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“Making Room” and Constructing Change with the National Building Museum

Opticos Design is honored to have partnered with the National Building Museum and Metcalfe Architecture & Design to utilize our housing expertise, particularly at the Missing Middle Housing scale, to design an interactive element of a timely new exhibit, “Making Room: Housing for a Changing America,” on view now at the National Building Museum through September 2018.

Changing Trends for a Changing America

“Making Room” focuses on the evolving nature of American households and living options, spurred largely by shifting demographics. Seventy years ago, in the post-World War II boom, nuclear families made up 43% of households; now, these households make up only 20%. Today, American households are much more varied and diverse—singles living alone make up 28% of households; couples without children, 25%; adults sharing with other adults, 20%; and single-parent families, 7%. We are an aging nation—by 2050, nearly 90 million Americans will be 65 or older—and families today are constantly in flux, with 32% of adults ages 18-34 living with their parents.

Consequently, many Americans are adopting different living arrangements—and seeking new, varied types of housing to accommodate. Supply, however, has not met with the demand. A clear case-in-point: 48% of adults are singles and 28% live alone, but only about 13% of our existing housing stock is made up of studios and one-bedrooms! This mismatch in supply and demand results in high prices for many across the country.

“Making Room” examines these trends, and how architects and builders are responding by employing microunits, tiny houses, accessory apartments, co-living, and more.

With our Missing Middle Housing know-how, the museum approached Opticos about collaborating to create an interactive part of the exhibit allowing visitors to create new housing options with their own hands.

Step 1: Kit of Parts

For the interactive element, we employed a kits-of-parts approach, which we use in much of our architectural work, including our Signature Housing Products. We started with a concept for sets of 3D building blocks representing different unit sizes, which users could assemble in various ways to create a variety of building types with a mix of units (and thus households) that compose the community within the building.

As an initial step, we opened our Missing Middle Housing catalog and studied how units within the many types can be arranged in different ways to create unique and varied building types. For this exhibit, we studied how units fit together to make courtyard apartments, small multiplexes, and bungalow courts.

Step 2: Making an Interactive Experience

We next began considering the space within the exhibit and started thinking about how users could interact with the kit of parts. Working with the museum and Metcalfe, we produced a concept in which visitors could work with a menu of building blocks on a table and assemble them into a variety of housing types that would appeal to broad range of existing and new types of households (for example, singles, multigenerational households, and so forth). We proposed an informational wall that would introduce some background and constraints (such as building footprint and height) to guide visitors in their experience.

The Final Design

The final design puts the user in control by presenting the units available to today’s households, and allowing the user to “build” their housing given some of the same challenges architects and builders currently face: needs of occupants, zoning constraints, and height limits, to name a few. Final fabrication considerations modified some of the initial concepts.

We’re proud to have been part of this effort and look forward to the engaging discussion it produces as visitors get the chance to construct change for a 21st-century America.

“Making Room: Housing for a Changing America” runs November 18, 2017 – September 16, 2018 at the National Building Museum, Washington, D.C. Data for this post provided by the National Building Museum.