LOS ANGELES — Christopher Hawthorne is currently the Chief Design Officer for the City of Los Angeles and a driving force behind the Low Rise Design Challenge, which hopes will drive architects to draw up the future of smaller, multi-family buildings throughout the city.

But around 2002, years before he became the Architecture Critic of the Los Angeles Times and well before Mayor Eric Garcetti sought him out, Hawthorne and his young family were settling into their new home in Oakland. The family had moved into a snug bungalow court complex, among a group of small houses with a shared lawn and a fountain at the center.

What You Need To Know

  • The Low-Rise Design Challenge, sponsored in part by Mayor Garcetti's office, hopes to inspire architects, residents, and developers to invest in low-rise housing

  • L.A. has a tradition of low-rise housing, but recent housing policy has focused on very small and very large housing development

  • Housing advocates hope the competition will inspire the city to reexamine zoning laws

  • The competition asks architects and designers to develop a range of low-rise complexes, including a category to subdivide existing landmark homes

The complex was designed by Irving Gill, who is renowned in Southern California architectural circles for helping to father architectural modernism — clean, simple designs, and homes (like theirs) meant to provide a balance of privacy and community living.

“It’s not about fancy materials or bigger apartments, but about how they related to one another and how each apartment related to the outdoor space,” said Hawthorne.

The homes were designed with “very simple, but crucial decisions about how things come together,” Hawthorne added. Among neighboring buildings, bedrooms wouldn’t face each other but would rather be buffered by closets and bathrooms. Patios would open up to communal open space, giving people gradations of public and private space. And units had two entrances: One to that shared open space (for easy social access) and a back door to the alley, for ducking out on quick errands (or avoiding the neighbors).

"They’re not decisions that added much of anything to the bottom line, but really thought carefully about the shared space," he said. "There are times when you want to lean on community, and that’s what good architecture can do."

As he’s worked in the mayor’s office for the past two years, Hawthorne has come to find that mid-sized developments, like the one where he and his family lived, have been under-addressed by policymakers, while accessory dwelling units and dense high-rises have been prominent.

The Low Rise challenge, featuring a $100,000 prize pool, is a competition asking architects to address just that: housing developments that sit at a scale between studio and large multi-family developments. Those buildings — three-to-eight unit complexes that stand only two or three stories tall — are what Hawthorne called the “hole in the donut” of existing housing policy between ADUs and high-density projects. And further, the challenge overview notes, small multi-family projects are relatively inexpensive development projects.

"We think it’s a very sustainable option, and we think that a well-designed fourplex might use less water and less utilities than a single-family home," said Hawthorne. "We also think it offers a kind of flexibility that’s been missing in our portfolio of housing options."

The challenge has four design categories, including fourplexes, duplexes, plans integrating a shop into a small complex, and redesigns of landmark homes — like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House — into multi-unit buildings. Winners will take home cash prizes, and their designs will be collected for publication. Hawthorne also expects the winning designs will be taken back out to the public for discussion and resident feedback.

"This challenge is meant as a step in the right direction," he said. "I think it can form a more sophisticated policy and community."

That “hole in the donut” hasn’t always been missing. L.A. once enjoyed an abundance of “low rise” developments, especially as housing development boomed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

As the city evolved, new building styles developed to fill in gaps in the market. Dingbats (boxy multi-story buildings with parking overhangs), garden apartments (short complexes with a high ratio of open space to buildings), and bungalow courts came into favor to serve the working class.

When the automobile lifestyle became dominant, design guidelines followed suit. The minimum allowable size for dwelling units shrank, encouraging developers to pack units onto parcels. Minimum setbacks and side-yard sizes forced buildings toward the center of lots rather than toward the edges. Plus, parking requirements and driveway standards ballooned. As such, many of these buildings were essentially legislated into extinction.

Mark Villanatos has a passion for endangered buildings. He’s the creator of the Forbidden City walking tour, which would take guests pasts buildings that are occupied and lived in today but are no longer legal to build.

“A lot of the coolest neighborhoods to walk in L.A. are streets where there’s a mix of fourplexes, duplexes, single-family homes, and bungalow courts,” Vallianatos said. “It’s not just about architecture and physical structure, but about social diversity and the mix of who can afford to be there.”

L.A., he believes, hasn’t done a good enough job with its housing policies to include diversity or to keep up with housing demands. This competition, Vallianatos hopes, will push policymakers and the public to reexamine existing zoning laws and building ordinances to build this category of housing.

“It’s put us in the crises we’re in now: housing, affordability, homelessness, sustainability, air pollution, climate change,” he said. “You need bigger change, and I think showcasing what bigger change looks like on the ground helps to chip away at some of the opposition to it.”

Some of that opposition to change — and new development — is noted in the Low Rise challenge’s overview, which argues that the slow-growth movement of the 1980s began with a backlash against apartment production in the 60s and 70s. The overview also states that there is “widespread concern” among residents in communities of color about new development, as well as displacement, gentrification, and change brought by new development.

“We’ve had very little growth in our housing stock, but over the same time, new people have moved here,” said Anthony Dedousis, policy and research director for Abundant Housing L.A. “We’ve become a particularly hot job engine. And when you have income growth and population growth, but a relatively-fixed amount of housing, it’s not too surprising to see that costs have risen sharp and quickly across the board.”

According to AHLA, which advocates for increased housing development in the city, median rents have increased by 65% over the last decade, while housing production has slowed significantly — only 13 percent of homes in L.A. have been built within the last 30 years.

Meanwhile, state targets for housing production continue to grow. The most recent draft of Southern California’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (which is still subject to change) would require L.A. to build more than 455,000 homes over the next decade.

"We hope that (the challenge) is well-timed to be connected to the larger policy discussions that are happening at the city and state levels," said Hawthorne. "There’s no way we’re going to meet the target unless we address exactly this."