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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.

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