This past February at the University of Minnesota, 50 volunteer architects, landscape architects, interior designers and students participated in the 31st annual AIA Minnesota Search for Shelter Design Charrette. The weekend-long event pairs local and regional affordable housing organizations with design professionals and students from AIA Minnesota’s Housing Advocacy committee, of which I am co-chair.
During the event, the design professionals and students create pro bono solutions for up to 10 design projects submitted by these nonprofit organizations. The design volunteers work in teams to create viable, graphic solutions and plans to serve as visual tools for agencies to use for obtaining further project funding. They can also use them to promote their organizations and/or as preliminary development/building plans.
This year, seven nonprofit organizations were selected to participate in the charrette. Projects ranged in scope from a small interior build-out to the design of a common gathering space for the residents of an existing housing facility. Two of the projects asked landscape designers to reimagine their public spaces and street frontage, while another project asked designers to imagine what type of site would achieve the organization’s goals.
It was a great event, and I am consistently amazed by the effort put forth by the participants who give up time with their families every year so they can share their talent with people and organizations that they barely know. I’m also very proud of Michael Nelson, Brian Giebink and Roy Gikonyo from HDR’s Minneapolis architecture studio for serving as team leaders. They were among the volunteers who dedicated their expertise, understanding and sensitivity to designing places for people to live so they can flourish, heal and begin taking the small steps necessary to overcome whatever life challenges they have before them. They clearly understand that good design can inspire people and truly make a difference in their lives.
While the idea of someone just picking him or herself up by their bootstraps may sound like a sensible solution for their problems, the reality is that people are not all on equal footing. For many years, I designed affordable housing in Los Angeles’ Skid Row area. During that time, I met many people who had benefitted from stable and affordable housing. While some of these people still struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues, they all consistently spoke of the day when they were finally able to move forward in life and begin facing their problems because they had a home. Agencies like those involved in the Search for Shelter Design Charrette were in many cases the only safety net available to help them stay in their homes and remain healthy.
Work that helps others thrive is among the greatest type that we as architects can do. Permanent and consistent affordable housing is integral to maintaining a person’s health, and without it a balanced diet, rest, general hygiene and other factors that contribute to a healthy lifestyle all suffer. Without a home, it’s nearly impossible to go to school, apply for a job, clean your clothes, eat a home-cooked meal — and so many other things that many of us take for granted.
We all fall down at some point—no one gets through life without help. But we can all do better.