International architects address Northwest Arkansas downtown housing woes

by Robin Mero ([email protected]) 1,088 views 

(first photo) University of Arkansas architecture and interior design students Victor Iwunwa of Nigeria; Erik Betancourt of Wylie, Texas; and Hunter McCalla of Grapevine, Texas view student-designed projects created as part of an advanced design studio class addressing the concept of “missing middle” housing in NWA. Top student designs were featured alongside professional designs as part of the Housing Northwest Arkansas Initiative Design Competition. 

As part of a design competition they called “unusual” and “ballsy,” architects from Canada, Los Angeles, Boston, Oregon and Pennsylvania converged on Bentonville Thursday to display their winning designs for beautiful and affordable mixed-use downtown housing projects.

Four firms took home top prizes of $10,000, and each of the 25 competing firms were given $2,500 stipends, all paid by the Walton Family Foundation to address the region’s critical lack of affordable housing.

Yet the awards equaled a fraction each firm’s investment, which was likely $100,000, said Dean Peter MacKeith of the University of Arkansas’s Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, the event’s sponsor.

The designs focused on four specific sites in downtown Bentonville, because the region’s downtowns are vibrant, but prices are rising and vacancy rates are low for multi-family housing options, said Joanna Cannon, chief philanthropy officer of the Walton Family Foundation. Providing housing for a diversity of residents is critical to retaining the dynamic energy of the region’s downtowns, added Alice Walton.

“These innovative designs will open downtown living and its amenities to a wider group of residents by increasing access to attainable housing options,” Walton said.

The foundation hopes the designs will stimulate community interest and inspire local developers to build several of the projects.

A building’s design is usually driven in large part by the developer, so winning architects said they enjoyed the opportunity to fully envision and create. But the selling point for entry was the impressive jury, which included three distinguished architects: Marlon Blackwell of the UA, Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang in Illinois, and Anne Fougeron of Fougeron Architecture in San Francisco.

“It was pretty brave to set it up this way,” said Kevin Daly, principal of Kevin Daly Architects in LA. “It was real enough, and big enough, and refreshing.”

Guidelines sought genuinely livable designs and requested that architectural jargon be avoided.

“Now you can take this in the right direction, or not,” said Johanna Humre, a principal of 5468794 Architecture of Winnipeg, Canada. “The midwest is the new frontier of architecture.”

The winning firms were Digsau of Philadelphia, Penn.; Kevin Daly Architects of LA; 5468796 Architecture of Winnipeg, Canada; and Merge Architects, Inc., of Boston, Mass. Commendations were given to Works Progress Architecture of Portland, Oregon and LA; PAU Studio of New York; and Bucholz McEvoy Architects of Dublin, Ireland.

Other jurists were Brenda Anderson of the Northwest Arkansas Downtown Revitalization Fund and Shaun Donovan, Harvard University Senior Strategist and the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 2009-14.

Designs are also on display by UA students of architecture and interior design, the result of a semester course entitled “Advanced Design Studio.” The student designs also focused on affordable housing projects for downtown Bentonville. All designs will remain on display for the public to view at The Record in downtown Bentonville through May 18.