Architectural Superpowers: How to build for the people, by the people, with Tim Swanson, Inherent L3C

Tim Swanson, founder of Inherent L3C talks about empowering communities economically through affordable housing

Architectural Superpowers: How to build for the people, by the people, with Tim Swanson, Inherent L3C
©Tim Swanson

Written by Sudhiksha Srinivasan

Tim Swanson calls himself the fortunate founder of Inherent L3C, an organization that's dedicated to rebuilding our neighborhoods and the middle class by providing quality housing.

He feels blessed to have started his career in architecture, studied economics, and earned a master's degree in architecture and planning, driven by the belief in the positive impact of the built environment on people's lives.

"So, my first interest in architecture came from the realization that the fabric around us can either benefit everyone or create challenges for some. I felt there was a beautiful opportunity in this profession to improve people's lives.
Whether it's one by one, in a house, in a neighborhood, in a community, in a city, or in a country, at whatever scale, there is power to be found in the work that we do”.

The long-coming Eureka Moment

Tim transported us back to two decades ago to answer the question of what prompted his eureka moment for Inherent L3C. The journey commenced by working with Mayor Daley in Chicago, where he encountered the complexities and challenges of the political landscape in affordable housing. During and after graduate school he joined Skidmore, Owings and Merrill(SOM) where he designed buildings globally but left him yearning for a deeper connection with the local context. In 2007, while on a trip with a client, he realized the importance of the local impact of his work. This epiphany led him to a pivotal move to Abu Dhabi, where he helped grow a practice focused on architecture tailored to the Middle East prompting him to design for a broader segment of society, not just a privileged few.

Tim excitedly recollected, “Then, I got a phone call from a former partner at SOM. He said, ‘Hey, you're crazy! Do you want to move to India and build a city for 2 million people?" Despite having a six-month-old son, my wife and I said, "Why not?" So, we moved to outside Delhi, India, and over a couple of years, we built JCPort City, a 2000-acre city dedicated to working and middle-class Indians. I also conducted extensive work in villages, providing valuable training opportunities to uplift the middle class. I also collaborated with UN-Habitat on global migration, contributing to the development of cities that cater to a broader population”.

©Tim Swanson

Later, in 2002, the company Tim was working for was acquired by CannonDesign. Following that he assumed a leadership role at CannonDesign's city design and urban policy practice, focusing on international projects. His work included designing cities in the Middle East and India, as well as developing new education systems. He also began working on innovative healthcare models where he collaborated with a consortium of companies, constructing over 250 bathrooms and patient rooms for healthcare providers.

In 2019, he began collaborating with community groups to redefine design in neighborhoods that are disinvested in acquired land. Tying this experience with his previous globetrotting adventures, he said the eureka moment of Inherent L3C was long-coming.

“I love saying this all the time, people coming into our profession sometimes believe “I just need to do my dues and serve my time". My recommendation is to do what you love and ensure that your soul is full with your work.  You’re given this space to use your superpowers for good. You're an Architect, you're creative and a problem solver. Don't settle for anything less than making the world better”.

Building for the people, by the people

"Designing at a large scale isn't just about master planning a community; At times we say I'm the Architect, I'll tell you what's good for you. What is powerful is, let's first understand the community and their needs”.

©Tim Swanson

Tim elucidated that for us to build for the 21st century, we must adopt modern approaches. He added that constructing in production facilities and off-site modular factories not only improves efficiency but also enhances housing quality. He believes that sustainability is paramount and we can start by using eco-friendly materials which helps reduce the energy footprint.

He said the advantage of starting with a blank canvas means one has the opportunity to design the right thing. The heart of the model is to create generational wealth and homeownership where the homes must be exceptionally well-built to last for generations, not just a few decades, ensuring lasting value and inheritance.

Tim is firmly convinced that for us to develop the next generation of skilled workers, we must ensure stability and certainty. He said many in the workforce are new to the trades, lacking prior opportunities or experience which makes this support crucial. He proposed economic opportunities such as allowing employees to purchase homes they help build which helps create a positive cycle. Hence, Tim deployed the strategy of building in a factory which ensures work continuity, even during bad weather .

“If we're building all week in the rain, it means an entire group of people won't get paid. By doing it this way, we can provide immediate economic opportunity. So, design influences how, what, and where we build, for whom, bringing our best to improve lives and the built environment for as many as possible”.

Healthy Homes lead to healthy lives

©Tim Swanson

In Tim's approach, when building a house where people can thrive, they focus on removing volatile organic compounds. They use products that are fully ventilated to prevent them from lingering in the house. Their homes come with heat recovery ventilators to constantly pump fresh air in and exhaust stale air out. They use high-performance heat pumps for heating and cooling, eliminating the need for gas and carbon monoxide detectors. They also use heat pump hot water heaters to reduce the heat island effect inside and outside the house.

 The houses are also designed with options for a blue roof, green roof, or solar panels. With photovoltaics on the roof, they can generate enough energy for the house. Tim dreams of luxury homes with these features but also envisions everyday working-class homes with them. From the initial discussion with the city to the project's delivery, the process involves collaboration with city officials, designers, builders, and community members to ensure the homes meet the needs of the residents and contribute positively to the environment.

Tim's Secret Sauce to Construction Efficiency

©Tim Swanson

Tim also spoke about the significance of their advisory role across various departments in the city, as well as in other cities and states. He highlighted the efficiency of their housing construction process, completing a house in just 40% of the time typically required for paperwork. This efficiency has made his company a major player in urban projects, particularly in areas requiring investment or in neighborhoods facing rising costs. He said his focus is on community collaboration and ensuring that individuals are financially and emotionally prepared for homeownership.

Tim's team works closely with housing and building departments to ensure that their construction methods align with regulations and exceed previous standards. Collaboration extends to city planning and economic development offices to create thriving neighborhoods, not just housing developments. His unique experiences in construction, finance, and policy gives him a comprehensive perspective on urban development, allowing him to advocate effectively at local, state, and national levels.

Delivering an Inherent Home ©Inherent L3C

Tim's organization owns or controls nearly 400 vacant lots, collaborating with community-based and non-profit developers. They aim to convert a Chicago vacant lot into homeownership in less than a week, to shorten this to less than a month. They work with the city to streamline processes, reducing paperwork from eight to two weeks. Tim's approach not only benefits their company but also aids neighborhood revitalization efforts by accelerating the conversion of vacant lots into thriving homes, fostering community development in Chicago.

Tim emphasized on transparency and sharing knowledge, considering it the "secret sauce" of his approach. He believes in making solutions widely available to enable more progress. Last year, their process took 10 weeks to build a house and 20 weeks for paperwork. Tim aims to identify and address gaps to expedite the process. He then will discuss these insights with the administration, focusing on streamlining procedures from land acquisition to construction. His firsthand experience across the development spectrum informs his perspective, enabling him to offer practical solutions for the city's future steps.

Challenges are like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

©Tim Swanson

Tim reflected on the challenges he faces daily, acknowledging the tough nature of architecture. Despite this, he remains committed to his vision of building housing for people, by people. Initially met with skepticism, he had to take drastic measures like liquidating retirement and college funds, even mortgaging his house, to fund projects. Overcoming obstacles in land acquisition, he reduced transaction times from 31 months to 45 days for the first 20 lots they bought. Introducing modular housing and rewriting building codes were significant challenges. He views these challenges not as setbacks but as stepping stones toward unlocking more potential and helping others do the same.

The day of our chat in April marked their two anniversary.  When congratulated on this milestone he mentioned how this journey has been filled with challenges and growth. In their first year, they built two houses, a slow and costly process. The following year, they built six, demonstrating progress. Then aiming to build 36 houses this year, they continue to prove their capability and commitment to their vision.

“When you climb Kilimanjaro, you don't start in the morning at the bottom and finish at night at the top. Instead, you reach a big tent where your body and lungs adjust, and you rest. Then, you move to the next base camp and repeat the process. For us, it's about reaching each of these milestones steadily, ensuring we have enough energy to keep going”.

"Do not lose the fire that got you into this world"

Tim’s advice to aspiring practitioners is to urge them to keep seeking opportunities to make a difference. He emphasized that if one's current path doesn't inspire, it's vital to find avenues, whether professional or volunteer, where they can contribute meaningfully. This mindset, he believes, ensures a constant drive for positive change.

He also emphasized an architect's unique ability to solve complex challenges aesthetically, not just in physical design but also in connecting people and spaces. He highlighted the importance of designing inclusively, ensuring buildings serve everyone. Tim urged aspiring architects to maintain their passion for creating a better world, leveraging their skills to promote environmental consciousness and humanity in their designs.

“Do not lose the fire that got you into this world. Let it burn and make your voice known. Make certain that you are doing what will make the planet better because that's the power we have”.

©Tim Swanson

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