Graduate students, Ernest Tse and Alec James Sweeting recently won an honorable mention among thousands of professional and student applicants at Buildner’s Los Angeles Affordable Housing Challenge for their USC Architecture studio project “Lives Between Buildings.”

The Los Angeles Affordable Housing Challenge is an international competition that tasks participants with proposing design-related solutions to L.A.’s housing crisis.

Lives Between Buildings” stood out as an honorable mention because it challenged traditional housing norms of shoebox apartments. Instead of typical housing units that are stacked together and connected by long, dark, double-loaded corridors, “Lives Between Buildings” encourages connections through urban blocks, walkability, local retail, and shared amenities.

“While the traditional housing approach holds an efficient number of occupants, it sadly lacks identity and social interaction among its occupants,” stated Tse and Sweeting. “Our goal was to accommodate the same number of occupants as traditional housing while also improving the quality of urban life by reorienting it in a human-centric approach and by introducing a new collective living lifestyle into the urban fabric of Los Angeles.”

Lives Between Buildings

Tse and Sweeting’s “Lives Between Buildings” is a nod to Danish architect Jan Gehl’s book “Life Between Buildings” in which Gehl’s social data reveals the importance of designing architectural elements that promote social interaction by providing spaces for people to observe and be observed.

“Lives Between Buildings” comprises sets of towers woven together by a network of sky bridges, liberating the ground plane for a large public square free from cars. Small shops are nestled in pockets of the towers at the ground floor to entice the community off the sidewalk and activate the surrounding area.

“It was crucial to enable a collective identity for each user in the design, so each tower is clad with a distinct color to facilitate identification and foster a sense of ownership toward one’s block,” explained Tse and Sweeting.

Each block is two stories tall and consists of single units and suites. These blocks can accommodate up to 11 residents and feature a double-height communal space that includes an expansive double-height window, a communal kitchen, a lounge area on the second floor of the block, and access to outdoor patio spaces.

Unique moments are designed through the interplay of architectural dimensions. For example, strategically placed indoor-outdoor spaces of varying sizes promote movement throughout the complex and provide opportunities for socialization among residents. The interdimensional circulation connects these unique moments, offering multiple pathways for residents to interact with the complex organically.

“This new design typology encourages a sense of community by utilizing co-living spaces,” continued Tse and Sweeting. “We create meaningful spaces by playing with different architectural dimensions, which affect the intensity and warmth of residents’ social interactions.”

USC Architecture Housing Studio

“Lives Between Buildings” is Ernest and Alec’s studio project from USC Architecture’s second-year housing studio, “The Return of Housing.” Their section was taught by instructor Amanda Ortland, and the larger studio was coordinated by Hadrian Predock.

This studio focused on questions like “what is housing?”, “who controls it?” and “how do we work and live in the same spaces both as individuals and as collectives?” and speculated on shared living to create affordable solutions through increasing density and sharing amenities in Los Angeles. 

“The return of housing as a central focus in architecture is upon us,” stated Ortland. “I am so proud of Ernest and Alec for their recognition by Buildner for their studio project. It was an honor to teach them and guide them through this journey and I can’t wait to see how they collaborate again in the future.”

To learn more about Ernest and Alec’s “Lives Between Buildings” project, visit here.


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