Tiny Homes Concepts Consider Homeless Young Adults on Chicago’s South Side
Legat Architects’ Ted Haug and Loren Johnson create residential designs that promote dignity and community . . . all within 350 square feet
[Chicago, IL] – In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Ted Haug ran into a young man with a large backpack. They started talking. Haug soon discovered the young man was a community college student who lived in the park. That young man is not alone.
“Many young adults throughout the US don’t have the economic wherewithal to afford both school and housing,” said Haug, head of design at Legat Architects. “That becomes particularly challenging here in Chicago and other places with similarly brutal winters.”
That’s why Haug and coworker/designer Loren Johnson were excited when the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Chicago Chapter announced its “Tiny Homes Competition.” The competition challenged designers to create units of no more than 350 square feet at a site on Chicago’s South Side. The facility would offer living space for homeless young adults going to school or transitioning between jobs.
Johnson said, “I’ve known several struggling college students whose parents cut them off financially. As a designer, I enjoyed the challenge getting into that mindset and doing something about it.”
So Haug and Johnson took to the boards to create what would become two very different, but equally cost- and contextually-mindful concepts. One relies on prefabricated modules and community connections, while the other puts a contemporary spin on a historic precedent.
The designers only had $30,000 in materials and 350 square feet to worth with. Here’s what they created:
The Modular Community: Ted Haug
Haug didn’t want to compromise his design because of size limitations or the type of people using it. Therefore, economy drove his concept: he partnered with Sean McCarthy of Innovative Modular Solutions, a modular home builder. The design had to follow predetermined material unit sizes for height and length.
Haug said, “The prefabricated solution allows for higher quality materials and saves a lot during construction because of ease of installation.” His total materials cost is $29,960.
The concept creates three different levels of community:
- The community room at the front of the development relates to the larger neighborhood along Vernon Avenue.
- An enclosed private courtyard serves a community gathering place for residents to socialize.
- Front and back porches connect every two units to promote interaction between neighbors.
Haug also staggered the units to bring in natural light and relate the development to the street. Though its wasn’t a competition requirement, he incorporated sustainable features like recycled materials, certified wood from a responsibly managed forest, rooftop solar panels, a green roof, and cisterns that collect rainwater.
Haug’s concept also brings the entire complex an indoor storage area divided into different units.
“I didn’t want people thinking, ‘This is all I could get,’” said Haug. “I wanted to create a place that I’d feel comfortable living in.”
The Lift Loft: Loren Johnson
Loren Johnson drew inspiration from a Chicago icon: the two-flat used by Bohemian immigrants. Each of his “Lift Loft” units has an upper and a lower level. And because the units are stacked next to each other, it forms a covered entry and upper level terrace for each apartment.
“The layout creates room for expansion,” says Johnson. “The owner could add on to the house simply by filling in the gaps.”
The design packs most of the essential needs into the first floor: living/sleeping room, storage, and kitchen. This allows for an upstairs bathroom next to a larger multipurpose area. Occupants have maximum flexibility, with space for someone to stay overnight, or additional study/work space.
Like Haug, Johnson wanted to pursue a novel construction concept. So he turned to Evan Menk, Legat’s technical director. The duo explored shotcrete, a spray-on concrete typically used to build pools or underground tunnels. Johnson said, “Instead of digging a tunnel and spraying shotcrete from the inside, we’re building a box and spraying shotcrete from the outside. It’s basically an inside-out tunnel.”
This construction strategy not only lowers the labor and material costs, but also creates the wrinkled effect on Johnson’s design. He relates it to taking a giant sheet of canvas and wrapping it around the whole module.
Every Square Inch Counts
According to Loren Johnson, architecture as a profession is undergoing a kind of division. “A large portion of architects and designers have been seeing their roles in the world more broadly, in the sense that we can affect social and environmental change through design.”
Ted Haug agrees and sees challenges like the Tiny Homes Competition as motivators to improve the quality of design. “When you only have 350 square feet,” he said, “you can’t afford to be sloppy with design. Every square inch counts.”
For today’s young people seeking a quality education, the challenges continue to mount: escalating rental prices, fiercer competition for jobs, and declining state budgets. Haug and Johnson urge all architects to use their talents to address this reality.
Johnson said, “By giving a person property to maintain, an address, and a safe and secure space to study, apply for jobs, and store his or her belongings, we give that person a leg up in the working world.”
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