Judging from the news, the top housing-related concerns in Los Angeles as of late would appear to be residential irrigation crackdowns and the slow decline of exceedingly hydrated lawns.

Many Angelenos, however, are facing a much more pressing problem than brown turf. They can’t afford to pay rent.

Like London, New York, San Francisco and other exorbitantly priced cities where rising housing costs verge on cruel, Los Angeles also struggles with a troubling dearth of affordable housing. Millennials are handing over entire paychecks to their landlords, the rate of homelessness is on the rise and housing prices have grown four times faster than incomes in the last 15 years.

In the fall of 2014, Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to tackle the housing crisis head on by pledging 100,000 new units of housing by 2021 to help render Los Angeles. a less prohibitive city in which to live, work and exist for everyone. As it stands now, L.A. has the least affordable rental market in the entire country.

“We face a housing shortage unlike anything we’ve seen since World War II,” said Garcetti. “The high cost of housing affects everything in this city.”

Garcetti’s ambitious goal — a 7 percent bump in the city’s existing housing stock — would require the generation of 14,000 new housing units per year and, with that, some creative and seriously outside-the-box thinking.

Bi(h)OME, an affordable, multi-species backyard dwellingPhoto: Nico Marques/Photek

Enter cityLAB, an architecture and urban design-oriented “think and do” tank at the University of California, Los Angeles. Though a brilliant, anti-sprawl vision that could potentially put a serious dent in L.A.’s affordable housing shortage, UCLA’s cityLAB has indeed thought outside out the box — and wound up in the backyard.

Harnessing the rising popularity of accessory dwelling units or ADUs — you probably know them best as backyard tiny houses largely used as mother-in-law apartments, art and yoga studios, home offices, love shacks, souped-up garden sheds and “granny flats” — cityLAB’s Backyard Homes study “proposes innovative, flexible, environmentally sensitive, and affordable architectural models for infilling Southern California's iconic single-family residential fabric.”

With Southern California homeowners ripping up their water-hungry lawns left and right, a housing movement that utilizes the sprawling and underutilized spaces behind homes for “low-impact infill” projects seems only logical.

Building into cities rather than beyond them preserves farmland and sensitive, natural ecosystems on the edges of the city. Marginally more dwelling units per acre provides a means for preserving the benefits associated with suburban living while reducing carbon footprints and providing municipal services more efficiently.

In fact, if a mere 20 percent of Los Angeles’ half-million single-family lots were to have ADUs in their backyards, Garcetti’s goal would be easily achieved.

“Think about it — to be able to build 100,000 more housing units without acquiring a single bit of land. That’s an unbelievable resource,” Dana Cuff, UCLA professor and founding director of cityLAB, explains in an article published in the UCLA Newsroom. “It’s like saying, ‘There’s gold in your backyard, but nobody’s picking it up.’”

Bi(h)OME, an affordable, multi-species backyard dwelling from UCLAPhoto: Nico Marques/Photekt

Earlier this month, cityLab’s first full-scale architectural model designed as part of the Backyard Homes study arrived in the form of Bi(h)OME, a petite 350-square-foot dwelling that not only offers an attractive and affordable form of backyard housing but also provides displaced urban wildlife a place to live, too.

While the very notion of “multi-species cohabitation” may immediately conjure up a rather unpleasant image of Snow White-influenced claustrophobia, numerous design considerations have been made so that everyone — birds, bees, bats, butterflies, mice, lizards and humans, too — taking up residence in Bi(h)OME is comfortable.

“Today, we don’t have enough affordable housing, and, given the hotter, drier climate, we’re losing environment to support all kinds of species. So there’s an environmental crisis that corresponds to a housing crisis,” says Cuff. “These imperatives are something we can begin to solve — and where better to do that than at UCLA where we have an incredible trove of expertise, creativity and unbelievable students. What’s completely unique about this house is that it will add to the environment — the biome — rather than detract from it.”

Built and designed by a multidisciplinary team of UCLA graduate students, faculty and staff in collaboration with Santa Monica-based architect Kevin Daly, a demo version of Bi(h)OME is now on display at the UCLA’s Broad Art Center through September 10.

While the prototype isn’t outfitted with furnishings and appliances and is situated on a second-story campus courtyard, not a leafy suburban backyard, Cuff and the entire project team are confident that Bi(h)OME is far — really far — from your run-of-the-mill accessory dwelling unit.

Bi(h)OME, an affordable, multi-species backyard dwelling from UCLAPhoto: Nico Marques/Photekt

Resting on a rock-based gabion foundation that doubles as a refuge for native lizards, the extraordinarily lightweight dwelling consists of a translucent, photovoltaic cell-studded skin wrapped around a steel pipe frame. (As you can see, the pop-up demo home does without the stone foundation). The flooring and end walls at the front and rear of the structure are made from wood which can used to grow critter-attracting edible gardens. Cylindrical paper cutouts housing LED lights are sandwiched between the structure’s double-layer plastic (recyclable ETFE) skin.

With garden hose-supplied fresh water, a composting toilet and grey water system, traditional sewage hookups are rendered unnecessary at Bi(h)OME. And indeed the whole shebang has this whole avant-garde off-grid thing going on. It's a sci-fi-tinged vision of self-sufficiency and cross-species harmony; a backyard utopia wrapped in plastic.

Simple to assemble and disassemble, Bi(h)OME has a lifespan of 10 to 15 years. One it reaches the end of its useful life, the entire structure can be fully recycled. “The whole thing goes away as if it were never there. It would be like getting an Airstream trailer and parking it in your backyard,” says Cuff.

Bi(h)OME, an affordable, multi-species backyard dwelling from UCLAPhoto: Nico Marques/Photekt

And as for the demo Bi(h)OME currently on display at UCLA: Once taken down, the various components of the structure will be reused for a future version in a yet-to-be-decided location. In an email to MNN, Cuff mentions that one option is to resurrect Bi(h)OME as an environmental classroom at a preschool. But again, nothing concrete has been decided pertaining to Bi(h)OME’s (first) afterlife.

This all sounds great. But how will L.A. residents in possession of untapped infill land — there's an estimated 3,800 acres spread out across the city according to cityLAB — react to a scheme that involves erecting affordable housing literally right in their own backyards? After all, putting up your Great Aunt Betty from Grand Rapids for a month in a composting toilet-equipped backyard shelter is one thing, opening it up to a renter is another.

While backyard houses would no doubt spawn a new breed of NIMBYists, many Angelenos would likely be unfazed by the notion of hosting a backyard renter given that converting pool houses and other small structures into income-generating rental properties is a widespread practice in tonier Southern California neighborhoods.

Bi(h)OME, an affordable, multi-species backyard dwelling from UCLAPhoto: Nico Marques/Photekt

In addition to “helping stabilize communities,” cityLAB spells out the benefits of backyard homes for homeowners:

Second units can provide families with the kind of flexibility that allows them to stay in their houses for decades. The families gain by potential rent from second units. They can provide flexible space for growing families and nearby but independent housing for adult children. They also provide an unmatched opportunity for seniors to live independently with their caregivers in close proximity.

As mentioned above, the highly flexible and customizable layout of Bi(h)OME means that the space itself can be altered to accompany shifting family dynamics. And as for the resident critters, the Bi(h)OME team envisions that the home's wildlife habitat components will be modular as well — that is, they can be moved around and come and go as need be. Because god forbid you move your unemployed, just-graduated-from-college daughter with a deathly fear of bees into your ultra-modern backyard cottage-cum-apiary for six months.

Via [Dezeen], [UCLA]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.