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SHW: Designing for Density

With a decade of experience designing high-density housing, SHW fits with LA’s needs

SHW, an architecture firm founded in Seattle, has expanded to Los Angeles. For over a decade, SHW has been a leader in the design of Co-living, Micro/Efficiency units, and Townhouse developments for the Seattle market. Our portfolio includes over 2,000 infill residential units in more than 70 buildings. These housing types have been underdeveloped markets in Los Angeles that can densify the city, reduce the overall housing shortage, provide benefits to both resident and developers, and contribute to smart, sustainable urban growth.

According to the LA Housing Element (2021, Ch. 1, pg. 99), the Regional Housing Needs Allocation from the state is upwards of 450,000 new dwelling units in the next 10 years. Currently, 10,000 units are being permitted per year – far under the target (Marcus & Millichap, Los Angeles report, 2022). TOC overlay areas have seen dramatically greater output, providing roughly 45% of new housing units within the city (Cityspeak, guest Vince Bertoni, 2021). While this increased production is positive, it is still inadequate, and not nearly enough options are available for the diversity of residents in Los Angeles.

An overhaul of the existing zoning code is underway, and the state is currently working with the City of Los Angeles to provide adequate zoning to meet the allocated housing demand. The urgency of the crisis demands innovative solutions. While the City can provide the prescriptive framework for more housing, designers and developers can take the lead in bringing alternative housing typologies to the market. As Vince Bertoni noted on Cityspeak (2021), the Planning Department establishes the vision for the city, but relies on the private sector to implement.


None of these high-density infill housing typologies are new to society, but the application of them within Los Angeles warrants a fresh look. Historically, density limits and parking requirements have impeded the potential for development, even within TOC overlay areas. While the city waives density limits and parking requirements in some neighborhoods through Community Plans or other overlays, these high-density housing types can make the most out of what is allowed in the code.


Co-living units provide private sleeping rooms with private bathrooms along with communal living and kitchen areas. The spaces can be arranged in ‘flats’ or ‘stacks’ depending on the overall building configuration, with 5-8 private rooms sharing communal areas. The private rooms vary in size from 150-275sf. Less space is not diminished space – curated interiors and flexible furniture make the most of every square inch. The building often includes common amenity areas like rooftop decks, lounges, and gyms.

Private rooms can be leased individually, or the entire unit leased as a family group, giving the building versatility and long-term viability. This layout also provides a means of developing more density, as the individually rented spaces work within the constraints of the unit density limits prescribed by the zoning code. The Co-living model has further flexibility by taking advantage of the Density Bonus and TOC program parking reduction incentives, resulting in more rentable private rooms than conventional dwelling units, and typically half the required parking.

Co-living buildings increase rentable door count but depending on the configuration may decrease overall net rentable square footage. Additional space may be given over to service areas as the buildings are systems-dense with a high volume of MEP systems concentrated within the footprint. These challenges are not detrimental to the building’s viability (added costs are offset by rent premiums) but must be addressed as the project develops.

Micro/Efficiency units

Micro/Efficiency units provide all the functionality of a residential unit within a compressed footprint. Ranging from 250-400sf, each unit includes its own kitchen and bathroom. Thoughtful design, multi-functional furniture, and built-ins maximize the livability of the space. Units often include a dishwasher and laundry. Common area amenities are shared by all residents. These projects have the potential to be leased by a single entity for a focused population or as an affordable alternative to luxury housing without utilizing subsidies.

Micro/Efficiency unit projects, which have taken off in many cities such as Seattle, are limited in Los Angeles by current zoning code density regulations. Certain areas, like Hollywood and Downtown, can accommodate them due to overlays that increase or eliminate density and parking restrictions, and a limited number of Micro/Efficiency projects have already been permitted in these areas. Additionally, the city has begun implementing a new zoning code, rolling out initially with the Downtown and Boyle Heights Community Plan updates, that specifically addresses density limits for Micro/Efficiency units. Although a long way from being implemented throughout the city, it provides a promising future for this type of housing.

Compared to Co-Living units, Micro/Efficiency units realize building efficiencies closer to conventional apartments. However, the concentration of building systems is still high and must be addressed during early stages of project development.


Townhouses, ranging in size from 900-1,800sf are vertically organized dwelling units up to 4 stories. With one to three shared walls, Townhouses provide a single-family house experience within a 400-600sf footprint. Units may include a garage or surface parking. Common area amenities are limited, with greater emphasis on site design and rooftop decks.

Townhouses typically work within on-menu density limits and parking requirements to allow the highest return with the least procedural risk. Townhouse units provide a home-ownership entry point that is lower than detached single family homes, especially for new construction. The shared wall configuration can add to systems complexity but are highly successful in a ground-to-sky solution. Townhouse units may be sold as fee-simple or as air-space condos, depending on local regulations.


While alternative housing typologies, particularly Co-living and Micro/Efficiencies, may not suit everyone, the high concentration of university students, tech workers, and entertainment workers in Los Angeles presents a large pool of potential renters. The Los Angeles Housing Element (2021, Ch.1, pg 60) notes that 30% of the city is single-person households, a large demographic that is being increasingly priced out of the area.

The residents of these spaces see the city as their living room. They tend to prioritize location over amount of space and prefer to spend money on experiences over belongings. Many residents of Micro/Efficiency housing seek the independence that comes with it, the ability to live in their own space without roommates and compromise. For others, Co-living may be more attractive for its strong sense of community. Some Co-living buildings may be geared towards certain populations, such as actors or musicians, and provide additional amenity areas that cater to the demographic. Townhouse residents value the compressed footprint and reduced upkeep, along with more privacy.

Innovative infill housing types create a diversity of units that are critical to fill affordability gaps. Conventional multi-family housing is out of reach for many people, pushing them out of the city. High-density units create market-based affordability, not subsidized units, based on the size of the unit. Co-living and Micro/Efficiency units can help fill the missing pieces by offering more affordable rent to single households and freeing up conventional multi-family units for larger households. Newly built housing alternatives follow current Building & Accessibility Code requirements, providing inclusive options for residents that may be missing from the existing housing stock. In combination with conventional apartments, these high-density solutions provide housing options for Angelenos of all walks of life.


The urban fabric benefits from high density housing. The higher density of units and lower parking requirements open more options for true urban infill development in LA, which has been generally under-built due to the costs and space associated with high parking requirements. High-density housing performs well at pedestrian scale and can be realized on a single parcel, instead of an aggregation of parcels. The resulting streetscape is finer grain and can be tailored to the neighborhood character. The pedestrian experience is enhanced as the street develops more rhythm and intimate scale. This cohesive urban experience is inherent to the design, not reliant on code/form-based prescriptions or City Planning feedback.

As the city continues its rapid expansion of the Metro system, in addition to the availability of car shares and bike rentals, car-free living in Los Angeles will become a more viable choice for residents, particularly those concerned about the costs of vehicle ownership or their environmental footprint. The increased residential density drives up localized commercial demand. As access to transit increases and car reliance decreases, local businesses can be supported by their immediate neighbors. This type of development allows residents to be an integral part of the community in which they live, makes neighborhoods safer, and drives further development that increases walkability.

The consolidation of resources benefits the air & water quality, reduces sprawl, and takes advantage of existing infrastructure. With a variety of housing typologies, the built environment is more resilient and able to endure for longer occupancies. As resources become more localized, the city gradually becomes more diverse, accessible, and equitable.

Between urban planners, urbanists, and real estate developers, there is increasing agreement on the benefits of Co-living, Micro/Efficiency units, and Townhouses. With rising soft and hard costs real estate developers have looked to these housing types for higher ROI and cap rates when other developments may not pencil. Parking is a significant driver of housing costs and frequently the code requirements are higher than actual demand. By reducing parking, developments both decrease cost and contribute to a thriving urban environment not dominated by vehicular parking. An additional and often overlooked benefit of infill housing is that it makes parcels that otherwise might not be seen as developable due to their size or existing use become viable. Because of increase yields and decreased parking requirements the need for an assemblage of properties is reduced. Additional incentives such as Opportunity Zones further increase the viability of housing in general.

Co-living & Micro/Efficiency projects can be done with traditional financing – and likely the proforma reads far better than a conventional housing project. Absorption rates are very high, and turnover is comparable to typical multi-family housing. Additionally, there is a market for buildings to be leased out or sold in their entirety to companies or organizations in need of dense housing. Efficiencies also provide developers flexibility for the future; it is far easier to combine units then to break them up later. Two Micro/Efficiency units could be combined into a one-bedroom unit, or a Co-living townhouse could be sold fee-simple later. There is an inherent benefit to starting small and going bigger.


The time is now to start implementing these strategies. The overwhelming housing shortage demands an urgent and creative response. SHW has the high-density housing design experience needed to make an impact on housing in Los Angeles. SHW’s portfolio also includes apartments, mixed-use, hospitality, and adaptive reuse projects with over a million square feet of built work. In addition to licenses and offices in Washington and California, SHW is also licensed in Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. We look forward to working in the Los Angeles market.

www.s-hw.com / info@s-hw.com