'Grandfamily' housing fills void of vacant lot
Standing in front of a vacant, trash-strewn site in the Roseland neighborhood on the far Southside of Chicago, one of our best and most inspiring clients came to us with a wildly ambitious idea.
We had been working with Debbie Dixon of NHS Redevelopment Cooperation in Roseland, an economically depressed and increasingly violent area, to create safe and affordable housing for families. But her new focus was on the senior population of the neighborhood. She wanted to create a true senior campus –a place where the backbone of this struggling area could age in place. This campus would serve as a showpiece and model for the neighborhood. It would show that Roseland could produce and deserved beautiful buildings and gardens, positive social environments, and forward-thinking environmental technologies.
The first piece was a 60-unit independent living facility with a City of Chicago “Senior Satellite Center” in the first floor. The second piece was 10-unit “Grandfamily” housing for grandparents raising their grandchildren. These pieces were going to complete the campus, which began with a supportive living facility that was already under construction next door.
To start the design process for the independent living facility, we visited a number of existing facilities with Debbie, and we agreed that the main design push for our building was to create a place that would be as warm as home. We were all turned off by the institutional feel that had become the norm.
There is a definite need for Grandfamily housing in Chicago.
To battle the sterile, indestructible public spaces and hallways we visited, we chose warm finishes, colors, and materials and pulled natural light in from all sides. In one facility we visited the seniors had created an impromptu game room in the electrical room. We quickly realized we had to produce varied and usable social space throughout: a lush garden and walking path for exercise; a rooftop deck; a seating area with a fireplace and visual access to the comings and goings of others; a solarium on the fifth floor with great views and sunshine on a cold winter day (and a pool table).
The client also worked with the Chicago Historical Society to put together a series of photographs documenting African-American history and pioneers on the Southside of Chicago and in Roseland.
Introducing the "grandfamily" type
The “Grandfamily” housing type was new to us and to Chicago; we had to work with the client to build a program and a set of goals and inspirations for the building. The apartments are large three- and four-bedroom units with generous living and dining spaces. The generous, flexible public space within the unit allowed for multiple family and age types –homework space, play space, and relaxation space. The grandparent is given a suite with a dedicated, fully accessible bathroom. There are generous windows from the kitchen (the social center of the house) out to the shared courtyard to allow for neighbors to keep an eye on their village. Security was a high priority in this facility because there can be occasions where biological parents illegally try to reconnect with the children. We were tasked with creating a highly secure facility that still felt like home.
The bulk of the L-shaped, 5-story independent living facility was held back from Michigan Avenue and then stepped down toward the street to respect the scale of the existing building fabric. The 2-story Grandfamily building was pushed to the corner of Michigan and 104th to anchor the corner and create a more modestly scaled and clad facade for the adjacent residential street. The two buildings interlock around a large, shared garden space.
Roseland Senior Campus has been up and running for a while and by all accounts is a success. It has remained near full occupancy throughout its short life. There is a definite need for Grandfamily housing in Chicago. The owner’s only criticism of the program is that the federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development appears to have set the age limit too high - 62 years old - to allow for the reality of the younger grandparents that find themselves in these situations.
Residents have already begun to move from one facility to another as their needs change. The generous social spaces are put to good, heavy use. The client had visions of true intergenerational interaction at the facilities –allowing the young people in the Grandfamily building and neighborhood the resource of the senior’s wisdom and the seniors the resource of the younger generation’s boundless energy. This hasn’t been as easy in practice as we had hoped, but the management and social services folks continue to try. One unexpected issue is simply their varied schedules: The seniors tend to be settled in for an early evening when the school-age kids are home and fed and ready to interact.
Still, the ribbon cutting and subsequent visits to the campus are an absolute joy. Getting to engage with the folks living in the facility and hearing their compliments and criticisms is a true privilege. Hearing stories from one resident who drove tour buses for some of the biggest soul and blues artists of the past century was amazing. We had helped our client create the true “continuum of care” that she had hoped for. The campus gives a safe, healthy home to people of varied ages, physical needs, and family structures. The satellite center gave the seniors on campus and in the surrounding area a safe place to socialize, eat, dance, and learn. The vacant lot is a distant memory.
About the author
Jack Schroeder is a senior associate at Landon Bone Baker Architects. He holds bachelor of architecture and bachelor of environmental design degrees from Ball State University. With a strong commitment to community-based projects, Jack has focused on the field of multifamily housing, completing both affordable and market rate projects in Chicago and downstate Illinois. His extensive knowledge of green building practices and progressive city planning has helped the firm minimize its buildings’environmental impact and improve the quality of life for residents.
Mark Ballogg Photography