Using Generative and Sustainable
Design Processes to Create Living Urban Form:
Case Study of a Courtyard Housing Design Competition
Kyriakos Pontikis, Ph.D.
California State University, Northridge
The Competition Brief
In 2007 the City of Portland sponsored a competition to revive
courtyard housing in the city
Ideas for infill housing to provide a quality living environment at
densities higher than conventional detached housing
The focus of the competition was to use courtyards in providing:
a. Attractive housing options for families with children
b. Usable outdoor space while providing environmental sustainable
c. A livable setting for community interaction while also respecting
d. A pedestrian-oriented space while also accommodating cars
e. Continuation to Portland's tradition of street-oriented urbanism
Considerations of Child-Friendly Design
Children need safe, outdoor play area close to their homes that can be easily
supervised by parents.
Outdoor spaces should be designed to accommodate a variety of play activities in
both green and hard paved surfaces.
Settings that provide for casual interaction between children and adults.
Need for dwellings that have the right degree of privacy and community interaction.
Need for indoor children play spaces and sufficient numbers of bedrooms.
Accessible storage for strollers and bicycles.
Need in Portland for housing ownership - housing that is affordable to low to
moderate income households.
The median sales price of a home in the Portland area was $282,500 (April 2007)
$247,000 is the maximum amount considered to be affordable to a family of four
earning the median family income of $66,900.
Two Infill Sites
1. 100’ wide by 100’ deep
Housing program: 4-10 units oriented to a shared courtyard
One parking space per unit
2. 95’ wide by 180’ deep
Housing program: 7-17 units oriented to a shared courtyard
One parking space per unit
Building Process Alliance Members:
Kyriakos Pontikis, Michael Mehaffy, Susan Ingham,
Eileen Tumlin, Kathryn Langstaff, Stuart Cowan
1. Pattern Language, 2. Generative Processes, 3. Form Language,
4. Ecological Design, 5. Carbon Neutral Building,
6. Ownership and Perpetual Affordability, 7. Urban Growth
1. Pattern Language
The project brief has been translated into a project pattern language.
Example of a pattern:
Front Yard Play Area - Parents need to be able to see children while they play.
But children need to be able to play outdoors, in an area that is not isolated.
Therefore, create a small front yard area off the courtyard. Place the kitchen
window nearby, so adults can monitor children
[Kitchen Looking Onto Yard]
♦ Porch Transition ♦ Private Outdoor Space ♦ Kitchen or Living Room Looking Onto Yard
♦ Farmhouse Kitchen ♦ Bed Alcoves ♦ Quiet Back Area ♦ Private Outdoor Space ♦
Balconies ♦ Private Backspace ♦ South Roof Garden ♦ Community Bike Storage ♦ Shared
Stairwells ♦ Community Storage and Workshop ♦ Pervious Parking Gross Motor Play Area
♦ Flex Car Stations ♦ Shared Electric Vehicles ♦ South Facing Courtyard ♦ Main Entrance
♦ Gradients of Outdoor Spaces ♦ Outdoor Seating ♦ Water Fountain ♦ Terrace Vegetable
Garden ♦ Children’s Puppet Theater ♦ Sandbox Play Area, et al.
2. Generative Design Processes
The Courtyard Project is created through a series of generative design
processes creating life and wholeness at various scales.
Generative Architectural Design Process:
This process starts by first delineating the courtyard and is successively
refined through creating building volume, entrances, dwelling units, terraces,
and fine details.
Generative Interior Design Process:
This process starts by generating public and private zones within the dwelling
and then it further delineates living room, kitchen, dining room, bedrooms,
Landscaping Design Process:
This process deals with the generation and refinement of the central
courtyard and its entities along with the further delineation and detailing of
Urban Design Process:
A generative process is also taking place at the neighborhood scale by
creating shared parking driveways and bigger shared open spaces
Generative Design Process
STEP 1: COURTYARD STEP 2: BUILDING VOLUME
Place the courtyard Locate the volume of the building
STEP 3: ENTRANCES STEP 4: UNIT AREAS
Place the entrances to create life in Place the individual units relative to
the courtyard the entrances
STEP 5: UNIT LAYOUT STEP 6: COURTYARD AND TERRACES
Layout the individual spaces in each Articulate and intensify the courtyards and terraces
unit, placing the living room and kitchen first with similar elements such as planters, trees, and benches
STEP 7: ADJACENT GROWTH STEP 8: URBAN TRANSFORMATIONS OVER TIME
Create opportunities to share resources Step-by-
Step-by-step evolution and growth of neighborhoods to
such as driveways, and connect open create harmonious and sustainable cities
spaces to form larger whole
Square Footage of Units:
Ground Floor (no balconies or terraces
Three bedroom - 930
Three bedroom - 910
Three bedroom - 900
One bedroom - 548
One bedroom – 488
Three Bedroom - 1216 (+Terrace)
Two Bedroom - 1100 (+ Terrace)
One bedroom - 817 (+Tower)
Total Square Footage 6909
Apartment Layout Process
Step 1. Determine apartment social zone
Step 2 Determine apartment private zone
Step 3. Define verandah next to social zone
Step 4. Create apartment room layout
Step 5. Provide small balconies next to rooms
Step 1. Position of room
Step 2. Spatial volume
Step 3. Main center in the room
Step 4. Windows and light
Step 5. Secondary centers
Step 6. Design and embellishment
of surfaces and structure
Step 7. Tranquillity
3. Form Language
The geometrical elements and characteristics of buildings that have arisen
from a particular building culture, historical styles, or personal styles of
architects and designers. Form language inspires us to continue local building
traditions and create structures of enduring comfort and beauty.
Portland Courtyard Housing Form Language
Shape of building: U-shape building form
Shape of open space: Rectangular or square courtyard
Local construction system: timber frame
Local materials used in the area: stucco finish or horizontal wood board
siding for exterior walls
Doors: wooden doors
Windows: grouping of wooden windows, bay windows
4. Ecological Design
Energy use is 60% less than a conventional building and renewable generation
reduces carbon footprint by 80%.
Rainwater will be collected in a cistern and reused for toilet flushing and
landscaping. All storm water will be filtered and infiltrated on-site. Potable water
and wastewater will be reduced by 50%.
Materials will be non-toxic and high recycled content with an emphasis on local
Landscaping will include a combination of low-irrigation natives and edible
On-site food production includes fruit and nut trees and terrace herb and
vegetable gardens. There will be low-irrigation native landscaping.
5. Carbon Neutral Building
Courtyards Which Live will have a carbon footprint that is 30% that of a
It will use 60% less energy use than Oregon energy code requires through:
- a community ground source heat pump
- advanced window glazings
- insulated concrete forms
- structural insulated panels
- heat recovery ventilation
- passive solar design, and other strategies.
The project will generate almost 30% to 50% of its total energy needs from a
combined solar photovoltaic – solar thermal system.
The remaining carbon footprint will be offset with carbon credits, creating a
Carbon Neutral Building.
Ecological Design Patterns
♦ Small Footprint ♦ High Density ♦ Open Space♦ Woonerf ♦ Walkable Neighborhood
♦ Alternative Transportation ♦ Pedestrian Access ♦ Courtyard Community ♦ Healthy
Restorative Environment ♦ Lower Energy Costs ♦ Heat Exchange♦ Radiant Floors ♦
Energy Recovery Ventilators ♦ On Demand Hot Water Heaters ♦ Energy Star
Appliances ♦ Compact Flourescent Bulbs ♦ Courtyard Evaporative Cooling ♦
Deciduous Trees ♦ Edible Landscape ♦ Native Landscape ♦ Vegetative Infiltration
Basins ♦ Community Recycling ♦ Compost ♦ Flexcar ♦ Shared NEV’s ♦ Durability of
Materials and Systems ♦ Fly-ash concrete ♦ low-embodied energy ♦ FSC lumber ♦ 85%
Recycled Content ICF ♦ Natural Ventilation ♦ Flexible Floor Plans ♦ Rainwater
Catchments and Storage ♦ Bio-swale ♦ Dual Flush Toilets ♦ Low-flow water heads
6. Ownership and Perpetual Affordability
A Sustainable Land Trust operating as a non-profit developer, will own the
land. Homes and improvements will be owned by residents. An initial land
subsidy is provided in exchange for 75% of property appreciation reverting to
Sustainable Land Trust on sale and 25% remaining with owner.
Owners will qualify for location efficient mortgages (LEMs) and energy
efficient mortgages (EEMs), allowing quality materials and green technologies
to be employed.
A turnkey third-party provider will own the project’s solar array of 7kW
allowing residents to buy energy at below-market rates.
Oregon Department of Energy and Energy Trust incentives will aid project
7. Urban Growth
Create opportunities to share resources such as driveways, and connect open
spaces such as courtyards to form a larger whole
Urban Transformations Over Time:
Step-by-step evolution and growth of neighborhoods to create harmonious
and sustainable cities
Teamwork/ Google sketchup/ model making/ sketches
Shortcomings of the winning entries:
a. Cars penetrate the site and interfered with the courtyard, contrary to brief ’s requirements.
b. Building massing and orientation prevents sun reaching the courtyard.
c. The courtyard does not have a meaningful shape; it is a “left over space”.
d. Courtyard lacks at times the right degree of community and privacy.
a. Units do not have variety of size thus lucking affordability to families of various incomes.
b. Most proposals have identical floor plans so they lack variety and individuality.
c. Some units are too exposed to the public realm and therefore lacking needed privacy.
Shortcomings of the winning entries (continued):
a. Most buildings have monolithic volumes and their forms do not respect the local ones.
b. Material use and building detailing have nothing to do with the local building culture,
thus lacking continuity and integration. For example, building fenestrations with too
much glass surface ignore Portland’s climatic conditions.
a. Most proposals do not deal with the urban scale structure.
b. Most proposals are connected to their neighboring buildings and open spaces in a
c. Some proposals ignore the street as a shared public realm.
d. The buildings do not add to the sense of community and belonging as they have an
aversion to precedents and have a universal character.
• Focus of such competitions, like the profession as a whole, is on novel proposals rather
than demonstrating humane re-generation and re-adaptation of housing typologies.
• Contemporary methodology disregards user needs, context, and local building culture.
• It has an aversion to precedents and relies on image-based proposals that are rooted in
novelty and experimentation with unproven approaches.
• Focuses on ecological and economical building sustainability while ignoring for the most
part social and humane building sustainability.
• Green building fails in creating living and socially equitable communities as a foundation
for true sustainability.
• There is a need to integrate green building with humane building, where architects give
more control to users in forming their own environments.
• Architects should not focus upon pre-planned or standardized formal designs but deal
with processes which can bring upon “wholeness” in the urban housing form.
• There is a need to focus on local and unique designing and making processes where the
urban forms emerge through gradual, step-wise, unfolding processes similar to the organic
processes employed in traditional city-building.
• Architects should focus on city-making processes such as social interaction, site diagnosis,
building densities, geometric unfolding of buildings and public open spaces, financial
arrangements, cash flow, craft and construction, and construction management.