Fisher and his team thinking ‘outside the box’ with tiny houses

By Dave Healy

What if thinking outside the box meant rethinking the box?

Most of us live in boxes: a house, a condo, an apartment, a dorm. But a tent is not a box. Asking how to house the homeless is asking how to provide boxes for people who don’t have one.

St. Anthony Park resident Tom Fisher has a lot of ideas about how to do that. One of them involves small boxes, what have come to be known as “tiny houses.”

Fisher was trained as an architect and for 19 years was dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. 

“Architects do most of their work for people with a lot of money,” he says, “but I’ve always been interested in how we could make our expertise available to poor people.”

Fisher cites the health-care industry as an example: “The conviction that health care is a basic right led to the creation of a public-health system. Architecture needs a public-health version of itself.”

In 2015, Fisher resigned as dean of the college to become the fourth director of the U of M’s Design Center, a place that attracted him because “we don’t just study communities; we work with them.”

Fisher believes that a public land grant university, like the U of M, has a responsibility to serve all the state’s residents. For him and his colleagues, that means seeing all kinds of communities as assets.

Building tiny houses 

“Homeless people have knowledge,” he says. “They have skills; they have ambitions. How can we help them make use of those?”

One of the Design Center’s projects involves constructing tiny houses and finding places to locate groups of them, thus creating small communities of independent living spaces. That idea came from talking with homeless people about what they want. 

“It seems simple,” Fisher notes. “If you want to serve a particular population, start by talking to them. But even well-intentioned people sometimes fail to do that.”

What Fisher and his colleagues learned by talking to homeless people is that one of their biggest concerns is security. They often feel vulnerable.

“People who lack housing still have possessions — not many, by middle-class standards, but they have things they want to protect. Over and over we’ve heard them say, ‘I wish I had a door with a lock.’ ”

Value community

The Design Center also learned that many homeless people value community. 

“When cities decide to break up homeless camps, residents of those camps fear being dispersed hither and yon,” Fisher says. “They then lose one of the few things they have: a sense of community.”

A tiny house has a door that can be locked. And a group of tiny houses — say two dozen or so — creates a community.

Another thing the Design Center learned by talking to homeless people is that most of them don’t just want a handout.

“When we bring socks and first-aid supplies and granola bars to people living in tents or on the street, they’re grateful,” Fisher says. “During this winter’s polar vortex, we found temporary motel accommodations for some of them during the worst weather, and those people were thankful. But they also want to be able to do things for themselves.”

And many have skills that could use under the right conditions.

“One misconception about homeless people is that they end up that way because they can’t, or won’t, do productive work,” Fisher says. “Some can’t, but in our experience that’s a small percentage. What they need is a different kind of workplace.”

Is there a way homeless people’s skills and energy could be harnessed in a venture that results in housing for them? That’s what Habitat for Humanity does. Its clients are expected to put in a certain amount of “sweat equity” on a house that Habitat helps them build. But, as Fisher observes, Habitat’s focus is on intact families, whereas most homeless people don’t have family or other connections. They need a different kind of assistance.

Fisher calls what the Design Center is doing a “community first” model, which is based on an approach pioneered in Austin, Texas. It stems from the conviction that homeless people need more than housing; they also need the support, opportunities and security provided by living near other people. 

Rethinking the box 

What if thinking outside the box meant rethinking the big box?

One consequence of the shift to e-commerce is the closing of brick-and-mortar stores. What to do with those abandoned structures? Woodland Hills, a church in Maplewood, purchased a former big-box store and repurposed part of it for their use. About half of the building, some 72,000 square feet, was unused until the church agreed to make it available to Settled, a nonprofit offshoot of the Design Center that plans to create a construction center where tiny houses will be built. Part of the space might also provide living quarters for people who work on the houses.

The Design Center also has a project under way with Hennepin County Medical Center that would use money from the health-care system to fund housing for the homeless. To come up with a design for that project, Fisher and his colleagues are working with Alchemy Architects, located on Raymond Avenue in south St. Anthony Park, to create a small community of tiny houses in Minneapolis. 

Founded by Geoff Warner, Alchemy is best known for its weeHouse, a modular, prefabricated housing system. Recently, Alchemy has been working on a project called Light House to accommodate the growing market for accessory dwelling units. 

For the HCMC project, Alchemy designed a 12’ x 30’ structure that can house two to four people. Warner describes the challenge of juggling several variables: size, sustainability, cost and ease of construction.

“We wanted these houses to be energy efficient, but also low-cost,” he says. “Our target is $20,000 per person. The houses are extremely well-insulated, with R54 structurally insulated panels, and have triple-glazed windows. They don’t have solar panels, but those could be added later. And they’ll come in kits that can be assembled onsite by people without construction experience.”

The units won’t have plumbing but will be equipped with composting toilets and clean and grey water storage tanks for limited domestic uses. Showers, laundry and a kitchen will be available in a located centrally located communal building.

Warner says, “We asked ourselves, ‘What are the critical things someone needs to live comfortably?’ ” 

Living comfortably: Something anyone has a right to.

Dave Healy is a former editor of the Park Bugle. 

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