A team of University of Maryland graduate students won a $20,000 prize in a national innovation in affordable housing competition.

Student teams were tasked with designing a 154-unit housing complex in Dover, New Hampshire for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development  competition. The complex had to be innovative and functional and cater toward senior citizens and adults with disabilities.

The competition is "based on the philosophy that ideas and innovations from the next generation of professionals are essential to fulfilling the need for affordable, sustainable housing," said Maria Day-Marshall, the team's adviser and director of the Colvin Institute of Real Estate Development.

The competition aims to challenge graduate-level teams to address socioeconomic and environmental issues, Day-Marshall said, by finding original solutions through development, design and finance.

The graduate team used different types of building technology to efficiently create the complex, setting this university's designs apart from the other finalists at the competition, said Nathan Robbins, a real estate development graduate student.

"One of the types we used is called structural insulated panel, or SIPs, and it helps with speed of construction so we could move people around more quickly and it also keeps the energy cost down," Robbins said.

The team also added in social services to the community center to address physical disabilities, aging employees and mental illnesses, including addiction, Robbins said.

"We tried to expel the stigma of affordable housing," Robbins said. "We mixed market rate units into our design in our site and we also brought in a community center and a YMCA for the larger community."

Not only did the team include a YMCA and a social services office in the community center, they also almost doubled the density asked for, Robbins said, having 302 units on the site.

Team member Sacsheen Scott, a community planning graduate student, said she researched the demographics of the area to determine the needs of the community.

"Based on these needs, we identified what kind of services, what type of architectural design, what type of financing could be created to make all of this work," Scott said.

The competition, named the Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design and Planning Competition, is aimed to give an example of what could be built in Dover for the complex, rather than to build the exact model the team designed, Robbins said. They hope to have a range of innovative ideas come from the competition.

A main concept of their design was to combat the isolation that many senior citizens and those with disabilities experience when living in low-income housing, said Lauren Gilmartin, an architecture and community planning masters student, which the team did by combining lower income housing with market-rate income housing.

"Our goal to combat that isolation and stigma was to create an inclusive community that housed a diverse population of people so it didn't become an island of isolated people, it became a place that people wanted to come to and live and work and play," Gilmartin said.

Efforts to eliminate isolation should be applied to many communities, Scott said.