The Future of Affordable Housing?

By Christina Houghton

[img_assistfid=67alt=Future of Affordable Housingcaption=”Gradient House,” Beth Blostein, Blostein/Overly Architects.]

Imagine affordable housing that successfully integrates environmentally-sustainable materials with innovative designs all the while maintaining the feeling that the house could become a livable home. Currently on display at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, the HOME House Project: The Future of Affordable Housing, articulates these musings in a tangible form.

The exhibit was first launched by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which sponsored a design competition in 2003 to promote thought and focus around issues of design, affordability and sustainability in housing.

This competition was immensely successful, drawing 440 entries from seven countries, establishing the following goals for the project: to provide inspired design in the affordable housing market for those who have historically been omitted from enjoying its benefits; to establish a new national housing model in terms of design, energy efficiency, environmental consciousness and cost-effectiveness that could change the stigma attached to affordable housing; to showcase the most recent advances in sustainable design; and, to foster new partnerships with people, organizations and communities across the United States involved in the creative applications of affordable design. As a mark of the competition’s success, four of the designs submitted are currently or on the verge of being constructed in North Carolina.

But what is actually on display at the Weisman? The HOME House Project displays the designs of eighty of the most appreciated submissions for the landmark SECCA project.

Per the basic criteria of the project, each of the proposals use Habitat for Humanity’s basic three-and-four bedroom houses as a point of departure. According to Habitat for Humanity’s website, the average cost of Habitat houses built in the States is $46,600. The HOME House exhibit range in cost from $32,000 to more than $80,000. Unfortunately, not all of the estimated prices were listed on the designs.

One design features a house made out of shipping crates, the “Container Home Kit” for easy mobility and assembly. Another, the “FabTree Hab” proposes that a house be designed out of a tree, quite literally. The designers, Mitchell Joachim, Lara Gaeden and Javier Arbona note that in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia the basic load-bearing structure of a house was made out of Zigba and Wanza trees. Another design features an online-order house, and a fourth design team asks, “What separates a poor house from a rich house?” Bill Edgarton designs an “Eco-Cottage,” for which linoleum floor coverings are made out of 100% recycled materials and which features a reflective, recycled tin roof and rain barrels to collect water to use in the garden. Rado Ivanov’s “Passive Solar Design” (pictured) arranges all rooms so that they will receive a maximum amount of sunlight during the day, reducing the need for heating.

The designs were spaciously displayed in the museum, and some of the designs were even reconstructed by the Weisman. However, for a person who is not very familiar with architectural proposals, I was disappointed to find the Key to Architectural Drawing Symbols only at the end of my visit. Furthermore, while most of the designs were easy to admire and interesting to read, a portion of proposals seemed unlivable.

In conjunction with the design showcase is Home Sweet Homes, visual art commissions from the Family Housing Fund, bringing depth to the issues surrounding affordable housing and homelessness. “The Family Housing Fund is a Minneapolis-based not-for-profit organization which promotes affordable housing and solutions to homelessness,” explains Professor Godollei, Chair of the Macalester Art Dept. and participator in the exhibit. So while The HOME House Project seeks a solution to the problem of limited affordable housing by bringing artists’ attention to this important project, Home Sweet Homes reminds the public that, “There’s still a problem!” according to Professor Godollei.

Godollei has two white on black prints featured in the exhibit: “No Place Like Home” (2000) and “Home” (2000). The issue of substandard housing is particularly important to her personal history: “I was living in substandard housing that could be taken away at any time when I first became an artist,” she remembers. “Now I pass by the same neighborhood and see billboards proclaiming `Loft-Style Living!’ To me, that means a miserable place with no heating and leaky roofs. So yes, I would say that this issue touched me personally.”

What is especially thoughtful about the conjunction of exhibits is the two-pronged attack of social issues. As Godollei concluded, “I think that everyone should go see this exhibit . . . I am very happy to see an art museum that is striving to connect with the community and take on a subject that really affects everyone. We should all know something about this topic.”

The HOME House Project runs at the Weisman Art Museum (33 East River Road, Minneapolis) through April 30, 2006. 612-625-9494.