaching.

But, it also came from the experiences I have had in multi-family housing as an architect and as a developer, and also now as part of the re:code LA team, which is trying to help Los Angeles craft a new zoning code that will boost housing production (among many other things). These experiences helped me understand how the disconnects between design, development, and planning really compromise our housing quality and our ability to produce enough housing. This observation encouraged me to create a book that can be a resource for students but also for practitioners as well.

How do the three disciplines—planning, real estate, and architecture—look at housing differently and how do you hope the book will change that?

I should start by saying that I am not looking for a “kumbaya” moment here. I’m not expecting professionals from these disciplines to suddenly get along and sing songs around a campfire. First, I just don’t think that’s possible. Secondly, I don’t think that’s desirable. I think each discipline plays a key role in housing, one that is valuable and worth defending. Of course, there are a lot of other players in housing – tenants, owners, neighbors, communities, lenders, policy-makers – but planners, real estate developers and architects play the major roles in actual housing production.

We really care what housing looks like and how it fits into our communities so that there are architects in charge of housing’s form, space and image is important. Housing needs to perform from a community perspective and provide housing that’s needed in a community, so that we have urban planners evaluating that is vital. And there would be very little development of housing at all if it weren’t profitable, and that is where real estate developers come in. So I think each discipline plays a crucial role.

I think where things fall apart is when the relationships between these disciplines become very unbalanced. For example, if we are only profit driven, or if we are only focused on design, then this is when community needs are often not met.

I’m not trying to get a developer to say design has inherent value and I’m going to invest in design because I think it’s important. What I am trying to get a developer to do is to be able to understand how design can contribute to profitability. For architects, I’m trying to get them, not to become developers, but to understand that profit is an important component of the U.S. housing market. If you can’t generate that revenue, your innovations are not going to be useful because they’re not going to get built.

I’m trying to build a set of case studies where people can really see these interactions, and learn to speak about their own disciplinary interests through the goals and values of the other professions involved in the housing process. So architects are not just talking architect-speak, but they are also talking about how their work will help developers and planners reach their own disciplinary goals.

Can you tell us more about your By-Right | By-Design approach?

BY-RIGHT | BY-DESIGN presents a cross-disciplinary analysis of significant Los Angeles housing design precedents and their related development types. A side-by-side comparison of these projects – real estate development models built in large numbers as of right, versus singular examples of innovative architecture built by variance – reveals new insights for future housing production in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

These comparative case studies, six in total, form the heart of the book, each telling a different story about the often hidden relationships among the three primary disciplines shaping the built environment, some of which uphold, and others of which transgress, conventional disciplinary stereotypes. All projects are examined through the lenses of real estate development, urban planning and design, identifying strategies that add value from the perspective of multiple disciplines, expanding the context in which these works can be understood, evaluated, and, ultimately, built upon to create better housing for residents.

Following up with some of the themes that we talked about during the event with Michael Maltzan, how do you think architecture and design can help alleviate the need for more housing, and affordable housing in LA?

We are not going to design our way into affordability, I just don’t think that’s going to happen and I would be cautious of any architect who believes that. It’s a much more complicated problem. No single discipline is the solution, but I do think design is profoundly important and can be a real contributor.

For example, we are starting to see micro-unit projects in the city and when you build a unit of that small a size design matters a lot. And I don’t mean it has to be really flexible and everything has to move, because that can be a recipe for a really expensive unit but I do think your 300 square feet can be more or less functional and thoughtfully designed. You’re going to have better or worse units at that scale and the scale is just going to amplify those differences.

Also, if you look at our housing stock there are two or three big holes. One is called the “missing middle.” This is common in many cities. We have a lot of 15-20 unit an acre projects that are decent, and then there’s a big gap between that density and the 50+ units an acre projects that are typically built today. Cultivating housing typologies that would fill in this gap from a density standpoint, but then also address emerging lifestyle choices and be more palatable to residents of existing neighborhoods, would go a long way towards boosting our level of housing stock and therefore overall affordability.

I also think there is a real market for housing at a 20 to 40 unit per acre density. For example, I think your generation (millennials) is not assuming they’re going to be living in a single-family house, and are interested in more communal, “co-living” situations. I have also long wanted to design and build a compound-like property with small multiple units and large, more luxurious, shared spaces. I think architects can play a real role in envisioning these types of multi-unit projects that could accommodate not only aging parents but also other types of relationships in addition to the standard married with children situation.

I also think we really need to densify our single-family neighborhoods. That is not a very popular attitude, but I think design can play a real role there in making accessory dwelling units, for example, more acceptable to existing single-family residents.

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