Affordable by Design: Missing Middle

Affordable by Design: Missing Middle

The Next Chapter

After it was published in 2022, The Affordable by Design (AxD) Playbook didn’t collect dust on a shelf.  Five homes based on the Playbook designs were constructed in 2023 by Seventy-Five North and came on the market in early 2024. ObD staff began sharing the Playbook’s lessons – and the results of its implementation – with the design and development community in the Omaha Metro and beyond. And new partners were engaged to continue the conversations the Playbook started.  

These conversations led to an idea: expanding the Playbook with a new chapter focused on Missing Middle housing.  The original Playbook featured prototype designs for detached single-family homes — the classic house-with-a-yard that many of us grew up in. It’s an important part of the housing puzzle, but there’s no one-size-fits-all home for everyone: we need a diversity of housing for a diversity of people. The goal of the next chapter of the AxD Playbook would be to help bring this kind of diversity to Omaha’s neighborhoods.  

The Missing Middle

If you build housing in America today, it’s probably going to look like this: 

Or this:

Although spacious single-family homes and dense apartment complexes may look like opposites, they have key similarities. Both development types are easy to standardize and produce at a large scale. Banks and institutional real-estate investors are comfortable with putting their money in them, and local governments are well-equipped to review and approve their construction.  

However, a walk around most residential neighborhoods built in the first half of the 20th century reveals a whole set of homes that don’t fit into either of these categories. Duplexes. Rowhomes. Quadplexes. Small garden apartments. Once you look for them, these homes are easy to spot in Omaha: 

Urban Designer Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design coined the term “Missing Middle” to refer to all these often-ignored housing types that used to play a much bigger role in our neighborhoods. Missing Middle buildings are typically similar in scale to detached single-family homes but contain multiple units. This means they can be built with the same construction techniques as a house, for a similar cost, while housing more people. These characteristics made Missing Middle housing a perfect fit for the second chapter of the AxD Playbook.  

A New Playbook

The AxD Missing Middle Playbook will be a companion to the original Playbook, featuring conceptual plans for a range of Missing Middle housing types, from townhomes to triplexes. Holland Basham Architects is ObD’s architectural partner for this chapter of the playbook, bringing a high level of expertise in housing design to the process. InCOMMON Community Development is also on board as a core community partner, providing a real-world project to focus the design process on.  

InCOMMON plans to build Playbook-based Missing Middle housing on a series of vacant lots in the Park Avenue neighborhood. Rather than renting out the housing units, inCOMMON plans on selling each unit to individual owners within a Community Land Trust framework, providing a way for residents to gain a foothold in homeownership while adding permanently affordable housing units to the neighborhood. Like the original Playbook’s partnership with Seventy-Five North, inCOMMON’s involvement has strengthened the process by keeping the conversation rooted in a specific place with the challenges and constraints faced by real infill development projects.  

Community Conversations

Insights from inCOMMON, community residents, and other stakeholders have been at the core of the AxD Missing Middle design process. At the beginning of the process, Spark Community Development hosted a Design Week event that drew in community members to imagine what Missing Middle housing could look like in their neighborhood. A large group of stakeholders, including community leaders, emerging developers, and local homebuilders have been engaged to provide early feedback and guide the direction of Holland Basham’s prototype designs. InCOMMON has also engaged Park Avenue residents to learn what housing features they value the most.    

Looking Ahead

The AxD Missing Middle Playbook will be published this summer, and ObD will continue working to expand the reach and impact of both Playbook chapters. However, it’s unlikely that the Missing Middle chapter of Playbook will be the last. There are so many more ways that design thinking can be applied to the problem of affordable housing. One question in particular has begun to pop up in countless conversations: how can the development process itself be streamlined to reduce costs and lower the barriers to creating housing we can afford? Answering this question may be the next step in the Affordable by Design journey.