Harvest Commons Apartments Offer More Than Just a Room of One’s Own

The American Institute of Architects


September 13, 2013



From The American Institute of Architects:

Landon Bone Baker’s renovated SRO affordable housing project gives recently homeless residents access to supportive services and urban agriculture.

By Leigh Franke


A roof over your head is a crucial first step to getting back on your feet, but too often, supportive housing does not aspire much beyond that. The west side of Chicago’s 89-unit Harvest Commons Apartments, however, does just that and more.


Landon Bone Baker Architects recent single-room occupancy (SRO) conversion took the historic but blighted Viceroy Hotel (“for transient guests,” as advertised out front) and turned it into a permanent home for those who need it most: the recently homeless. Today, the Art Deco terra cotta building has been restored to its full architectural glory—and with a program the neighborhood can be proud of. Inside the Viceroy, the architects restored the original arched ceilings and column layout, refinished the terrazzo at the stairwell, and recreated historic tile. To reconstruct the historic façade, over 20 terra cotta pieces were replaced after an extensive search for the right manufacturer. Rather than replace historic ornamentation with real brass that might be attractive to thieves, LBB used aluminum.


In 2010, Heartland Housing, a branch of the Chicago-based anti-poverty organization Heartland Alliance, won the contract from the City of Chicago to develop the building into affordable housing. But the group knew it wanted to offer more than just an apartment to call one’s own, explains Nadia Underhill, associate director of real estate development for Heartland Alliance. “It’s been an interest of folks on staff for a long time to really push the envelope on what we consider green living,” says Underhill.


In addition to traditional support services, Harvest Commons boasts a community garden, test kitchen, chicken coop, and an on-site cafe as well as a full-time nutritionist and gardener to work with residents. “It’s definitely not something most people would have expected when they were moving through the social systems that got them to the building,” says Underhill.



Making it happen


The real challenge to including innovative programs in affordable housing happens once cost comes into play. Landon Bone Baker (LBB) knew that it would have to get creative to make the $22 million Harvest Commons renovation possible. LBB senior associate Jack Schroeder, AIA, says that sacrificing programs for pricier design choices was not an option. “The urban farm and kitchen piece—we’ve heard [of] those things presented in other projects, and they tend to go by the wayside,” he says. “But [Heartland] just had a really singular focus on making sure that it happened.”


And it was fun. To design the project, LBB had to learn about food infrastructure in ways that that most architects don’t. “We got to design a chicken coop and learn about beehives,” says Schroeder. “We’ve gotten to become experts on compost. Every piece of it was exciting,”




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