Competition Redefines SRO Hotel Design

When is an international design competition not an exercise in theoretical fancy? When the sponsoring agency needs to begin construction within a matter of months. Housing organization Common Ground didn’t have time or money to waste when it bought the Andrews, a single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotel, on Manhattan’s Bowery last year. The non-profit’s plan for the Andrews was to maintain the tradition of the lodging house but upgrade the facilities, as to provide safe and clean short-term accommodations to people transitioning out of homelessness.

Rather than replicate the prototypical Bowery flophouse, Common Ground wanted to improve this much-maligned housing type by applying architectural concepts like context, prefabrication, modularity, and individualization. To do so, Common Ground held what may be the first international architectural competition ever to rethink the SRO hotel unit. The program for the Andrews, called First Step Housing, is a transitional accommodation that helps people move from shelters to permanent housing.

“This was an open competition, not an invite,” stresses competition coordinator James Tate. “Common Ground was noticing gentrification on the Bowery and a loss of affordable housing in general. They thought it was more important to have a large range of people having input and being involved than to have name architects.”

More than 180 teams heeded the call to design a system for a 66-square-foot unit that would be simple and inexpensive to replicate on a large scale. (The Andrews is six stories and will have 19 units per floor.) While innovation was called for, Common Ground made it clear that this was no portfolio exercise: the units had to be realistic and practical because this project had to be built—and fast. Each entry had to include a budget along with a competition board; submissions were reviewed by both a technical jury and an architectural jury that included design luminaries Steven Holl and Toshiko Mori. The juries chose five winners (see captions), allowing the possibility of implementing a different design on each floor.

All 180 competition entries are on view at another Common Ground property, the Prince George Hotel in Manhattan. The exhibition—designed by architects Irene Cheng, Jolie Kerns, and Brett Snyder—asks “Where do you live?” and emphasizes the relationship we all have to housing. Competition boards are displayed in full-scale mock-ups that compare the relative size of seven divergent housing types: the current units at the Andrews (33 square feet), the proposed units (66 square feet), a monk’s cell at La Tourette Convent (70 square feet), a typical dorm room (115 square feet), a budget hotel room (200 square feet), a one-bedroom apartment (500 square feet), and a suburban house (1,500 square feet). “We all have a relationship to housing,” Tate says. “The idea is to show that everyone is affected by housing issues, and to get people to think about those issues.”

The First Step Housing exhibition runs through December 12 at the Ballroom at the Prince George Hotel, 14 E. 28th St., New York; opening hours are Wednesday-Saturday, from 4-7 p.m. For more information call (212) 389-9300 or visit

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