Tiny houses are a popular concept on televised home improvement shows, but students in the Montana State University School of Architecture think the small structures could also be a temporary solution to a big problem – housing for the area’s homeless.
The students have designed and built two full-sized models based on the tiny house concept. Called “Small Shelters,” they are now on display in the northwest corner of the first floor of Cheever Hall in the MSU campus. The models are the result of a semester course taught by MSU architecture professor Ralph Johnson in cooperation with Bozeman’s Human Resources Development Council Operation Small Shelter Initiative. The larger of the two models is 9 feet by 20 feet and fully handicapped accessible at 180 square feet. The smaller model is 7.5 feet by 20 feet, or 150 square feet.
The students displayed the models recently to representatives from the City of Bozeman, HRDC, the Southwest Montana Building Industry Association and the community as the first step in bringing the project from the drawing board to a reality.
Bozeman City Commissioner I-Ho Pomeroy said she loved that the students brought to life an attractive solution to a community problem.
“There are a lot of smart people here working to solve this local problem,” she said.
Johnson said the impetus for the project came about when the Reverend Connie Campbell-Pearson of St. James Episcopal Church suggested that he and Chris Saunders of the City of Bozeman planning office get together to collaborate on ideas about innovative structures to temporarily house Bozeman’s homeless. Coincidentally, Johnson had been doing some reading about what other communities were doing to house the homeless, and had already begun to learn about the local community’s homeless.
“At any time there are about 100 homeless in our community,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the group focused on the design of small structures that could be located on unspecified city-owned land and rented out by HRDC. About a dozen students took MSU’s “Designing for the Community” course that tackled the issue during the fall semester. Working with fellow architecture professor Chris Livingston, who had worked previously with student projects for Haven and the Gallatin Valley Food Bank, as well as instructor Bill Clinton, the students broke into two teams. They first worked on drawings of sustainable structures that would include three main components: a place to sleep, a bathroom and shower, and a small refrigerator, microwave and eating area. The students then built small-scale models before they agreed on the designs for two models, which they then constructed to scale from cardboard and pine.
Jaffee Wilde, a senior majoring in architecture from the Flathead Valley, said the projects have been a creative challenge that have stretched the skills of the students who have worked on them.
“It is one thing to draw a beautiful drawing on paper, but it is another to build a structure that is not hypothetical,” he said. “The question is how can we design this structure to help someone out in the best way, and that is an interesting question.”
Saunders, Bozeman’s planning policy manager, said the models represented some great ideas from the students. He said a possible next step is for local agencies to find a plot of land where the temporary shelters would be located.
“This is a wonderful exploration of ideas,” Saunders said. “And, it is a different solution that we haven’t seen before.”
Johnson said the students envision that Bozeman could use about 30 of the temporary structures. The class will continue to meet in the spring to work on next steps that include finding about $10,000 to $15,000 that would fund building both actual full-scale structures during the spring semester. The students will also develop a full cost analysis for the project. He said while the city would need to find a site or several sites for the temporary shelters, he envisions that MSU architecture students could build the eventual structures. He estimated that if financing and site selection fell into place, the project could become a reality in a couple of years.
Royce Smith, dean of the MSU College of Arts and Architecture, said the project shows that MSU students are working with collaborators to solve important, real-world challenges and address serious social issues in the community.
“It’s not just about architecture students using their designing and construction skills, it’s about working together to make our community a better place," Smith said. “Our students are grateful for the opportunity to help with any challenges our community faces. And that is what this project embodies.”
Ralph Johnson (406) 994-4650, firstname.lastname@example.org