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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Drinking from Fire Hydrants and Focusing on Failures: Structures for Inclusion Conference Reflections

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SFI Conference in Detroit; Photo courtesy Virajita Singh

The 15th annual Structures for Inclusion Conference was held this past April in Detroit, Michigan. Two students from the University of Minnesota, Thomas Kallenbach and Aika Mengi, were able to attend, and both produced the following reflections about their time at the public interest design conference:

Thomas Kallenbach

The 2015 Structures For Inclusion conference was hosted by Lawrence Technological University and Design Corps in Detroit, Michigan with events taking place in both downtown Detroit and at the Lawrence Tech. campus. The Autodesk Foundation and SEED Network sponsored the weekend; both sponsors played an integral role in the momentum of the discussion. I went into the weekend with an open mind as I was a first timer to the City of Detroit and had no experience regarding design conferences. I knew I was going to be enlightened by professionals, students, and community members' insights on the idea of Public Interest Design, and I was correct.

The overall theme for the weekend was "resilience of mind, body, and spirit". Resilience was a very appropriate and fitting theme for a conference being held in Detroit, a city that is currently being lifted back on its feet. Despite all the negatives I'd heard about Detroit, I couldn't believe the positive attitudes and actions taking place in a city built for 2 million people, but currently residing just under 700,000 people. There was a strong sense of hope that was clearly evident in the residents. I left the City with faith that it will be prosperous once again, and I believe that it will happen sooner than many think.

The major takeaway I had from my weekend in Detroit is that if we want to see more successful public interest projects then we need to focus more on the failures of these projects; as designers we need to make known what didn't work in the process in order to avoid these problems in other future designs. When practitioners speak of their projects they only want to speak on behalf of the positive impact because they want their project to have a good reputation, but in order for this field to progress we need to share not just the process, but rather the story (while admitting to our failures). We need to focus on the resilience of culture and not just merely the built environment.

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SFI Conference in Detroit; Photo courtesy Virajita Singh

Aika Mengi

I have never been to a conference, I didn't know what to expect, especially one that was focused on design. But whatever it was going to be I was very excited to be a part of the conferencing crowd.

The weekend was not unlike what I would think it would feel like to try drink from a fire hydrant. It felt a lot like orientation, overwhelming with the amount of information that was being thrown at as. The Pecha Kucha presentation style of 20 slides in 5 minutes meant we were able to hear highlights of some really great projects all over the world. My favorite was MASS design hospital design and construction in Rwanda. I loved how they not only created a beautiful and functional building, there work there is helping to develop gender equality in Rwanda. It was a great example of how Architecture is so much more than a building, if Architects chose to see their role as more than designing buildings.

I thought it was interesting to see and hear the slightly different perspectives on the Role of architects in PID. For a lot of architects, it sounded like in order to practice in PID, architects need to be one stop shop. But the architects from Germany see the architect as another a member of a team. And that PID needs to be more interdisciplinary. The majority of attendants were architects, and as an urban planner it felt like there was some appropriation of different fields. I was discussing this with an alumni, and he also mentioned how a lot of the projects were landscape architecture projects, or urban planning projects.

The conference was an accurate representation of what perhaps is the state of the PID practice in the US, still working to define its role. During the wrap up, a lot of these things came up, the homogenous nature of the participants of the conference. The majority of people were from the design field, and if SFI is to be inclusive then all the parts that are a part of PID should be involved, the economists, community, construction firms and ecologists.

To celebrate millennials' revelry of top 10 lists, here are the top 10 things I learned from the Detroit SFI.

10. It doesn't matter which scale PID project is on, it's all about the impact on the community.

9. Everybody is not on the same page.

8. When people are heavily invested, emotions can go from 0-100 really quickly.

7. Disagreements are not a bad thing, and can help create a clearer understanding of an issued. (How you disagree is important!)

6. Metrics, Metrics, Metrics! There must be a way of judging the impact of PID projects.

5. Failure, we don't hear about it enough, learning from other people failures can help us avoid them in our own projects.

4. Interdisciplinary collaboration is easier to talk about than it is to practice.

3. PID still needs to be more inclusive, there was a very obvious lack of community members sharing their thoughts on PID and the impact on their lives.

2. Money changes things, but it is about the People!

1. It really is all about the PEOPLE!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

"Nature Looted Nepal"

Today's blogpost about the personal toll of the recent Nepal earthquake was written by Indira Manandhar, a graduate student in the Sustainable Design in Architecture program, and a native of Nepal. To learn more and see how you can help, please see this week's PID Newsletter or scroll down to the previous blogpost on ways to donate to the relief effort in Nepal.

Just half an hour before the earthquake, I talked with my mom and brother in Nepal. It was already midnight here when I saw news about the earthquake. Facebook was full of pictures with devastated monuments. When I saw the "Dharahara," a 9-story historic tower in Kathmandu, was flattened, I was sure it was not a prank. I tried to call my family, and messaged each and everyone I know in Nepal " R U There?" and kept waiting for their reply. Finally at 4 am, one of my relatives saw my message and informed me that my family is fine but that the other adjacent house of my house was destroyed. After this news, I became more desperate to talk with my family. We kept looking on the USGS website for earthquake updates. The aftershocks of more than 4 magnitude kept on going. There have been more than 60 aftershocks this week. I know it is the rainy season in Nepal. After the first quake, I started praying for no rain as it would make the condition worse. I could not handle that fear and pain alone here in US in that night. I shared on Facebook to get someone to talk, spread word and help Nepal: "Nature looted Nepal. We lost our heritage we had loved, taken care and proud of. We knew that it's gonna happen but not this soon..You could have given some time to prepare...RIP to those who lost their lives and much worried for all family and friends, still terrified and waiting for nature to calm down." My family and many others were out in open areas. It rained heavily that day and night in Nepal. They all are wet, hungry and cold outside. The aftershocks became more devastating, as they are making the weaker buildings fall down. My house is not livable now. As many servers, including T-mobile, Viber, and Skype, had made it free to call directly to Nepal mobile and landline numbers, it became a bit easier to at least direct my family and help them decide on further steps to take, get resources for help and make their stress a bit lighter as they are all in shock, and could not think properly about what and when and where. I regret I cannot be there with my family and Nepal at this moment.

Though my immediate family members are safe, countless people have lost many. I am very worried for the coming days' scarcity, crime and other epidemics. Nepal is not that technologically advanced. We are getting news that the government is not cooperating with relief funds and helping hands sent to the country. The local youth groups are more active than the government. I have been talking and sharing information with my friends who are architects professionally working in Nepal. They have started actively campaigning for low cost shelters for victims because, as per my friend, now tents are out of stock; there is no place to buy a tent in Kathmandu and shelter is the first priority for the victims. The capital city is in such mess, I cannot even think what might be happening to the other small villages. Food, clothes, and other medical supplies sent from international organizations and Nepalese from outside the country are all stuck in only one international airport due to the lack of proper direction for releasing those materials. Many small groups of Nepalese have already left from the USA with their own travel baggage full of the necessary materials so that they could at least help some victims on ground.

Nepal needs help not only in materials and funds but the proper organized planning for helping those victims.

Thank you U of M for keeping us in your prayers and thoughts. I am really thankful.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Nepal Disaster Relief

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Girl, 13, in ruins of home in a village in the hills surrounding Kathmandu. Photo credit Jason Burke, The Guardian

This past Saturday, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, striking at the densely populated area around the capital, Kathmandu. Current estimates put the death toll around 3600, and the number of injured at 7000, both expected to rise in the coming days. Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, now faces a steep uphill climb. Essential supplies like food, water, medical support, and electricity are scarce and difficult to disperse, and thousands of families and individuals have been left homeless after their homes collapsed. Below is a list of charities and organizations doing work in Nepal in the aftermath of this devastating disaster:

CARE - Organization dedicated to fighting poverty, with a presence in Nepal since 1976. They are reportedly partnering with other charities to help as many as 75,000 affected people.

Catholic Relief Services - International humanitarian agency of the US Catholic Church. From the Nepal office, has begun stockpiling and distributing emergency relief supplies.

International Medical Corps - Provides emergency health care services, as well as provides training for ongoing medical care after the relief organizations have left. Have created fund to support emergency relief teams working in Nepal.

Mercy Corps - International charity working to help those afflicted by poverty, conflict or disaster. Currently have Nepal fund set up, with a team on the ground in Kathmandu.

Oxfam America - Confederation of NGOs, currently on the ground and launching a rapid dispersal of water, food, and sanitation supplies.

Save the Children - NGO dedicated to promoting children's rights and providing support to children in developing countries. It has set up a Nepal fund, with ten percent of the funds going to future disaster preparedness.

UNICEF - UN program dedicated to helping children in developing countries, currently working to deliver water purification tablets, and other hygiene and nutrition supplies. Also accepting donations via text: donate $10 by texting "Nepal" to 864233 (UNICEF).

World Vision - Christian organization with an existing presence in Nepal, working to bring children out of poverty, and build communities.

AmeriCares - Global emergency relief organization. A team has been sent from Mumbai to focus on medical aid and assistance.

Direct Relief - Organization providing emergency medical care after disasters, centering response around Kathmandu, where the existing medical centers are overrun.

GlobalGiving - Global charity fundraising website, with Nepal fund set up. Money collected will initially go to first responders, eventually shifting to long term relief efforts.

Handicap International - Charity which works with disabled and vulnerable populations. Staff of 50 in Nepal will be setting up units in hospitals to provide post-surgery rehabilitation, as well as equipment, food, and counseling.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Tiny House, Wide Impact

Ben Kraft at work on his tiny house behind Rapson Hall. Photo credit Juliet Farmer, Minnesota Daily

This article originally appeared in the front page of the Minnesota Daily on April 21st. To read the original article, follow this link.

Written by Ellen Schmidt, Minnesota Daily

Behind Rapson Hall on the University of Minnesota's East Bank, architecture master's student Ben Kraft spends 14 hours a day building a miniature home for him and his wife.

Kraft's work building the 220-square-foot house, which serves as his final thesis project, is part of a recent nationwide tiny house trend in which people are striving to downsize, cut costs and live more sustainably.

Kraft, who is originally from southeast Alaska, said his home state inspired him to build the tiny house.

Many of his hometown friends and other young people in southeast Alaska are struggling to own homes because they're too expensive, he said. So he set out to learn how to maximize quality of life in minimum space.

"My project focuses on the potential of tiny house design in principles to alleviate the financial barriers to housing that many families in southeast Alaska experience," Kraft said.

Tiny housing is a more affordable option than traditional architecture largely because of its sustainable aspects, he said. A small home requires less lighting and overall utility use.

Where the typical American home is about 2,600 square feet, tiny houses normally range from 100 to 400 square feet, according to The Tiny Life, a website dedicated to the tiny house movement.

The University's Center for Sustainable Building Research in the College of Design gave Kraft input on how best to build a structurally sound and sustainable home.

"The wall has to do a number of things including holding up the roof, keeping out the rain, keeping the heat in and deal with any drafts or unwanted airflow," said
Dan Handeen, a research fellow at the center. "So we were helping him figure out what materials and structural system were the most appropriate."

Kraft said his house will cost $12,000 in total, which includes furnishings.

Although that may be a higher initial investment than many people might spend in a monthly rent or mortgage payment, he said, it pays off. Kraft said he'll be debt-free within two years.

And because the house costs so little, he said he'll be able to afford more sustainable options like solar panels and high efficiency faucets, showers and water heaters.

One of the most important parts of building a tiny house is designing it to meet your lifestyle, Kraft said.

Unlike a regular home where homeowners can adjust it to fit their preferences, a tiny house "has to be designed around your schedule, your patterns [and] your lifestyle from the very beginning," he said.

Because Kraft's wife is a chef and pastry maker, he built a kitchen larger than the one in their current apartment to accommodate her needs.

Once he completes the home he's been constructing since December, Kraft and his wife will take their new home on the road to wherever he finds a job.

"It's going to be used as an experiment," he said. "I feel like I have to live in it to get a full experience of what it takes to live in a [220-square-foot home] because, realistically, a lot of people have bedrooms larger than my entire house."

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Training the Next Generation of Liberian Architects

Students of Architectural Training Consultants at work in Liberia (Image courtesy Beauclarc Thomas)

"Architectural Training Consultants was inspired by my passion to train young Liberian professionals and students. It's a way for me to give back to my country of birth, an opportunity to give back hope to young Liberians after more than a decade of a brutal civil war."

Beauclarc Thomas was born in Liberia, and was partly schooled and worked there until the civil war broke out. In 2011, he migrated to the United States and settled in Minneapolis. "With the continuation of my education and architectural experience, I was privileged to have worked for most of the top and prestigious architectural firms in Minneapolis," Thomas said. Soon after moving, he started his own firm, B. A. Thomas Innovative Homes, a St. Paul studio providing design services to relocating Africans.

In 2012, Thomas started Architectural Training Consultants, a program to provide quality education in architectural modeling and technical software like Revit and Building Information Modeling (BIM), as well as general architectural studies, to young Liberian and African college students. "Liberia lacks a college that teaches Architecture," Thomas said. "Pursuing a degree in Architecture requires travelling out of the country. Our goal is to build the first full Architecture college in Liberia."

The program, which runs for twelve months, involves 4 phases of training and grants a certificate upon completion. Although the initial classes of the program were held virtually over the internet, since 2014 Thomas and others are now flying to Liberia to provide in-person training in addition to the virtual classes. This year, the first class of BIM students will graduate from the program - hopefully the first of many to come.

Class at the Architectural Training Consultants center in Liberia (Image courtesy Beauclarc Thomas)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What is the Difference between Public Interest Design and Design Activism?

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Poster for the Design @ Noon session, designed by Eugene Park

"Design @ Noon" are a series of discussions, three over the course of this spring of 2015, that are meant to create a dialogue based on themes that emerge from the strategic plans of units within the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. Their overall goal is helping make the whole of the College of Design greater than the sum of its parts. Each session focuses on a different topic that was identified as key in the existing strategic planning activities. While attendance is open to all, some interested faculty, students, and outside partners are identified ahead of time and invited to the table.

The first Design @ Noon session, held on February 27th, 2015, facilitated by Associate Dean of Research, Renee Cheng, examined the question, "What is the difference between public interest design and design activism?" Over 30 attendees that included students, staff and faculty from across the College and beyond were present to discuss this topic. Breaking into groups of 3-4 people to discuss their involvement with public interest design (PID) they discussed a series of three questions related to PID and design activism in detail.

The three questions were:

  • What is PID and design activism? What are the differences?

  • What I/we really need is ______ to make our work even better

  • Wouldn't it be great if the community knew ______ about the College of Design?

Discussion at the PID/Design Activism Design @ Noon session

These three questions elicited a wide range of discussion as a large group. Some of the topics discussed included: Who is exactly is meant by "public," and what is in their interest?; Should all design be considered "in the public interest"?; a possible distinction between PID and design activism being where design activism relates to change and provoking, while PID relates to serving; the need and desire to connect with other groups throughout the University, and to make the work more visible and accessible to the general public; ways to ensure the public and community groups are fully included, and that they are aware of the resources the College of Design can provide.

At the end of this discussion, a consensus was reached for two outcomes/next steps. They are: to explore starting a Design Issue Area Network at the University Office for Public Engagement, to bring the community-focused work within the College to a broader University level; and to find a venue for communicating within the College and University at large before reaching out to community partners regarding projects.

The next Design at Noon event is on the connection between thinking and making, Wednesday April 22, Rapson Hall Room 225. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Upcoming If You Build It Screening

Mark your calendars: The College of Design: Public Interest Design, Students for Design Activism, and the University of Minnesota AIAS will be hosting a screening of "If You Build It," a documentary exploring the intersections of design, education, and community through the work of Project H, on Tuesday, March 31st at 5:30pm in Rapson 100. Refreshments will be provided, with a panel discussion moderated by Dean Tom Fisher following the movie.

Event Info:
What: If You Build It Screening, Panel Discussion - Refreshments Provided
When: Tuesday, March 31st, 5:30 pm
Rapson Hall, Room 100
89 Church St. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55455

Synopsis from the film's website:

From the director of WORDPLAY and I.O.U.S.A. comes a captivating look at a radically innovative approach to education. IF YOU BUILD IT follows designer-activists Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller to rural Bertie County, the poorest in North Carolina, where they work with local high school students to help transform both their community and their lives. Living on credit and grant money and fighting a change-resistant school board, Pilloton and Miller lead their students through a year-long, full-scale design and build project that does much more than just teach basic construction skills: it shows ten teenagers the power of design-thinking to re-invent not just their town but their own sense of what's possible. Directed by Patrick Creadon and produced by Christine O'Malley and Neal Baer, IF YOU BUILD IT offers a compelling and hopeful vision for a new kind of classroom in which students learn the tools to design their own futures.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Design for Equity


The following blogpost originally appeared on the Impact Design Hub website. Written by Barbara Brown Wilson and Katie Swenson (with photos, included here, by Jess Zimbabwe, Metropolis Magazine), the piece serves as the introduction to a longer series of articles on notions of equity in the field of public interest design. You can find the original article here; the next article in the series will be published on March 5th.

Over the past few weeks, news of the closure of Architecture For Humanity has led to many critiques and questions, not only about the future of AfH, but the future of the entire field of public interest design. Inspired in the 1960s by the civil rights movement and maintained by humble practitioners across the globe, this dynamic constellation of practices is not defined by the rise or fall of a single organization or figurehead. Instead of calling the entire field into question, what the response to the closure of AfH serves to highlight are major weaknesses the field is now mature enough to address head on.

Although there are many different practice types and priorities operating under the umbrella of 'public interest design' (or related terms), much of that work is not focused on ameliorating injustice. In order to ensure that the field is concerned with action towards beneficial impact we need a shift in priorities; we need to focus on designing for equity.

Equity means more than just equality; equity means fighting against systemic injustices, breaking down implicit biases, and helping people change their "existing situations into preferred ones," to paraphrase Herbert Simon's definition of design. To be sure, this is no easy feat, but we believe there are two important leverage points through which we can influence this system: 1) evaluating community design work by its equity outcomes and 2) expanding the leadership base so that our collective voice is marked by diversity, not heroism.


Equity Outcomes
As the field has matured, many practitioners acknowledge the need for more thoughtful critique, a more rigorous focus on equity and impacts, and a better understanding of how this work gets done well. It is time to take stock in what we do, how we do it, and what types of change it creates in the communities we serve. There is not enough critical discussion about the actual impacts of our work; we operate under the assumption that our intention to work in the "public interest" makes our work inherently good. This is not enough.

As our field matures we need to aspire to setting a higher bar of practice - from our individual projects, to our employment practices, to our methods of community engagement. We have to think about how all aspects of our work can contribute to greater equity and social justice. We need to orient the profession more directly to notions of civil rights and collectively hold ourselves accountable to them.


Diversity Not Heroism
What is exciting about the moment we find ourselves in now is clarity that the profession no longer needs be defined by the work of one or two large organizations. There are thousands of nonprofit organizations, for-profit entities, and volunteer networks across the globe doing this work well, and without fanfare. Leadership pipelines that amplify this diversity are essential. The voices of younger practitioners, non-architect/planner disciplines, people of color, and grassroots community leaders are still notably absent in this field, and leave the conversation to be driven by only a few perspectives.

If we are to elevate the dialogue related to designing for equity, new platforms are needed in which new voices can contribute to the language, evaluation metrics, principles upheld, and narratives told about this work. And this will not happen until we also have a leadership model that pays attention to more than a few architect-heroes who dominate popular critique.


Leading By Example
Over the past year, a group of leaders in the field began meeting informally to discuss how they might help bring more visibility to these critical issues. What began as a few friends seeking moments of collective reflection became a working group with two key goals; first to actively commit to equity outcomes, and second to promote diversity of all kinds throughout our field (and in particular, within it's leadership).

This group looks at the field through different lenses and operates at different scales, including Christine Gaspar from the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Jess Garz from the Surdna Foundation, Theresa Hwang from Skid Row Housing Trust, Nicole Joslin from Women.Design.Build, Liz Ogbu from Studio O, Katie Swenson from Enterprise Community Partners, Barbara Brown Wilson from the University of Virginia, and Jess Zimbabwe from the Rose Center for Public Leadership.

We are writing a series of articles to dig into these topics and formulate a fresh approach. Our goal is to elevate the dialogue related to designing for equity by holding up new voices and new perspectives. In the coming weeks we'll share a new article each Wednesday. We invite you all to join, comment, critique, and suggest ideas and topics on how to propel the public interest design movement forward at this critical juncture. Please check back next week and also visit our website,, to sign up for our mailing list and connect to resources.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Resilience Convergence

Resilience Map designed by Eugene Park; photo credit Karl Engebretson

Resilience Convergence was a one-day event held on November 22nd 2014 at the University of Minnesota bringing resilience experts together in a program to learn about the resiliency-focused work going on in Minnesota and explore connections of expertise through interactive exercises, with the aim to develop a more connected and innovative resilience research and education at the University of Minnesota.

What is Resilience? Resilience Convergence drew on the definition proposed by the Rockefeller Foundation: Resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities and systems to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of stress and shocks, and even transform when conditions require it.

Participants were invited pre-workshop to offer content (focus of resilience work, geographic scales of work, disruptions and time scales of the work) that was included in a Resilience Map designed by Eugene Park, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design from the College of Design, Unveiled at the event, the Map showed each participant and expert's work factored in the growing body of resilience work. The Map is intended to become an important tool to align collective efforts at the University of Minnesota around resilience.

Richard Graves speaks at the Resilience Convergence conference; photo credit Karl Engebretson

Sponsored by the Office of Vice President of Research from the College of Design, welcome remarks were made by VP of Research Brian Herman, Dean Tom Fisher and the event was facilitated by Richard Graves, Director of the Center for Sustainable Building Research.

The first part of the event was a series of Fish Bowl Conversations framed under the overaching question of: How do you define the challenge of resilience?

#1: What does it mean in your work to create "rapid rebound" or the capacity to re-establish function, re-organize and avoid long term disruptions? (Participants: Fred Rose, Ann Masten, Rolf Weberg)

#2: How do communities create flexibility or the ability to change, evolve, and adapt to alternative strategies in the face of disaster? (Participants: Elizabeth Wilson, Lacy Shelby, Patrick Nunnally)

#3: What types of failures ripple across a system? How do organizations create feedback loops that sense, provide foresight and allow for new solutions to design resilient systems? (Participants: Tom Fisher, Patrick Hamilton, Dr. Carissa Schively-Slotterback)

This was followed by Speed dating and a Splendid Table event: What assets do we have in our community to build resilience? How do you combine diverse perspectives to create resilience projects? (facilitated by Richard Graves, Tom Fisher, Renee Cheng and Maura Donovan)

Attendees paired up with other persons who shared their area of focus for resilience to discuss similarities and differences with their work, and assets in the community and at the university, types of research, classes and projects to build community resilience.

Resilience Map designed by Eugene Park; photo credit Karl Engebretson

The question of resilience has come to the fore in many circles, with a range of interpretations from environmental resilience to resiliency in mental health. When Structures for Inclusion, the Public Interest Design conference declares a theme of 'Resilience of Mind, Body, and Spirit' for its 2015 meeting on April 11 - 12 in Detroit, it must mean that Resilience and PID are intertwined and here to stay. What are your thoughts on the intersection of PID and resilience? Tweet @UMN_PID with your answer!

Written by Virajita Singh, a Sr. Research Fellow and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the College of Design, University of Minnesota

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Search for Shelter

This past weekend, over 70 volunteer designers came together in Rapson Hall on the U of M campus for the 29th annual Search for Shelter, a weekend-long design charrette run by AIA-Minnesota that provides pro-bono design services to non-profit organizations focusing on affordable housing in Minnesota.

The event brings professional architects, landscape architects, interior designers, and students together for three days to create a design proposal and present it to the non-profit client. While Search for Shelter began as a nationwide event almost thirty years ago, AIA Minnesota is now one of the few AIA chapters from across the country to still run the event as originally intended.

This year's Search for Shelter began on the evening of Friday, Jan. 30th, with an opening address by some of the organizers of the Search for Shelter and members of AIA Minnesota's Housing Advocacy Committee, followed by a video presentation of the 2014 Affordable Housing Design Award Recipient, Clare Midtown, an affordable residence for people living with HIV/AIDS. The volunteers then split up into eight different groups, which they would stay in for the remainder of the weekend, to meet with their client. The client then explained the project, the parameters of the design proposal they were looking for, and then answered any questions that the design group had.

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Site visit with Search for Shelter 2015 AEON group

The group I was a part of worked with a client from the non-profit developer AEON to develop an initial design proposal for an affordable housing apartment complex for recently homeless youth and mixed-income tenants on a nearly block long site on University Avenue in St. Paul. After touring the site with our client early Saturday morning, we set down to the task of brainstorming and designing, working together to create a respectful building concept that prioritized AEON's goals of fostering a sense of community, instilling a feeling of security, and incorporating strategies to make the building more sustainable. The completed proposal scheme, involving a set of lively rooftop terraces that cascades down and around the building form, was presented to the larger group and to the client on Sunday at noon, and can be seen in it's entirety at this link.

The Search for Shelter was a tremendous experience, offering an opportunity to work with professional designers, for real clients, on an actual project, and represents a wonderful chance to use my skills as a designer to help those in need.

The other non-profit groups assisted during the 2015 Search for Shelter are:
Alafia Place
Alliance Housing Inc.
Anna Marie's Alliance
Avenues for Homeless Youth
Rebuilding Together TC
Salvation Army
Women's Advocates

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Tiny Houses by and for the Homeless in Madison, Wisconsin

WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Editor's Note: The following article, written by Pat Shneider, about the building of a village of tiny houses for the homeless by Occupy Madison, originally appeared in Madison's The Cap Times in July. Since then, the movement gained national attention from articles in Al Jazeera America and The Huffington Post, and has seen a number of similar projects pop up as far away as Portland, Oregon, Texas, and New York. The village in Madison was officially opened in November, just in time for the holidays, with four people moving in to the three existing homes with plans for more on the way.

Keith Valiquette says it was the sense of community that attracted him to Occupy Madison's tiny house movement. And he predicts that others, even people who can afford regular-sized houses, will be joining him.

Valiquette, 65, now homeless after a long working career and owning a business as well as houses, is in line to live in the third tiny house constructed by Occupy Madison volunteers. His dog, Chip, will move in with him.

He and the occupants of other tiny houses built by Occupy Madison plan to park them on the nonprofit organization's east-side property later this summer, once toilet and shower facilities are installed in a former auto body shop on the site. The group has city approval to park up to nine tiny houses around the main building, which will also have a common lounge space and a workshop for construction of the houses. Community gardening space will be up front and visible on the one-third acre site, while the tiny houses will be located behind a six-foot fence.

"This is not just for homeless," says Valiquette. "What we're doing with tiny homes is going to be a godsend to the middle class in the future. This is entry level housing for young families, college student."

There's no question tiny houses have captured plenty of attention. There are a half-dozen projects in other cities similar to Occupy Madison's, aiming to provide permanent housing for homeless people. There's also a growing movement of people downsizing to smaller housing to live more simply and cheaply. The movement has generated online communities, books, movies and a tiny house conference in North Carolina this spring with another planned next year in Portland, Ore., where tiny houses are a hot trend.

A typical tiny house, from Occupy Madison

Tiny houses are not only more affordable and lead to more sustainable lifestyles, they build community by bringing people closer to one another, literally, say enthusiasts.

"We've got to quit building these monstrous boxes to house people. It only separates us. I'd just as soon see people at all levels of society living in these tiny villages. I hope down the road our village isn't just homeless people," Valiquette says. "I hope we're part of the larger community, not an enclave."

Community within the village is fostered by the common goals of Occupy Madison members in constructing and managing it through rules adopted and enforced by the group. A sense of community with neighbors beyond the fence that will surround the village may be more difficult.

Occupy Madison's revolutionary development plan - which the city will continue to monitor through numerous conditions placed on zoning approval - got a mixed reception from neighbors.

Some welcomed it as an innovative experiment in affordable housing. Others worked to get the plan rejected by city officials, saying that allowing it would make the Emerson East neighborhood the only one in the city where building codes are not enforced, thereby lowering property values.

And although the neighborhood debate included suggestions that formerly homeless people living in the village would be lawless or dangerous, Valiquette says he didn't take that personally.

"I was a homeowner," he says. "I have no animosity toward those who opposed us. It's a little self-interested, but it's understandable."

Yet as far as concerns over the value of their housing investments, "the banksters in the world have a bigger effect than we do. We're peanuts," Valiquette says.

Neighbors who have supported the village "see the bigger picture," he says. "They are why I am part of this. We as a society need to come together again."

The interior of a completed house, from Occupy Madison

Brenda Konkel, an Occupy Madison board member, says neighbors already are volunteering their time and donating things like flowers, which were planted on the property last week.

Konkel says that sustainability features, like the houses being built of largely recycled materials and the community gardens, are attracting neighbors to find out more about the planned village.

"And they like that you can do it yourself," she says of the tiny houses in which recipients invest "sweat equity" along with other volunteers.

Long term, "we hope to find a bigger piece of land for a bigger village, with more opportunity for urban agriculture. But to find that in a place with public transportation will be hard," Konkel said.

She estimates that Occupy Madison has been contacted from people in a couple hundred communities asking for their plans for building the houses and information on related issues like the zoning impediments to houses that are smaller than codes allow.

"Eventually, I'd like to develop a national list-serv on what we did here," to share information, she says.

Valiquette says he values the opportunity to get to know people from all walks of life that he has gained through Occupy Madison and hopes the lure of the tiny house movement opens people's eyes to the variety of people who find themselves "homeless."

"Homeless people are as varied as all the other people in your neighborhood," he says. They are the people couch surfing with friends or staying with relatives, and the people sleeping on the porch of the City-County Building.

"I'm not just building a tiny home. I'm building a community," he says.

From The Cap Times, July 19th, 2014: "Tiny house occupant drawn to Occupy Madison village out of desire for community" by Pat Shneider. Read the entire article here, and learn more about Occupy Madison's Tiny House village at

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Higher Ground

Photo credit: Evan Hildebrand

One early October morning, riding along one of the many bike trails that crisscross the city, I look up as the still-cold sunlight falls onto a bank of windows emerging from a tan-colored building, pointing out into the bike path. The view is commanding, and the view that those windows command, the view behind me, is just as arresting: the whole of downtown Minneapolis, newly lit in the crisp fall air. One would be forgiven for thinking that those windows belong to a luxury apartment building, not unlike those I passed not moments ago. But they do not. They belong to a homeless shelter, designed by Cermak Rhoades Architects.

A bit of background: Cermak Rhoades Architects, founded by Terri Cermak and Todd Rhoades around 20 years ago, deals mostly with what associate Chris Wegsheid called "supportive housing": designing affordable housing for marginalized populations who need some assistance in one form or another, such as the recently homeless, mentally ill, or substance abusers. Their innovative architectural responses to pressing social concerns have led to the firm receiving two out of the three AIA-Minnesota Affordable Housing Design Awards granted since the award's inception in 2012, as well as and admiration from their peers involved in public interest design in the Twin Cities.

Photo credit: Evan Hildebrand

The building I'm looking up at, known as Higher Ground, was designed for Catholic Charities and meant to replace an overcrowded homeless shelter nearby, but takes the potential much further than a simple room with cots on the floor. It combines a temporary shelter with longer-term housing solutions: the building represents a bottom-to-top gradient in terms of increasing independence, privacy, and domesticity, a layering meant to help to ease a transition out of homelessness. The bottom floor houses a large overnight shelter, with raised bunk beds for over 120 people, as well as meal services, medical help, and a computer lab, as well as a large expanse of windows that flood the room in natural light. Above, the second floor holds a pay-to-stay shelter, booked in advance, and marked by increased privacy and security. The freedom, privacy, and space afforded to residents only increases from there, with the upper floors holding more permanent housing, with SRO (single-room occupancy) units and, on the very top floor, full efficiency apartments. The design of the floors also reflects the feelings of each change from temporary to permanent housing, becoming increasingly domestic, from the greater use of metal and concrete for the bottom floor shelter to the subdued homeliness of the upper apartments.

Higher Ground is like few other homeless shelters in the Twin Cities, but it shouldn't be. It shows the dedication, intelligence, and sheer intelligence that Cermak Rhoades have brought to bear to their work with supportive housing, and this Minnesotan metropolis is better for it. Perhaps when I ride this way again, a few more luxury apartments will be replaced with homeless shelters and affordable housing. And, if they're all designed as well as Higher Ground, I won't even notice the difference.

Editor's Note: This essay was originally a submission to the Berkeley Prize Essay Competition. Although the deadline for submissions to the 2015 competition has now closed, you can find out more about the Berkeley Prize here.