A group of four Virginia Tech graduate students is redefining what affordable living means through an innovative and sustainable multi-family, mixed-use project that has been recognized in a national competition.

The  team — with students spanning three programs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies — is one of four finalists in the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Innovation in Affordable Housing graduate student design and planning competition. It is the first Virginia Tech team and the first from Virginia to be a finalist.

The winner will be chosen on Wednesday, April 17, in Washington, D.C., during a presentation and awards ceremony at HUD’s headquarters. Each team will present their final project to jurors who have extensive experience in the design, management, and financing of for-profit and nonprofit housing developments. Virginia Tech joins Yale University, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Maryland as finalists.

The Hokies include team leader Jenizza Badua (master of urban affairs and planning), Hector Mendoza (master of urban affairs and planning), Amelia Hulshult (master of landscape architecture), and Jeremy Withers (Ph.D. in environmental design and planning).

This year's challenge was to design a mixed-income, mixed-use project on a 2.5-acre vacant lot owned by the San Antonio Housing Authority. The project had to contain at least 100 units targeted at workforce and lower-income households, located in a revitalizing urban neighborhood, with a budget of only $18 million. The team also had to design and plan around the many constraints imposed by a real-world site, from zoning regulations to climate considerations.

Each year, the competition targets a pressing housing challenge.

"The competition requires that teams strive to be both innovative and sustainable,” said Thomas Skuzinski, the team's faculty advisor and an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s urban affairs and planning program in the School of Public and International Affairs. “For the VT team, this meant exploring state-of-the-art practices in stormwater management, solar energy, heating and cooling systems, building materials, landscaping, community-building, and financing.”

The Virginia Tech project, named AGORA for its emphasis on community, features expansive outdoor recreational and social spaces and on-site services, such as a community kitchen and daycare. The 120 parking units are located within the building’s footprint and topped by a green roof. The spaces are designed to be converted into additional residential units as autonomous vehicles reduce personal automobile dependence.

The roof areas are covered with plants and solar panels and modules that pay for the energy costs of nearly a fifth of the households. From the use of native plants to an efficient climate control system, every decision was made with an eye toward transforming affordable housing practices.

The competition happens over two phases. The first phase began in December and ended in February. Teams created digital poster slides showing the site plan, floor plans, renderings, elevations, financial proof of concept, and more. More than 50 entries from schools across the country were judged blind by real estate professionals.

For phase two, teams were invited to visit San Antonio to see the vacant project site, tour the neighborhood, and meet San Antonio Housing Authority representatives. Through this trip, Virginia Tech students said they could better visualize their building on site.

“One of the things that blew me away was [a conversation with] a lady in San Antonio,” said Withers. “I didn't realize the difficulties faced by the people that need this type of housing. I have learned so much, and it moved me. We are trying to address that in our building and our presentation. Hopefully, the things we are adding make a difference. It has real-world implications as well as it changed how I think about how I want to build things in the future.”

The team spent the past several weeks editing and finalizing their design.  

“We really care about the project,” said Badua. “We care about who is going to be in this space, and I think that really drove our design process.”

First-place winners of the competition will receive $20,000. Second place receives $10,000, and the remaining finalists each win $5,000.

“Design can make a difference,” said Mendoza. “You design for people, and you can affect lives with that.”

Written by Haley Cummings