Shane Hess O'Neil collective works c. 2006 – 2014

ATTUNED LIVING: Responsive Public Housing for the City of Salem

(Jun. 2011; University of Oregon School of Architecture Terminal Thesis Project; in concert with the Sustainable Cities Initiative & the Salem Housing Authority; Eugene, OR)

In a first-day-cost dominated market ethos the implementation of green building principles in housing has rarely reached beyond high-end custom homes. Convention and expediency still trump the economic equation. Thus, any attempt to propose lower impact alternatives must capitalize upon low-cost, load-reducing design principles and prioritize constructibility at all scales. To achieve a sustainable model of housing, however, there must be a dynamic relationship between occupant and building. Layers of tuneable controls embedded in the building envelope, systems, and spatial layout allow the occupant to exert an influence on their environment thereby increasing comfort and satisfaction.

This proposal seeks to elucidate a responsive multi-family Passivhaus prototype implementable at multiple scales of density and development throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition, a 5 acre redevelopment proposal for the Salem Housing Authority seeks to establish a framework for integrating urban restoration and ecological design into public housing.


Preserving the integrity of the envelope is paramount to ensuring the continued energy performance of the building. Integrating a component of flexibility for the developer and the property manager is paramount to ensuring the longevity and relevance of the building. The design, integration, and execution on-site of details that work together is paramount to radically changing the way we consume energy in our homes. Using Passivhaus design principles as a starting point for achieving up to 90 % heating energy expenditure reduction, design and capital investments are necessarily focused on the longest-lasting, most stressed elements of the design – the urban environment and the building envelope.

The housing units are simple but effective, providing a variable fabric of dwelling to accommodate many different family types and demographics.   This is accomplished by strategic zoning of the sleeping spaces within units and in the form of the building whereby a subtractive process allows boundaries of individual units to be redrawn and customized in initial development or as a retrofit at minimal expense or disruption to occupants.  The sleeping spaces act as “switches”, allowing the unit to expand and contract according to the needs of the occupants.  Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems must be accessible to augment and thus exposing these systems  (rather than hiding them within nebulous wall cavities) serves as an expression of function and a learning tool. 

At the urban scale however, community design will remain constant through time.  As such, the impetus to build more densely while prioritizing livability becomes a natural and attainable goal.  Creating tuneable layers of the façade, such as that of the entry loggia, allow living spaces to inhabit the public realm and protect privacy.

The sleeping spaces are pulled back from the public realm and buffered by a semi-private courtyard (including on-site stormwater management) and shaded by a layer of sliding shutters to allow for maximum control of privacy without compromising daylighting.  The façade will vary throughout the days as occupancy patterns are expressed in these tuneable layers of the loggia and sleeping spaces.  This allows for the skin of the building to remain simple and elegant, as the building is animated by the life of the occupants.

The staggered form of the building allows for and emphasizes this variety in the streetscape, but it also supports an “eyes on the street” community by activating every side of the building with different activities and occupant patterns.

The rhythmic form of the buildings contrasts densely inhabited building fronts with natural landscape courtyards on the sidewalk, which offers periods of natural relief to an otherwise urban environment, also improves safety on the site. Each unit’s living spaces inhabit the corner of the building, allowing an “eyes on the street” form of community safety to occur naturally. In addition, the building massing and site design places entrances to units on every side of the street and looking in every direction, leaving no uninhabited corners or dead pigeon space, further enhancing the function of the “eyes on the street”.

The unit and building design work together to create a sense of place. The particularities of this place will change throughout time but the form and spirit of the place remain unscathed. As changes occur the buildings will continue to use substantially less energy and comfort will remain easy to achieve.


A new found culture of urban conservation and proactive living can exist in formerly downtrodden locales. The population doesn’t need to change, but the built environment does.

Pedestrian and bicycle accommodations are desperately needed in this part of Salem, where fast traffic, loud trucks, small sidewalks, and sprawling blocks of big-box commercial make harrowing the pedestrian experience. Existing bus lines serve the site, and are accessible from the west end of the site owing to the new pedestrian and bicycle routes included in this proposal.

This proposal integrates mixed-use strategies on the west end of the site including over 100 units of public housing and 30 units of market-rate housing above 21,000 square feet of market-rate commercial space and 6,300 square feet of community-leasable commercial space. A gradient of density and activity across the east-west axis of the site integrates the commercial urban environment to a more quiet residential environment.

The west end of the site is most densely built-up and contains commercial spaces and community resource spaces below market-rate housing. The site then transitions into high-density public housing punctuated by landscape courtyards tucked in between the housing at the center of the site. The east end thus contains lower density public housing that is more tightly knit within the landscape. This gradient applies to traffic as well. Vehicles enter from the west, but there are no through streets, so in the center of the site traffic is slowed and local and the east end of the site becomes a pedestrian zone, connecting to the Salem Parkway Bike Path.