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Rethinking housing design across Minnesota

Group of adults who helped build the house frame.
Jacob Mans (3rd from left) with Street Voices of Change participants during a home build work day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: Jacob Mans.

Housing is a basic need that all Minnesotans share and is essential to creating resilient communities. Meeting that need across the state, however, can be a complex challenge. A new community-University project is engaging partners to understand and design resilient and affordable housing solutions that embrace Minnesota’s ecological, economic and cultural diversity.

Jacob Mans, assistant professor in the College of Design’s School of Architecture and board member of the University of Minnesota Extension Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Northwest RSDP), is leading the project in collaboration with local community partners, the Minnesota Design Center and Lead for Minnesota.

“Communities across the state all face unique challenges, but together we also share the need for more affordable, more sustainable housing,” Mans said.

Statewide conversations about housing

According to Linda Kingery, executive director of the Northwest RSDP, sharing past examples of Mans’ design work — from projects with Street Voices of Change in Minnesota to others in Manitoba and Puerto Rico — helped inspire a dialogue with RSDP staff and executive committee members about housing earlier this year.

“Seeing Jacob’s work led to conversations at a statewide RSDP meeting about housing, and it became clear that housing is an issue in all regions,” Kingery said.

Following these discussions, Mans submitted a formal project proposal to RSDP regional boards. RSDP regions supported this coordinated effort to work in an initial set of communities across Greater Minnesota: Fairmont (Southwest RSDP), Hackensack (Central RSDP), Hibbing (Northeast RSDP) and the White Earth Nation (Northwest RSDP). In addition, Mans is continuing related work with collaborators in Austin. With these five communities, the project will assess housing issues and opportunities through applied research and design informed by local perspectives.

Men working on building the home.
Home build work day coordinated by Jacob and Wayne Mans with Street Voices of Change participants prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: Jacob Mans.

“I’m from Greater Minnesota originally. I grew up in Hinckley, and I found it fascinating to focus my academic interests and work on the link between rural and urban areas and how they support one another,” Mans said.

Several of the communities working with Mans on this project have fellows from Lead for Minnesota, a state affiliate of the national Lead for America fellowship program. These fellows will serve as “boots on the ground” for creating connections and change around local housing issues, said project partner Benya Kraus, executive director of Lead for Minnesota. Lead for Minnesota is working to build what Kraus describes as a network of “homecomers,” or young people returning to their home states and hometowns with a commitment to have a long-term impact on the vibrancy and inclusion of small towns.

“This work will have practical impact on our communities, and I see it shortening the gap that can exist between institutions of higher education and communities statewide,” noted Kraus.

Housing issues in context

With a vision and network of communities identified to tackle housing issues across the state, Mans worked closely with an interdisciplinary team of four University of Minnesota graduate students from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and College of Design to complete related research projects this summer, with support from RSDP.

Student research included a synthesis of housing regulations and codes across state and federal policy, an analysis of housing construction and operation costs, and a survey to understand relationships between community demographics, natural resources and housing cost burden. Research findings shared on the project team’s website will help inform subsequent phases of the project.

Graphic of Housing Affordability Diagram
Diagram by graduate student Elham Hesari and project team illustrating housing affordability considerations, summer 2020.

“Working on our analysis, we see how many residents are cost-burdened when it comes to housing, especially during this pandemic,” noted Elham Hesari, one of the project’s research assistants and graduate student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

“This work highlights the need for a more sustainable and accessible supply of affordable housing and a range of styles, sizes and price points for the communities we are working with and those across the state,” Hesari said.

In addition to supporting research needs of the project, the students had a chance to connect with communities through their work this summer that they might not have otherwise.

“For students like these, working in rural communities in Greater Minnesota might be something new,” Kingery said. “Creating a bridge from urban to rural perspectives through projects like this is something useful and important to our society right now so we appreciate what is common among us — like our need for housing and resilient communities.”

Redesigning and rethinking a house

Start of the construction of the house in an indoor shop.
A prototype home being built and displayed during a design course at the University of Minnesota in 2019. Photo credit: Jacob Mans.

As the project continues, this fall Mans is co-teaching a design studio with architecture and landscape graduate students to create resilient and affordable housing designs in close collaboration with community partners, local designers, architecture professionals and Lead for Minnesota fellows.

“This partnership with our new fellows and Jacob’s design studio this fall will be so important — it’s a great example of how to take cutting-edge knowledge from the University and have that informed and created in a community-based way with those truly committed to a place,” Kraus said.

Mans hopes this community-engaged design approach will help transform how we think about housing and housing issues in Minnesota. 

“We are not going to have an impact on housing anywhere unless we rethink what a house is.”

Learn more about resilient housing design

Greater Minnesota Resilient Housing Project team reports from summer 2020 synthesize research and design on resilient housing topics, and are available on the project website.

Explore the Greater Minnesota Resilient Housing Project

Marie Donahue, September 2020

Marie Donahue works as a statewide sustainability storyteller with the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs).

Banner photo credit: Jacob Mans. Photo of a home build work day coordinated by Jacob and Wayne Mans, taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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