Difference-Making: Building, partnering for better communities



Professionals with Midlands-area architecture firms are using their savvy in design and the built environment to address some of the area’s, nation’s and world’s biggest challenges.

These firms are taking on everything from access to affordable housing, to reliable transportation, to quality health care in partnership with other professionals in the architecture/engineering/construction world, and in conjunction with wide-ranging community organizations.

“Alley Poyner Macchietto works with multiple clients on affordable housing projects in multiple states, aware that there is no one solution when it comes to housing,” said Jay Palu, LEED AP and partner. “We design affordable housing to be built to the same standards as market-rate housing, but with the added requirements that come from state and federal incentive programs to offset, subsidize or lower the cost to residents.”

This work, according to Palu, includes renovations and new design services for multi-family, single-family and permanent supportive housing projects.

“We help clients utilize state and federal low-income housing tax credits and other incentives not unique to affordable housing – like Tax Increment Financing and Historic Tax Credits,” he explained. “Our goal is to help clients supply the market with additional capacity at all levels, including market-rate units, as a method to meet demand and impact the availability of housing at all income levels.”

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Palu credited APMA’s ability to tackle complicated projects to a studio culture that puts “people first” in its design solutions, be it veterans seeking permanent supportive housing, or first-time buyers whose dream of home ownership would have been unachievable.

“We have been able to work on solutions for multiple users in partnerships with clients who value saving existing and often historic structures,” he said.

Accordingly, Palu spoke to adaptive reuse; for instance, conversions of former high-rises, riverfront power plants, university-affiliated hospitals, and dry good and industrial warehouses.

“All of these interrelated housing types and diverse living units are part of our firm’s philosophy that increasing the supply of housing for people of all social and economic demographics is essential to the future of our city,” Palu said.

Site Plan for The Cottages by Siena Francis House Micro-community. (Courtesy of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture)
Site Plan for The Cottages by Siena Francis House Micro-community.
(Courtesy of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture)

Fellow Partner Jennifer Honebrink, LEED AP, said APMA has assisted Metropolitan Community College with its work on its Fort Omaha Campus, student mentoring opportunities, and now as its design and site planning partner for The Cottages by Siena Francis House, a micro-community of unique tiny homes for the previously unhoused.

Honebrink noted that APMA created three different house plans for occupants, including an accessible unit and a community building featuring a community room/storm shelter, offices, laundry, covered bike lock-up, mail center and rear patio with grills. Additionally, during construction (led by general contractor and developer Arch Icon Development), design team members talked to students and adjusted the design by modifying the overall size of the units to maximize construction efficiencies.

The project has resonated with Honebrink; the site (and Siena Francis House) resides in the APMA neighborhood and are a reminder “about the need for affordable housing options,” and of varied options to make a difference.

“I was excited to collaborate with Albert (Macchietto) on this project,” she remarked. “Albert has a gift for immersing himself into the details of a project, at all levels and due to the size of these projects, each tiny detail makes a big difference. The resulting scale of this project feels so right.”

Partly, she added, small design resulted in more economic construction and allows for easier long-term maintenance.

Designing for Access

When asked about notable community partnerships and projects, Director of Business Development Rebecca Kleine highlighted Pact Studios’ work with UNMC and the Munroe-Meyer Institute to create a new autism clinic in an underserved area of the metro.

“The Autism Clinic for Toddlers in North Omaha (ACTION), located at 5050 Ames Ave., brings intensive clinical services to North Omaha for children with autism spectrum disorders and their families,” she explained. “The ACTION Clinic provides early intervention services and research-supported treatment. Interventions include applied behavior analysis and parent/community education.”

Kleine indicated the importance of interventions for children prior to their entering the typical classroom environment. ACTION is an extension of previous MMI support; for seven years, Pact contributed to “Light Up Blue” and “Trunk or Treat” events. To establish the clinic, Kleine said Pact repurposed an un-used, former community medical clinic building. The partners, she added, established the clinic as a unique community asset with a limited budget.

More broadly, as an ever-evolving industry, the team noted that technology is pushing design to new heights earlier into the process – more content, then, being created with fewer people.

“There are huge opportunities for individuals who can understand the fundamentals of construction, code, and good design practices, and successfully streamline that knowledge into the design tools available to us,” Kleine said.

It was also noted that, in our region, the industry can really go “next level” by exploring diversity and representation in the field. So, it is commensurate to the general population.

“Without proper representation, we risk isolating and alienating the very people we hope to serve and inspire through our projects,” she said. “When we act on diversity and craft projects that engage underserved people, we can help create better communities.”

When asked about notable project updates to information provided late last year, Associate Partner Brian Akert of Holland Basham Architects highlighted progress on numerous urban redevelopment projects (think: Crossroads Mall, the Riverfront and Gene Leahy Mall, as well as more projects on the periphery).

“The [Transit Oriented Development] corridor continues to see traction and this summer much of the Gene Leahy Mall will reopen to the public,” he said, a reference to the Transit Oriented Development corridor along Dodge Street that is served by Metro’s new ORBT rapid bus transit line. “Additionally, the announcement of the Mutual [of Omaha headquarters] and streetcar route will support more development around these areas.”

Akert also advanced his previous assertion about new infill multi-family developments within the I-680 corridor and along public transit lines: “We are now seeing some larger multi-family projects are being developed outside of the I-680 loop.”

Other notable projects include the redevelopment of a vacant 24-Hour Fitness into 150 multi-family units in Northpark Business Park, momentum for development along the growing North 24th Street Business Improvement District, and the Jesuit Residence and Chapel project at Creighton University.

“They all bring something a little different to the table,” he added of the aforementioned projects. “One project we get to work with a long-time higher education client, another is a creative way to re-use an existing structure for a higher and better use, and another is a holistic community effort in a corridor that is ready for redevelopment of a number of different project types.”

Health care and building giant partnerships and projects were spotlighted by Matt Whaley, managing principal at HDR.

“Over the last decade, the hospital reached capacity in their existing facilities and decided to grow – in scope and space – to continue to meet the needs of children and families in the region,” he said, a reference to Children’s Hospital & Medical Center – Hubbard Center for Children. “This ambitious expansion transforms a confined, urban site into a 10-story, state-of-the-art hospital that doubles the size of the existing hospital, adding 100 beds, new services and improved features.”

Its Kiewit Global Headquarters and Luminarium partnerships represent a seven-story, 180-square-foot headquarters and connected parking, and an innovative community learning STEM learning environment, respectively.

The former was described as a “progressive workplace environment that fosters greater collaboration and interaction to support [Kiewit’s] global operations,” while the latter was characterized as a “community-backed science center,” located on the riverfront, that “aims to become a family-friendly destination,” satisfying the need for cultural amenities and STEM opportunities for students aged six and older.

The Partner Perspective

The previously mentioned Arch Icon has been involved with The Cottages by Siena Francis House since inception.

“The concept developed from a discussion that arose at an Omaha General Contractor’s continuing ed class between Jay Davis, Todd Heistand and Dustin Crook, a principal of Arch Icon and our GC,” said Mindy Crook, principal. “Arch Icon then took the lead and worked with the previous NIFA Director Tim Kenny, City of Omaha, Linda Twomey with Siena Francis House and APMA to work through the site issues, design and layout.”

Arch Icon, partly, secured the land and Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) from NIFA.

“This has been an exciting project for Arch Icon, as it’s one of the first tiny home developments built with LIHTC in Nebraska,” she stated. “We see this being a major stepping-stone for homeless clients who have received services, or help to work their way from being homeless to renting a tiny home, to then moving off campus into their own apartment or home.”

Similarly, they are partnering with The Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition with their new location at 2226 N St., which followed the development of 44 affordable, Eagle Heights apartments, and Arch Icon is building affordable housing at 20th and Paul (1120 Lofts).

“Every year seems to bring about new, wider-reaching partnerships geared toward affordable housing accompanied with supportive services,” Crook summed up.

Twomey, executive director and CEO of the Siena Francis House, noted The Cottages will build on the success of its supportive housing programs, provided since 2012.

Similar projects in Oregon, Missouri, and Kansas City served as inspiration, with Twomey adding that The Cottages are innovative in design and cost – a more affordable “build” with sought-after amenities (from porches to greenspace).