Collaboration Between School of Architecture and City of Austin Addresses Sustainability, Affordable Housing and Urban Sprawl

The Alley Flat Initiative, a building program that has introduced green, affordable housing to East Austin, has created new model for urban development, according to the Center for Sustainable Development at The University of Texas at Austin.

Alley flats are small, detached secondary residential units, often accessed from Austin's extensive network of underused alleys. They are carefully designed to use 40 percent less energy and 20 percent less water, minimizing the ecological footprint of the building.

Two flats that received the highest rating from the Austin Energy Green Building Program are being rented to low-income households in East Austin. Ten more of these green, affordable units are in some stage of design or development.

The initiative includes not only efficient housing designs constructed with sustainable technologies, but also innovative methods of financing and home ownership that can benefit all Austin neighborhoods, and ideally, can be used as prototypes for any city in the United States grappling with urban sprawl.

The Alley Flat Initiative, conceived in 2005 as a challenge for architecture students to design sustainable, affordable housing in East Austin, grew into an award-winning collaboration among the Center for Sustainable Development, the Austin Community Design and Development Center and the Guadalupe Development Corporation.

The initiative simultaneously addresses issues of sustainability, high cost of living and urban sprawl in central Austin neighborhoods.

The Sierra Club recently identified Austin as one of the most "sprawl-threatened" cities in the country, meaning it is crucial for future land use patterns to find ways to increase density without losing the character of the neighborhoods or doing further harm to the environment.

"In the last 10 years, housing prices have increased nearly 85 percent while the median family income increased only 25 percent," said Barbara Brown Wilson, assistant director of the Center for Sustainable Development. "As a result, families in Austin are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to live within the city limits and are moving farther out, threatening Austin's diversity and character.

"In addition, the recession has also drastically increased the percentage of multigenerational homes, making alley flats ideal models of housing for families who find themselves coping with job loss and foreclosures."

In 2008, the Alley Flat Initiative received an award for Excellence in Green Building Pedagogy from the United States Green Building Council. The initiative received the Envision Central Texas Community Stewardship Award for Redevelopment in May 2009.

Editor's Note: The Alley Flat Initiative exhibition will be unveiled from 6-8 p.m. on March 26 at Austin's City Hall. The exhibit runs from March 26 to April 9.