Michael Hsu’s architecture firm immediately understood the implications of participating in Tiny Victories 2.0, a design competition set for the second phase of East Austins Community First! In 2019. Village, a 51 acre community built for people coming out of homelessness. “It was a chance for us to work with someone who wasn’t the usual audience for architecture,” notes architect Michael Hsu. “We believe architecture should serve everyone, and too often it is intended for a commercial audience or for those who can afford the cost of it.”
The community, which includes 100 RVs / parking garages and 130 microhouses designed during the first phase, wanted to add more than 200 additional microhouses in phase two. According to Hsu, five local firms were hired to create unique designs that offer an “interesting mix of typologies for the entire new location,” including McKinney York Architects, Jobe Corral Architects, THOUGHTBARN and Chioco Design. Rather than executing a top-down solution, architects have been chosen not only for previous residential projects, but also for their principles and morals, their commitment to a collaborative design process, and their focus on Community First! Village mission and previous experience of working with vulnerable population groups.
What does it mean to be a good neighbor? In January 2019, the teams spent the night in the village, meeting with the residents and learning the way of life in order to gain first-hand knowledge from the experiences. For the Michael Hsu team and their construction partner Risinger Build, that first meeting was to speak to their seed neighbor, a resident who lived in phase one and who volunteered to move into phase two to help the architects and builders and welcome new residents. While AIA Austin DesignVoice delivered the original assignment – maximum indoor living space of 200 square feet with air conditioning, no plumbing, and a covered porch – it was the seed neighbors who acted as customers.
“We proceeded with the attitude of the learners,” says Michael Hsu project designer Nkiru Mokwe Gelles. Richard, her seed neighbor, wanted separate sleeping and living areas, but at only 200 square feet, that was a challenge. Fourteen-foot ceilings gave way to a more intimate bedroom corner, and Richard was given a virtual reality experience before construction began. “We wanted them to have the same experience as any other customer,” she says.
Although the designers were small in their serenity, they wanted the house to be an iconic piece of architecture “that marks its place,” says Hsu. Their design with a sloping roof, open porch separate from the main structure, plywood interior, concrete floor, exterior cement cladding, and lots of built-ins is simple but intentional. A glass dome lets natural light into the building throughout the day and marks the place of the house amidst the other buildings in the field. “You can see the dome lit up at night. It’s a way of connecting with the rest of the village, ”Gelles concludes.
For residents Community First! Offering security, shared resources like communal kitchens, laundry and toilet facilities, and walking paths, a movie theater, woodworking studio, and more, Village has been seen as an invaluable addition to the city of Austin and a sustainable model for combating homelessness.
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