The Making Room exhibit in Washington DC explores how space-saving architecture can address the needs of urban populations today and in the future.

by Diane Fiske

A column about architecture, urban planning and city design

The problem of finding housing for today’s families, which have changed dramatically in the past few years, is being discussed locally and nationally in 2018.

On Jan. 8 at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy, residents of the Upper Northwest area will gather for the first of three meetings to discuss their concepts of change needed in the coming years in housing and development.

Ian Haggerty, city planner in charge of the Upper Northwest area, which includes Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and Germantown, said the meeting discussions will be aimed at finding residents’ ideas of necessary changes.

These ideas will be based on the residents’ experiences living in a community in which the average household now includes fewer traditional nuclear families, comprising a married couple and their children, and more singles, retired people and adults living as roommates.

“One of the things we are looking for is to see how these lifestyle changes affect residents in each area of the city,” Haggerty said.

The fact-finding meeting in the Upper Northwest is the last of eight area meetings in the city. When all the meetings are concluded, the Philadelphia Planning Commission will examine the results for necessary changes.

These results, Haggerty said, could alter zoning regulations to better accommodate households made up of single roommates, retired couples or families whose adult children move back in.

Haggerty’s job, and that of other local planners, is now the focus of national attention and is the subject of a yearlong exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., called “Making Room for America.”

Haggerty said the “Making Room” exhibit explains one of the problems local planning is facing, which is that housing in the United States is based on the needs of a small percentage of the population that has changed dramatically since 1950, from the “nuclear family” of a mom and a dad and their children.

In the Washington display, a 1,000-square-foot model house shows one of three successive solutions to the housing problem. The exhibit is changed every three months.

The first and current exhibit shows the root of the problem, which is that most housing in the United States continues to be constructed to accommodate nuclear families in single-family buildings. Altering these homes so that there can be additional rooms and structures on the property requires expensive legal procedures to fight outdated zoning regulations.

According to census reports, in 1950, 43 percent of the households in the United States were made up of nuclear families. In 2016, that figure was 19 percent. In addition, in 1950, 9 percent of households consisted of people living alone. Last year that figure was 28 percent.

In the current “Making Room” exhibit, the 1,000-square-foot model house demonstrates one of three types of solutions to the problem, with an emphasis on making more out of smaller spaces. In the current model, the apartment features a foldaway table, a wall bed, which can save 32 square feet and storage space built into the walls

The second display, which will start in a few months, will show an apartment for the extended family featuring a movable wall that creates separate bedrooms for a parent and an adult child. During the day, the wall can be removed to make way for a large, single living area. There is a private space with an open bathroom reserved for a parent.

Finally, three months later, the model will show a living space that can accommodate retirees. The display shows figures indicating that the senior population is supposed to double in the United States by 2060.

“Their needs to be more interest in housing needs for today.” Said Chrysanthe Broikos, curator of the Building Museum exhibit.

She said the exhibit, which was also organized by Sarah Watson, deputy director of the New York Citizens Housing and Planning Council, tries to create an awareness of today’s lifestyle and to create an interest in current housing needs.

About 3,000 people have visited the exhibit since it opened Nov. 16 of this year. It will close Nov. 16, 2018.

Diane Fiske is a freelance writer who has written about architecture and planning for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Chestnut Hill.