Expanding Choice in Affordable Housing

Learn more about sustainABLEhouse, and our sAh RGV work.


sustainABLEhouse utilizes design as a tool to address issues of equity within the Lower Rio Grande Valley by providing affordable single-family housing that is durable, efficient, contextually appropriate, and community & resident informed.

The sustainABLEhouse design process is broken down into simple steps so that a family can confidently make decisions about their home. The design of each home begins with a family filling out a Design Starts Here homework booklet. The simple questions in the homework helps a family think about the factors that will go into the design of their home. [bc] staff meet the family at their property and together measure the property to fully understand how to work with existing infrastructure, trees, and other important factors. This interactive early step helps to build trust between [bc] and the family, an important part of the sustainABLEhouse process.

Since beginning sustainABLEhouse in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in late 2012, [bc] has worked with Community Development Corporation of Brownsville to build homes with 63 families. Each of the families designed their home via a custom design process, or via a customizable catalog process. You can watch a short film documenting our process here!

sustainABLEhouse has fit into four different funding programs and sources in the LRGV. Three of these programs are administered by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) - Colonia Self Help Center, HOME Homeowner Rehabilitation Assistance, HOME Persons With Disability, and the City of Brownsville’s HOME Homeowner Rehabilitation Assistance program.

sustainABLEhouse acts on the belief that choice empowers, and a home designed by the family that lives in it will work better for that family, and help to maintain and build viable neighborhoods.

Building Equity in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

See more posts about LUCHA and our work in the Rio Grande Valley

Building equity in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is a critical part of many of our projects. Together with our partners we are working to increase housing opportunities for low-income residents and to build adequate drainage infrastructure for new and existing neighborhoods, civic engagement, and capacity through design. We invite you to learn more about four of our specific projects: sustainABLEhouse, Drainage Equity, LUCHA, and Public Design Impact Initiative, all of which are working hard to achieve these goals. 


See more posts about sustainABLEhouse our work in the Rio Grande Valley

MiCASiTA offers an alternative approach to providing housing to some of the hardest to reach and most  challenged communities across the country.  The Rio Grande Valley, like many other communities in Texas and nationally, suffers from extreme poverty and lack of quality, affordable housing.  With limited financing and design options, many housing and community development organizations are forced to either turn away or maintain long waiting lists for would-be homeowners who do not qualify for traditional affordable housing delivery models. MiCASiTA, a collaboration between the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville (CDCB), the Rio Grande Valley MultiBank (RGVMB), The Texas State Affordable Housing Corporation (TSAHC), and buildingcommunityWORKSHOP [bc] seeks to change that by offering innovative financing, and design options, tailored to grow with the homeowners needs.  

MiCASiTA offers personalized design options that empower individuals though choice while also improving sustainability and overall quality of housing. "Starter homes" are built focusing specifically on the client's needs;  they can choose to initially build their home with a kitchen, living room, and one bedroom while keeping in mind that in the future they will have the option to make additions to their home. Homeowners who qualify for smaller loan amounts begin with a 600 square foot "starter home". The “starter home” is specifically designed to expand as the family's savings and financial stability grow.  This approach builds on the the success of the CDCB/ [bc] RAPIDO project which created a temporary to permanent disaster recovery housing solution that starts with a small core that can be put in place immediately after a natural disaster and can grow as government assistance is available for the area.

CDCB will take clients and their families through an educational program that will prepare them to make important financial decisions with a new mortgage. In addition, RGVMB will conduct one-on-one financial and credit score counseling to ensure that the client is ready to take on the initial loan for their new home. The initial loan will cover the cost of the "starter home" and payments on this home will begin at this time. Once the client is ready, additional loans will be given in order to make additions to the home. The client's loan payments will grow accordingly with the addition of each new phase of construction. This financial program is structured and designed specifically with the client's success in mind, focusing on allowing for low interest rates, low monthly payments, longer loan terms, and deferred loan amounts. 


Expanding Affordable Housing

Learn more about sustainABLEhouse, and our sAh RGV work.

Above: sustainABLEhouse clients in Cameron and Willacy Counties

sustainABLEhouse LRGV utilizes design as a tool to address issues of equity within the Lower Rio Grande Valley by providing affordable single-family housing that is durable, efficient, contextually appropriate, and community & resident informed.  Each sustainABLEhouse is the result of an inclusive design process that is rooted in  informed resident choice. Affordable housing is too often synonymous with a one-size-fits-all  approach that doesn’t offer any real choices for families most in need. Low-income families in search of affordable, well built housing rarely (if ever) have access to design services providing direct path toward shaping how their home will address their needs and preferences.

In addition to increasing affordable housing options for individual families, the sustainABLEhouse initiative works at larger scales to enhance the vitality of neighborhoods by infilling vacant lots and rebuilding existing substandard housing. Additionally, the initiative seeks to create and strengthen partnerships between home designers, builders, and community organizations engaged in community revitalization.

Visibly Making an Impact

Learn more about sustainABLEhouse in the RGV.

Still in its first year, sustainABLEhouse LRGV, in partnership with Community Development Corporation of Brownsville (CDCB), has worked with 23 families (totalling 64 people) from 17 different neighborhoods throughout Cameron County. Each family is an integral part of the design process, helping to guide design decisions beginning with the layout of their house and ending with the selection of colors and finishes.

Seven homes are currently under construction, ranging from foundation preparation to final energy efficiency inspection. Two more homes are scheduled to begin construction by the end of July with a steady stream of construction start dates to follow. bcWORKSHOP staff in both the Dallas and Brownsville offices have been working on this effort. We share the responsibilities of design, design reviews, construction drawings, and refinement of program goals and practices. Client meetings and construction administration are carried out by the Brownsville office.

Our design process is initiated by the clients. They elect to work with us by agreeing to complete a brief homework assignment before we sit down to focus on design. The homework is a booklet of questions asking the client such things as general family information, how they use space inside and outside their home, and specific needs that the design can help address. The design process varies depending on if the client chooses a catalog home design or the custom design process.

After our design process and after bcWORKSHOP has completed the construction drawings, we meet with the client and the contractor to discuss the goals of the design, the construction drawings, and the construction process. Once construction begins, bcWORKSHOP regularly visits each home with CDCB’s construction manager. Together we look over the work with the contractor and address any issues. In addition to checking progress, construction visits are an opportunity to document and share how a house comes together. Photos from these construction visits serve as a communication tool for our clients on how their home is constructed and as a teaching and learning tool within bcWORKSHOP.

The immediate goals for sustainABLEhouse LRGV are to continue expanding and evolving our home design catalog, assist CDCB in their outreach strategies, and help more families throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Affordable Housing Choices

Learn more about sustainABLEhouse and our work in the RGV.

Working in partnership with the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville (CDCB), bcWORKSHOP is able to implement the sustainABLEhouse process at scale in Cameron County, Texas. CDCB is the largest non-profit producers of single-family affordable housing for homeownership in the State of Texas. Their Colonia Redevelopment program replaces homes in colonias that are substandard due to poor construction and/or natural disasters. The CDCB/ bcWORKSHOP partnership was formed to provide greater choice to clients in need of new housing while offering more environmentally friendly practices and enhancing the design of local affordable housing. Each client is an integral part of the design process helping guide design decisions ranging from basic layout to landscape and finishes. Families participating in this program now have the choice to select from a new home design catalogue or collaborate on custom, site-specific designs meeting their needs.

The design catalogue is an ever evolving set of designs influenced by previous client engagement. bcWORKSHOP provides family engagement,  designs and construction administration services while CDCB provides client enrollment, financial, and construction management services. The home design catalogue is reviewed and updated as development continues, increasing the choices for sustainable and affordable housing typologies available in the area. The partnership is well on track to reach its goal to construct more than forty homes during 2013 through the sustainABLEhouse model.

Anticipated outcomes:

  • Homeowners are empowered by the design process, investing more in their homes, and strengthening neighborhoods.
  • Design and construction quality of affordable homes in the LRGV region will rise, and knowledge of sustainable practices will increase among local contractors.
  • Homes tailored to each family will have higher functionality, resulting in lower long-term utility costs and environmental impact.
  • A design catalogue is developed to supplement limited, outdated options for homebuilders. This catalogue will offer designs sensitive to both local context and culture, as a direct result of collaboration with colonia residents and families.
  • Diversity of homes will maintain the existing vibrant communities, and strengthen colonia identity.
  • Capacity of both CDCB and bcWORKSHOP will increase. CDCB’s programs will offer more design choice to its clients, and bcWORKSHOP will gain experience to scale the sustainABLEhouse initiative in the North Texas region.

sustainABLEhouse Under Construction

Learn more about sustainABLEhouse, and our work in Dallas and the RGV.


bcWORKSHOP is engaging in design processes to build several sustainABLEhouses in two diverse settings: Cameron County in the Rio Grande Valley and the Dolphin Heights neighborhood in Dallas.  Given the highly adaptable process of sustainABLEhouse, each setting provides a unique exploration of how the WORKSHOP can collaborate with partner families to design and build healthy, affordable homes.

Cameron County, Texas

  • In partnership with CDCB through their Colonia Redevelopment Program, eight families are engaging in the design and construction process across four different neighborhoods.
  • Each home conforms to basic design standards set forth by the Colonia Redevelopment Program and further shaped by input of the future residents through five meetings and ‘homework’ assignments.
  • The four homes average 864 square feet and accommodate an average family size of 2.5 people.
  • Construction is scheduled to begin in January 2013.

Dolphin Heights, Dallas, TX

  • This home serves as the 1st application of the initiative in the Dolphin Heights neighborhood.
  • Extensive community involvement and educational activities ensure that neighborhood voices are heard and contribute to the design.
  • This home, designed to meet rigorous energy standards, is 850 square feet and includes 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, large porch space, and the ability to expand the house in the future.
  • Construction is expected to be complete in December 2012 and we are currently seeking a homeowner partner. Contact us at 214.252.2900 for more details.

A Designer's Paradise?

Learn more about La Hacienda and our work in the RGV.

By Emily Axtman

So what is bcWORKSHOP working on in the Valley besides La Hacienda Casitas?

The short answer: a lot.

To give some perspective about architecture practices in the Valley:

The city of Dallas, at a population of about 1.2 million, has 301 professional architecture practices according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) 2011 data. The city of Brownsville, at a population of 178,500, has 5 professional architecture practices.

Dallas averages 1 architecture firm for every 3,300 people. Brownsville averages 1 architect firm for every 35,600 people. So what's the big deal? Dallas has 10 times the capacity of people working towards providing better housing, public spaces and development within the city. Brownsville is in need of a greater design capacity and this is where bcWORKSHOP comes in.

Maggie Winter, a bcWORKSHOP designer, has been working toward implementing improvements for the quality of life in the LRGV since September 2011. Her projects have ranged from city-wide planning to housing and broader community development.

Justin Tirsun, a former VISTA at bcW, has been a part of the LRGV team since July 2012. Justin's main focus in the Valley has been policy research and development in the Colonias, as well as the Belden Trail. Among all of the projects, I have had the opportunity to work on the Alegria House.

Alegria House, front elevation.

Alegria House, front elevation.

bcWORKSHOP has been working with Ms. Alegria to design a new home for her and her 3 children. The Alegrias currently live in a mobile home without running water or electricity. Recently, Ms. Alegria's son was paralyzed in an accident, making accessibility part of their housing needs. Working within CDCB's Colonia Redevelopment Program, bcWORKSHOP has designed a home that will meet their needs and provide a healthy living environment. Construction is slated to begin in November!

The Colonia Redevelopment Program is a reconstruction & rehabilitation service for homeowners in Colonias currently living in homes that are not meeting their basic needs. Based on the sustainABLEhouse model,  bcW is teaming up with CDCB to offer a custom design service to the program. This opportunity directly involves the homeowners in the design and construction of their new home while remaining within the parameters of the Colonia Redevelopment Program. The bcW LRGV office is currently working with 4 families to design homes that will accommodate their needs, be energy efficient, and provide healthy living environments. We are thrilled to be working so closely with all of these families!

So now back to that OTHER housing project. What's going on with La Hacienda?! I'm excited to bring the news that the La Hacienda site has been under construction for 4 weeks now. With the infrastructural work underway (eg: water, sewer and fire lines; site-drainage and street layout) the first 8 homes will be under construction in the next couple weeks. The foundations have been staked and completion of these units is scheduled for mid-January. Stay tuned over these next few weeks: the houses are on their way!

La Hacienda site on 10/1/2012 facing east from Paloma Ln. 

La Hacienda site on 10/1/2012 facing east from Paloma Ln.