Somewhere in the middle of pouring the concrete slab and hand-cutting roof joists with a circular saw high above Westville Street, Fields Corner residents Vivian and Elisa Girard believe they found the answer to affordable housing without getting into the red tape of “affordable housing.”
Their foray into a new type of housing – efficient studios in the price range of $650 to $850 per month without using state or city subsidies – is taking shape now at 141 Westville St. on a long-vacant lot. Their hope is that the project will usher in an affordable, transit-oriented, super-efficient, and car-free product without the restrictions on residents – like income - that come with government-housing subsidies.
Vivian, the co-founder of home.stead bakery and café in Fields Corner, is a long-time construction and renovation specialist in the area. He said his life-long passion has been to figure out how to build affordable housing that is extremely efficient, and that zeal came to the forefront of his mind a few years ago when he began thinking about employee housing for home.stead workers.
“I’ve always been thinking about housing in the city with more affordability and more efficiency,” he said this week while taking a break from framing out the fourth floor of the new Westville project. “I ended up doing it for a living as a result, and that’s how I got into construction and renovations. You do have to live simply. You must want to live without a lot of clutter and things. It appeals to a lot of people who are into tiny houses. I have always tried to live cheaply, and that’s something that really matters to me.”
Having sold his part of the café business last year, he, with Elisa, turned their attention full-time to their plans for 141 Westville Street, which sits just one house up from Geneva Avenue on a long-time vacant lot. Since mid-summer, they have been found daily at the site, doing most of the work themselves to keep down costs and deliver a reasonably priced product.
“I’ve been doing construction and renovation for about 20 years,” Vivian said. “It’s all familiar, but new construction like this is new for us. It’s a sharp learning curve and you can see me scratching my head a lot. My big thing for housing is to make it affordable and efficient. I call it affordability to efficiency… A lot of it is land use. If you don’t waste half of your land for off-street parking, then things can be more efficient.”
Added Elisa, “Part of what makes it affordable is we’re doing most of it ourselves – like framing. We have a plumber and electrician for parts of it, but we try to do almost all of the rest ourselves, which means it will cost less in the end.”
Vivian said he participated extensively in the Compact Living Unit policy that the city drafted in 2019 and 2020, and so the project leans heavily on the stipulations in that new policy – having units that adhere to the policy and are around 750 square feet in total.
He has also looked to different ideas for construction to make use of every inch of space while still delivering a cohesive fit into the existing neighborhood. For instance, instead of building a cellar, they’ve used a concrete slab and reclaimed three feet of living space. Likewise, instead of nine-foot ceilings, they have eight-foot ceilings, saving three more feet. They’ve also used more efficient techniques in the construction – smaller and more efficient mechanicals in what will be a super-insulated structure using less space for systems.
The result is a 4-story building with 14 units and a common area with ample bike parking in a location that is 3 blocks from the Red Line and 50 feet from a bus stop, all accomplished within the same footprint and height as the traditional three-decker next door.
“We’ve done everything we could to keep the focus on efficiency and doing things a little differently, and as a result we are ending up with four floors and a building that is only slightly higher than the triple-decker next door,” said Vivian.
The real hook in the idea is establishing affordability without subsidized affordable housing and the complexities that come with that. The notion leans heavily on research that shows half of Boston residents make less than $35,000 per year, and none of the market-rate projects built recently are affordable for those folks.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of Boston households comprise two people or fewer, yet only 17 percent of the housing stock is made up of studio or one-bedroom units.
“I’m not anti-affordability with subsidies,” he said. “That makes sense for a lot of the bigger projects. But when you get into affordable housing, there are some strict regulations and red tape. I want people to be able to make money and be successful and still have access to housing that is reasonably priced. In affordable housing, your income goes up and things change, and you can lose access to the housing…To live here you have to want to be close to accessible public transportation and have no car. That’s the trade-off.”
Naturally, the availability of the vacant lot was a key part of the formula as well, and Vivian said he spent three years pursuing the property, which had been city-owned for three years before it was transferred to the Boston Natural Areas Network, later the Trustees, for a community garden that never happened. The non-profit eventually put it on the market and sold it to him while showing an interest in his concept. The space comprises but 3,000 square feet and a builder needs 5,000 square feet in that district to build a two-family structure. With a 14-unit studio building planned for that-sized lot, there was a need for concessions on zoning.
“We definitely took a chance,” he said. “If we were turned away by the ZBA [Zoning Board of Appeal] … we could plant some nice flowers and that would be it.”
Elisa noted that there were some nail-biting moments, but the community around them was very supportive of their idea, which led to the approvals for the project and a lot of curious people interested to see if things would work out.
All of which will take some time, though. The couple are moving slow, and that’s about the affordability part. They anticipate a finished product sometime in 2023.
“You’ve heard of the slow food movement?” said Vivian with as he positioned a roof joist in place Monday afternoon. “Well, this is the slow construction equivalent.”
For more information on the project, see 141westville.com.