Be a listener first. Clients want to be able to tell their story before a consultant tries to sell themselves. After listening you will be much better prepared to craft your own strategy.
In many large cities in the US, there is a crisis caused by a shortage of affordable housing options. This has led to a host of social challenges. In this series called “How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable” we are talking to successful business leaders, real estate leaders, and builders, who share the initiatives they are undertaking to create more affordable housing options in the US.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Otis O’Dell.
Jerome “Otis” O’Dell has over 30 years of professional experience with multiple housing and hospitality projects
throughout California and Colorado, and across the United States. He founded and led his own architectural design and planning practice in Denver, O’Dell Architects, for 16 years before joining the national architectural and engineering firm HED in 2015. At HED he is a Principal and Housing Studio Leader for the firm’s western offices.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My work in multi-unit housing began as a framing carpenter as I worked my way through college. Since that time, my career has maintained a keen focus on housing and hospitality. I see these as the spaces where buildings affect people the most. Specifically, the notion of homes for all people is fundamental to our social, economic and environmental fabric and is a significant responsibility that he has felt privileged to contribute to this important work.
In my role as a Principal with HED I focus on client relationships and project oversight and have been the Principal-in-Charge for a wide variety of housing sector project developments including market rate, high-rise, affordable and senior living communities. I help identify, conceptualize, and bring projects to life alongside our client partners, and it is a tremendous source of joy and pride for me. I love the work of providing housing. You cannot be involved in housing work without being involved in the community, and this is my way of making a positive impact and making the world a better place.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are many! I am constantly amazed at the resistance and “nimby-ism” (aka “not in my backyard”) displayed by people who stand up against quality housing development. If you believe in your community, then it seems like you would want to be a part of the solution to our country’s lack of affordable housing.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I think you gain more lessons learned from mistakes and failures than from successes. I have learned that almost all challenges arise from the lack of clear communication. So, I work constantly to improve myself and my teams by promoting strong communication.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I was fortunate enough to work with famed Architect Michael Graves and his team on a significant project early in my career. That gave me a new perspective on the importance of design and provided firsthand experience to observe how Michael worked with clients. His respect for client feedback and collaboration was exemplary, as was his passion and persistence for design excellence.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I am a positive thinker and I have read many books and articles that discuss the advantages of positive thinking. There is always a solution and I take this attitude forward, always.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams, live the life you imagined”. Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.
I have been in many situations where I have been surrounded by people with more experience, more accomplishments, and better pedigrees. While this can be intimidating at times, I have learned to be confident with the deep experience and thoughtful considerations that I am able to bring to a conversation.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the shortage of affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities. I know this is a huge topic, but for the benefit of our readers can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
There really isn’t one single answer that says, “how we got here.” Income inequality, how we established a living wage for people, how we approach the production of housing in our country, and in some regard, even the new programs that provide funding for affordable housing can all carry some of the blame for our arrival at this systemic shortage. In isolated cities and states, there seem to be some functional solutions emerging, but for the most part, our national attempts at solving for these challenges seem to only be adding burden and cost to the effective development of affordable housing.
While certainly not within my design and project development domain, there is also so much of this housing crisis that can be attributed to better educating people and to better understanding and lifting their mental health. There are many factors that feed into housing systems, and it’s not just about construction or supply and demand. There are major social issues paramount to this conversation.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
If you want to make an impact on a challenge of this size, you must have a multi-faceted approach. In particular,, I focus much of my design work on understand the technology that is available that can help with expediting construction to creating healthier, longer-lasting buildings that can serve multiple generations to come.
We are fortunate at HED that we are involved in many different sectors — from healthcare and data centers to schools and of course to all types of housing. Because of this diverse project range, we can leverage our integrated expertise to inform specific sectors and the projects within them. More specifically, we can review best practices tin other sectors such as hospitality and healthcare and integrate them into affordable and attainable solutions within the design of housing. We’re always bringing emerging ideas into the space of affordable housing.
In recent years, we have grown a strong commitment to carefully designing toward modular and prefabricated construction solutions whenever possible to add value and expediency for our clients. Within the space of modular solutions there are many options — from 3D wood solutions to steel solutions to pre-fabrication and penalization. We’ve honestly found that there’s a higher level of quality, environmental sustainability, and less waste expended to get the work delivered. Anything we can do to get the work out of the field, and into the factory. is high on our priority list, helping our projects come to life regardless of weather conditions.
The highest improvement seen through modular construction is in the area of schedule reduction. Schedule reduction can lead to major cost savings which leads to total project savings that benefit the ultimate resident in terms of affordability. Moreover, from the developer’s perspective, modular solutions can assist in providing cost certainty which is so critical to investors and lenders in the space. In addition, in a season of major housing shortages like we are seeing around the country, this can help us get more residential units online faster.
Of course, modular delivery must be carefully evaluated as it is not appropriate for all development, such as in situations with historic design restrictions that can limit modular design options.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
When you’re in the business of providing affordable housing for economically challenged or vulnerable populations, there is really a great story every single day.
There have beem a few times when we have gone into a place and interviewed prospective residents to understand what’s most important to them. There is a profound gratitude that comes from the prospective residents that they are just so pleased that there is a team of people working to provide housing that is attainable to all people. When people see that our team wants to be a part of the solution, it means a great deal to them.
For us to be knowledgeable about legislation and local incentives to provide affordable housing is exciting to see. I decided a long time ago that there are all these people really frustrated with the legislation and all it is doing to limit affordable housing.
My goal is to get as many affordable housing units into the system as we can. I don’t want to fight the rules and legislation at this point in my career, that may come later. In many locations You are incentivized to provide more affordable residences as a result of your adjacency to transit. Multiple times, we have taken a residential lot in an urban setting — in some cases two lots side by side — and placed a denser housing development on those properties that provides an increase in the affordable housing units, while also aesthetically contributing to the neighborhood and its architectural imprint.
For one project in Las Angeles, an 11,800 square foot lot (the equivalent size of two single family lots), we are using the density incentives provided by local legislation and local ordinances to get 150 units to the acre. The resulting 41 units fit seamlessly within the context of the neighborhood and offer 39 more affordable residences than would have resulted from more narrow thinking.
When you interact with a neighborhood association that is aiming to help solve the housing problem, like we did for this development, it can be incredibly inspiring. So much more is possible with the support of civic activists carrying the affordable housing access flag.
Again, we should all continue to seek ways to be a part of the solution instead of pushing the problem off on someone else.
In your opinion, what should other residential designers do to further address these problems?
Get educated about the issues that go beyond architecture and extend into community. You cannot provide housing without impacting community. You have to understand the context of the greater issues at play and utilize that knowledge as you conceptualize a design solution for any given site.
I would also push for my fellow designers to consider designing projects with modular construction in mind, All that can be done in a factory, under better working conditions, under easier inventory management systems, and less subjected to weather, creates an opportunity to save each project real dollars that can improve affordability. While modular construction won’t save money on commodities like lumber or steel, it will save money on the construction process itself.
We should also continue to collaborate with our modular construction factories to develop distinctive design solutions for multifamily housing through this method of delivery.
We also need to continue creating more affordable housing in markets with more available land. By bringing innovative, smart design within walkable tier two or tier three cities, we can help alleviate pressure on the most strained housing economies that are becoming hotbeds of homelessness.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
You still must go back to education; community members must be informed and involved. Getting involved in your local City Council dialogue on best practices for affordable housing solutions. Talk to your district representatives and commit to being a part of solutions from an informed perspective. This can really help combat the uninformed NIMBY-ism (not in my back yard) that so often blocks the successful building of affordable housing developments.
Additionally, we as a society, have hammered so dramatically into our younger populations that you have to go to college and get a degree. By doing this, we have neglected to teach these generations that they can make a great living and build a good life working in the trades as well. So, we find ourselves with a huge labor problem and a lack of talent and experience in the construction fields, which ultimately can affect housing affordability.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws which you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
There has been legislation proposed in the State of California that talks about increased density along rail lines and transit lines, making housing more prolific and more accessible at the same time. These new rules would really allow single family residential zones to consider multifamily housing for the first time. . To date, it has not succeeded.
This kind of solution is paramount to solving this crisis.
Any property that is zoned R-1 in Los Angeles and in certain neighborhoods in the Denver area are now allowed to put accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on that property. Los Angeles County even issued pre-approved sets of building plans for these ADUs to make them far easier to get permitted and built. That kind of legislative change is important, and I hope that is an example for other states and other regions to address homelessness. We need to step up to be a part of community solutions one property at a time.
We ultimately need legislation that creatively supports the nature and social constructs of our specific regions. If it were my call, I would make sure that we welcome all these solutions to the table and explore their fit within the local region and the specific nature of the housing struggles in that area.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Be a listener first. Clients want to be able to tell their story before a consultant tries to sell themselves. After listening you will be much better prepared to craft your own strategy.
- Architecture is more of a lifestyle than a profession. You will spend a lot of time with it so it is important to be passionate about it.
- Always be open to exploring new technologies and innovations. Sometimes they won’t work or won’t be relevant, other times they can improve your processes, your products, and your bottom line.
- To be a good architect you have to love people. Work to create a positive impact on people and the communities where they live, the business success will follow.
- Your team of people is your most important resource. Treat them fairly, let them know what to expect and communicate often.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A movement around placemaking; placemaking that fits its context and creates the right amount of density while offering livability.
Placemaking that engages community to grow sustainable food and gardens, that uses natural sources of energy for heating and cooling, that offers opportunities to create your own art and tell your own stories. This is not a one size fits all. There are hundreds or even thousands of versions of this that could dramatically change our country.
They might all, though, have many of those same ingredients and the result would create the positive impact that is so necessary for people to thrive as they should.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
To be honest, right now it would really be just any one of my neighbors. So I can get to know them better and so I can continue to understand what would make the most difference to them in my community.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.