April 10, 2009
  Green Intergenerational Housing Development Opens in Chicago

How do you . . . design a sustainable, affordable housing apartment complex to accommodate both intergenerational family structures and young adults?

Summary: Harley Ellis Devereaux has designed the new Sankofa House in Chicago that opened last February. Sankofa House is a sustainable, affordable housing complex for both kinship families and young adults within the age range of 18–23 years who are moving out of the foster care system. Kinship families are non-traditional family structures, the most common being grandparent-headed households. Sankofa House houses three generations of residents: grandparents; young adults who could be parents themselves, aunts, or uncles; and children. Sankofa House is a 58-unit apartment building with 23 two-, three-, and four-bedroom units for kinship families and 35 one-bedroom “starter” apartments for the young adults. The complex was developed by nonprofit Interfaith Housing Development Corporation (IHDC), the client on the project. Nonprofit Sankofa Safe Child, an organization that works to strengthen Chicago families, partnered with IHDC.

The Sankofa House development is a pilot project under Chicago’s Department of Housing’s Green Residential Program. The term Sankofa refers to an African bird that symbolizes moving backwards in order to move forward, evoking an image of a bird rotating its neck.

Funding Sankofa House
The Harley Ellis Devereaux design for Sankofa House encourages both community interaction and independence among residents.

“Kinship families are something that I had heard about for several years,” says Susan King, AIA, LEED-AP, principal and lead designer at Harley Ellis Devereaux. “It seemed like an interesting idea because apparently it’s an overlooked population. There are many grandparents who, for a variety of reasons, are raising their grandchildren. That’s a grand-family. But kinship families are not limited to grand-families and can encompass, for example, brother-sister adults raising each other’s children.”

Housing projects for kinship families are similar in concept to Section 202 HUD-funded affordable senior housing, King notes. Harley Ellis Devereaux has worked on Section 202 projects and was eager to work with IHDC to design Sankofa House. “Kinship families are the same idea, just a broader definition,” King says. But the problem is affordability, she says. “There’s no program to fund kinship housing. Even though there’s a need, there is no clean way to fund it.” Lacking federal funding for kinship housing, Sankofa House sought funding from nonprofits IHDC and Safe Child.

Design reflects community and independence
In addition to apartments for the kinship families, IHDC wanted the complex to have residences for young adults who have aged out of the Chicago foster care system. The young-adult starter apartments are 450 square feet and one-bedroom. “These apartments are designed to be a steppingstone to independence for the young adults,” King says.

IHDC wanted Harley Ellis Devereaux to design the building to promote community, but also give young adults a sense of independence. “We worked with IHDC and listened to how they wanted to treat the two different populations,” King notes. “They felt it was important to create independence for the young adults, so we responded to that.”

Harley Ellis Devereaux took advantage of the development’s corner site to design a T-shape structure to distinguish the kinship family apartments and young adult apartments. The design organizes the kinship apartments in one wing along one residential street, while the young adult apartments are in a separate wing on a more active street (this wing is the longer part of the ‘T’ shape). The T-shape uses two distinct street façades.

Between the two wings on each floor are community spaces, such as shared living rooms near the intersection of the T. There are floor-to-ceiling windows on each floor on both sides of a dual entry, which provide a natural-light core. “We combined this idea of the community spaces on each floor as a way of allowing natural light into what otherwise might have been a double-loaded corridor. All of the community rooms fit above the two-sided entry. The lobby gets light on both sides and is the start of the vertical core.” The natural-light core also reduces energy costs.

Sankofa House is green
Sankofa House will earn top-tier three-star certification through Chigaco’s Green Homes Program. IHDC chose not to pursue LEED because it wanted to put fees that would have been used to document the LEED processes toward social services, King explains. “You can be green without going LEED—that is one philosophy,” she points out. “That was their position. Using the Green Homes benchmarking tool, we ended with two stars, but we are adding wind turbines in the spring, bumping it to three stars. That is the icing on the cake.”

In addition to the natural light core and a highly insulated envelope, sustainable elements in the Sankfora House design include:

  • Two vegetative roof gardens located on each wing
  • Sun shades on southern windows to reduce heat gain, taking advantage of a long southern exposure
  • An eco-friendly elevator that uses 60 percent less energy than a hydraulic elevator
  • Low-flow plumbing fixtures that will cut the building’s water usage by 20 percent, saving approximately 300,000 gallons annually
  • A tri-sorter chute for recycling that diverts waste to appropriate bins at the ground floor
  • Built-in recycling bins in each apartment within the kitchen cabinets
  • Recycled limestone floors in the corridors.

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1. Sankofa House occupies a corner site with two street façades. The T-shape design organizes the kinship apartments and young adult apartments in two separate wings.
2. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide a natural-light core and contribute to livable community spaces.
3. Sankofa House is a 58-unit apartment, with 23 of those being two-, three-, and four-bedroom units for kinship families.
4. There are 35 one-bedroom “starter” apartments for the young adults.
5. The lobby gets light on both sides and is the start of the vertical core.

Photo credits:
Anthony May Photography, Interior
Harley Ellis Devereaux, Exterior