A few weeks ago, almost three dozen architects agreed to spend their Friday hunched over a few small tables in an effort to help solve one of Charleston's ongoing challenges.

Specifically, they were volunteering their time to design affordable houses for three downtown sites the city owns and plans to build on.

The sites are pretty typical of downtown parcels. One was a narrow rectangle that fronts on a historic street that's mostly developed. Another was a site behind an older home, essentially a backyard site. The third was a small square parcel at the corner of a quiet street and a much busier one.

Then they were given the constraints: Each house design needed to be within a certain range of square feet; needed to have a certain number of bedrooms and bathrooms; and should be simple to build and relatively inexpensive to maintain.

They were members of the Custom Residential Architects Network, a newly formed group. Eddie Bello, former city preservation architect now with McMillan Pazdan Smith, says this is one of the network's first projects.

"One of the things we wanted to do as a group is perform some type of public service," he says. Designing affordable housing is a nice change because residential architects' clients usually ask them to do larger, higher-end work. "We have said this is an opportunity to show that good design doesn't have to be expensive," he says.

The architects were divided into six groups with about five or six per group, and by the end of the day, as beer bottles slowly replaced water bottles, each group had a series of sketches and schemes.

Architect Bill Huey, who serves on the network's steering committee with Bello and Architect Steve Herlong, says the next step will be to talk with the city, perhaps do some sort of pricing exercise and decide which plans have the most promise -- and the most potential from the city's viewpoint.

The designs all looked creative, though some are developed more than others. Each had a novel element though also appeared to fit into the city's vernacular architectural traditions. Two renderers, Dale Watson and Aaron Ede, helped sketch a version of the design that will be easier for average folks to read.

Bello says it's too soon to say how many of the preliminary designs will be fleshed out -- and even more premature to guess how many might actually get built.

But he feels sure at least a few will.

So in a few years, a few families might find themselves on the couch inside their handsome yet affordable home, indebted to a gathering of talent that they probably knew absolutely nothing about.

--Charles Towne Landing's archaeological work can benefit if you go online and vote for it on the Archaeological Institute of America's website. Its competitors include sites in Florida, Michigan, Belize, Italy and Spain. The winning site gets free admission to the institute's next conference --plus good exposure. To vote, visit http://archaeological.org/outreach/contest/submissions

The architects

The architects who participated in the recent affordable housing design project include the following:

Janette Alexander

Elizabeth Allen

Scott Anderson

Michael Atkinson

Nick Barrett

Dennis Blaschke

Douglas Boyce

Alice Burress

Martin Cizler

Meghan Clemmens

Darryl Cobb

Abby Freeman

Sam Furr

Ron Gossen

Alexey Grigorieff

Jim Henshaw

Steve Herlong

David Hill

Ashley Jennings

Robbie Lesslie

Bronwyn Lurkin

Chad McDonald

Amanda Mole

Alan Purvis

Dan Scheaffer

Chris Schmitt

Nathan Schutte

James Selvitelli

Tyler Smyth

Clay Tucker

Bill Warlick

Kevin Whalley

Dale Watson (renderings)

Aaron Ede (renderings)

Robert Behre may be reached at 937-5771 or by fax at 937-5579. His e-mail address is rbehre@postandcourier.com, and his mailing address is 134 Columbus St., Charleston, SC 29403.