Privacy in small footprint a key to shelter solutions

Envision Community’s concept
Envision Community’s concept includes 15 to 40 sleeping “pods” oriented around a central common building that houses bathrooms and a large kitchen. Image courtesy of Alchemy Architects and the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota

This summer brought unprecedented challenges to the Twin Cities and especially to those without permanent shelter. Fortunately, several community leaders are investigating long-term solutions as well as more immediate steppingstones, which are increasingly important as the winter looms.

Shelter solutions should, ideally, provide the safety and comfort of feeling “at home.” Also important is adopting a “trauma-informed” perspective understands that unsheltered people are often in survival mode and may be struggling with addiction. Low-barrier solutions are needed to meet people where they are. Following the eviction of community members from the Midtown Sheraton Hotel in early June, various stakeholders have been collaborating on a concept for a “tiny home” village they hope can fill a gap in the region’s housing options.

The Indoor Village Project evolved in an unexpected way. Unlike individual tiny homes set within a parking lot, such as Seattle’s Lake Union Village, the village concept proposed tiny homes inside the vacant Kmart building at Lake & Nicollet. While the exact building proved to be in too much disrepair, the concept of using existing large buildings to house smaller private spaces could still be viable. Sheila Delaney, an advocate with the project, said such a solution could create “dignified, desirable alternatives to [tent] encampments, with fast deployability.” Another building was recently found in the North Loop and other vacant buildings throughout Minneapolis are also being considered.

The Envision Community takes a similar empathetic approach to helping homeless residents. Their work is based upon years of research by 19 organizations with a guiding ethos that people need an intentional community to achieve stability and to live their healthiest lives. The coalition seeks to place people in leadership who’ve directly experienced homelessness.

Envision has designed an intentional community concept with 15 to 40 sleeping “pods” oriented around a central common building that houses bathrooms and a large kitchen. The configuration is designed to both save energy and decrease water use while promoting health equity and affordability. Their next milestone is to find a building site in a welcoming community. If the implementation goes smoothly, they hope to catalyze other transformative communities throughout the city.

In each of these initiatives architectural solutions were based on community input. Privacy, which is usually denied to those without permanent shelter, was one of the most crucial demands for creating a meaningful sense of security and home. These projects demonstrate that privacy can be achieved even within a small footprint and that affordability can be attained with modest-yet-durable materials.

By placing homes within existing buildings, the Indoor Village is able to plug into an existing shared infrastructure, thereby saving on utility setup costs and reducing the difficulties involved in waterproofing. Finished square footage is kept to a minimum within the homes themselves but is further minimized thanks to foldable desks and beds, designed to accommodate one or two adults while offering flexibility in how the space can be used.

The Envision community also focuses on small-sized living quarters, but the space is designed to encourage community interaction among its residents — another crucial point gleaned from community input. For example, the sleeping pods are arranged to face toward the common house. In turn, the common house is oriented toward the street and the neighborhood. The layout of these buildings also promotes connection to green space, which is incorporated throughout the site between the pods. Modular in design, configurations are flexible depending on the size and shape of future sites.

Envision’s design keeps costs to a minimum with unique material choices. SIPs (structurally insulated panels) make up the bulk of the walls and roofs. These pre-manufactured, modular components are built in a climate-controlled factory, thereby reducing on-site construction costs (with the added benefit of reducing energy costs due to their high amount of insulation). Using the Diamond Pier Foundation System (an alternative to traditional concrete piers) eliminates the need for heavy excavation, thus drastically reducing foundation costs.

An amendment to the Minneapolis Zoning Code approved in fall 2019 further opened the door for these developments to become a reality. For example, plumbing regulations were reduced (allowing such sustainable features as composting toilets) and the number of dwelling units allowed on a site was increased.

Architecture is but one part of the solution to solving the complex problem of homelessness and creating more affordable housing. With groups such as the Envision Community and the Indoor Village Project approaching the issue with a creative mindset, we remain hopeful that the situation will continue to improve. 

Emily Bissen is a staff member of Locus Architecture, located in Kingfield. Visit locusarchitecture.com to learn more.