On the first day of Experimental Architecture, Roland Graf and Cameron Van Dyke welcomed their students to class, and then promptly shepherded them onto a bus awaiting them in front of the school. Within moments of taking roll, the class was on its way to a property recently acquired by MissionA2’s Camp Take Notice — a self-governing tent-city community of homeless people located in Ann Arbor. Upon arrival, Roland & Cameron introduced their students to several Camp Take Notice (CTN) residents and their assignment for the semester: To design a low-cost structure addressing the challenges the CTN community faces daily: space constraints, access to electricity, and lack of shelter and heat.
Over the course of the semester, the students worked collaboratively with CTN residents to research and develop site plans and design small pre-fabricated dwelling solutions that were less than 80 sq ft.
Midway through the course the class split into teams to focus on specific aspects of the eventual structure (i.e. exterior, interior, systems, etc). The ideas and solutions that worked best were combined to create the full-scale “tiny house” that the class built as a prototype.
“Given the constraints of the project, they’ve done a miraculous job,” said Tate Williams, a co-founder and board member of CTN who provided feedback and input to the students throughout the semester. “We can see aspects to improve now, but as it stands, it is very useful, for us and the class. ... It wasn’t simply a design class, it was a design and build class. The students really got the concept of design and the reality of building it. We provided the purpose, but they provided the possibility.”
See the Experimental Architecture class blog for more info and photos of their design process.
An Interview with Professor Roland Graf
How did the idea to work with Camp Take Notice for this class come about?
Both Cameron and I have been working with Camp Take Notice for several years. In fact, I met some of the founders of Camp Take Notice right after my relocation from Austria more than three years ago. I have been collaborating with Camp Take Notice, both in and outside of class, whenever an opportunity has come up.
Why did you want to teach this class? Why was it important to you?
The tiny house movement (the idea to live a big life in a small Henry-Thoreau-like cabin) has become almost a trend or fashion in recent years. At the same time, the number of homeless people living in tent cities and small encampments has been rising across the country. Some of these tent cities have actually transformed into tiny house communities – in part because they are more tolerated by the city and residents. I learned that Camp Take Notice had similar plans to launch a tiny house community in Ann Arbor. This was reason enough to examine the tiny house movement more closely and offer a class that tries to learn from, and respond to, the particular situation of Camp Take Notice in Ann Arbor.
With the tiny house project, the students were not designing something theoretical -- there was a real and specific destination and community for their work. How did you see this impact their process?
In design, as in most other fields, there is probably nothing more effective than project-based learning. And, if a project exists in the real world, the students are more likely to take it seriously and chances are higher that they take full ownership of their learning experience. In my experience, a thoughtfully-framed project happens to be the most effective teacher.
What kind of skills did the students gain through this work?
We put in great effort on teaching basic transferrable skills, such as design drawing, scale model building, full-scale construction techniques, as well as poster presentation – anything that would help us professionalize the working process. Further, students had the opportunity to develop and present their own socially and environmentally-responsive design approaches to Camp Take Notice, who came as a client and community partner to the student’s presentations. Finally, students learned to plan and manage a large project from ideation to implementation – this might perhaps be the most important single learning outcome of this course.
Where did the materials to build the house come from?
The house is mostly made out of wood and recycled materials – though we can’t claim we used only 100% sustainable materials. Interestingly, some of the FSC-certified wood comes from Canada or other places even further away. Cameron did some interesting material research and we often had to use common sense to get all the materials in time for this project. All the windows are from Craigslist and the billboard, which shows a golf course and now covers the outside of the structure, was from Cameron’s stockpile.
What surprised you in the process?
One of the surprises was how big our tiny 80 square feet structure actually felt once the walls were up. Although we developed the structure with scale models and tested the basic dimensions with 1:1 mock-ups, we were still surprised by how open it seems on the inside. We have learned that we could actually shrink the structure a bit further without losing any of its quality. 80 square feet might sound super small compared to the standard U.S. house size of more than 2000 square feet, but in this context and configuration it almost feels like a mansion.
What are the future plans for The Outlook?
The Outlook will move to Camp Take Notice sometime in spring. It is currently only provisionally assembled to test its performance, including the solar and heating system. There are some future refinements possible, such as extending the loft a few inches to fit two people, extending the angled back wall to the second floor to serve as a backrest, refining some construction and interior finishing details, etc. We will certainly share the blueprint with anybody interested. However, the idea for Camp Take Notice is not to use this design like a cookie cutter. The Outlook is meant to serve as a model to help Camp Take Notice communicate their vision for their future community.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
It was not just the students who put in a lot of effort in this engagement course. It was also Camp Take Notice that was very invested, both in the tangible outcome of this class and also in the individual learning experience of each student. We are very grateful for all the insights and support that they provided.