Omar Hakeem (BS Arch '06) on building equity and opportunity through design

Omar Hakeem.

Omar Hakeem, AIA, is design director for buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, where he directs projects with a focus on social and environmental equity. Photo by Jessica Milette

Published November 26, 2019

by Charles Wingfelder

Omar Hakeem (BS Arch ’06) has always sought to bring design thinking to places where resources are scarce and the needs of the community are great. 

While volunteering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an undergraduate student at UB, Hakeem was baffled by how long it took to address the initial devastation in a country where resources are so abundant. He began to ask himself, “How can I use the opportunity I was given as an individual, and as a student and as a creative problem solver and architectural thinker…to help those in dire straits.”

Since then, Hakeem has dedicated his career to answering that question - and bringing creative design solutions to communities across the country.

During his graduate studies in architecture and sustainable design at the University of Minnesota he returned to Mississippi gulf coast to help lead a design-build study abroad program aimed at rebuilding and resilient construction systems. In 2010 he joined buildingcommunityWORKSHOP [bc], a nonprofit community design center that applies design and making to address systemic poverty, public health and community resilience. 

Today, Hakeem, AIA, is the firm's design director, where he directs projects with a focus on social and environmental equity. His portfolio of award-winning projects ranges from affordable housing to rapid response disaster housing to community-based rural planning. Recent works include an affordable rental housing project in rural Santa Rosa, Texas; a temporary-to-permanent housing prototype for victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston; and a mobile maker-space housed in a modified shipping container in Washington D.C.

Hakeem says the firm takes a holistic approach to each project, engaging members of the community, integrating existing social, environmental, cultural, and built fabric, and collaborating with partner organizations.

A closer look: MiCASiTA offers a new approach to affordable housing

Directed by Omar Hakeem and his team at bcWORKSHOP, MiCASiTA is a housing and finance delivery system designed for the Texas Rio Grande Valley, one of the hardest to reach and most challenged communities in the country. One in three families in this rural stretch of Southern Texas lives below the poverty line and housing options are often limited to "off-the-grid" dilapidated structures or derelict trailers.

A resident stands in front of her MiCasita home which features a front porch and lush landscaping.

A new homeowner with her MiCASiTA unit in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Photo courtesy of [bc]

The project is a collaboration between [bc], the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, the Rio Grande Valley MultiBank, and The Texas State Affordable Housing Corporation.

MiCASiTA offers working families options for an affordable starter home that can “grow” along with their income, credit and the changing needs of the family. This approach builds on the the success of the the RAPIDO disaster recovery housing project launched in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. This temporary-to-permanent solution begins with a small core that can be put in place immediately after a natural disaster, and then grow as government assistance becomes available.

A group of people stand together around a table working with design documents and renderings of a house.

The MiCASiTA process requires the housing unit be designed with family input. Here a client and future homeowner works through design options with mebmers of the [bc] design team. Photo courtesy of [bc]

Omar Hakeem says the hope is that MiCASiTA will influence perceptions and practices around low-income affordable housing more broadly. "We’re not only trying to help families, we are trying to build systems that the architectural practice as a whole can engage in and bring design into a broader cross-section of our society."

The process introduces choice, quality and affordability into the housing process through innovative financing and design options tailored to grow with the homeowners needs.  

MiCASiTA partners walk families through an educational program that prepares them for the financial decisions around a new mortgage. One-on-one financial and credit score counseling ensures the client is ready to take on the loan.

Personalized design options empower individuals though choice. The client selects from a range of design options to create their "starter home" based on their current and anticipated needs. The homes are designed to grow in parallel with homeowner’s financial capacity and savings. The process includes interactive workshops and meetings on site to measure the property and assess how to work with existing conditions.

A rendering of the MiCasita starter home with an outline of how it might expand into a Phase 2 home.

The MiCASiTA starter home grows along with the income and living situation of the family. Rendering courtesy of [bc]

A rendering of a potential Phase 3 expansion of the unit in the rear of the home.

A multi-phase expansion plan allows for the addition of bedrooms, bathrooms or indoor/outdoor living space. Rendering courtesy of [bc]

The model is also context-sensitive and aligned with aesthetic, social and ecological conditions in the community to ensure the project advances quality of place. The homes must meet Texas "visitability" standards for accessibility, and qualify the homeowner for flood and windstorm insurance. Family participation in the home design is required.

Hakeem says the hope is that MiCASiTA will influence perceptions and practices around low-income affordable housing more broadly. "We’re not only trying to help families, we are trying to build systems that the architectural practice as a whole can engage in and bring design into a broader cross-section of our society."

Architects as advocates: Omar Hakeem reflects on affordable housing in Architect Magazine

"The system needs changing from the top-down. [At bcWORKSHOP] we do many projects through the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program, which is how most affordable housing gets funded these days. The process is not conducive whatsoever to design. The period when designers can work is very short and there’s no money to work ahead of the funding award; there is no guarantee that the project will even happen....Working this way results in a lot of shovelready projects, built for communities that had no voice in the design." Read the full article