Housing will never solve homelessness, but community will.” This is the guiding belief of Alan Graham, founder of Community First! Village in Austin, Texas. Nestled just outside the city limits, the village is a master-planned community of microhomes, cottages, and RVs for individuals who have experienced chronic homelessness. By Community First! Village’s definition, an individual is considered chronically homeless if they have experienced homelessness for at least a year while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness or physical disability. Graham’s core tenet of community has guided the development of this radical neighborhood model, the foundation of which is the creation of a permanent community of support and economic opportunity to transition its residents out of chronic homelessness.
In 2014, before Community First! Village’s patch of land off of Hog Eye Road was built out with pathways and microhomes, the big question in the minds of those who believed in the idea was this: How can we design homes that embody relationships and community, not merely the transaction of housing? How can we design housing that dignifies and welcomes those who have been ostracized and disenfranchised through a lack of architectural opportunity?
For formerly homeless individuals, the normal paradigm of the American house needed to be reconsidered through the contextual lens of their experiences. In an effort to create new home designs uniquely suited to this population, Community First! turned to AIA Austin’s DesignVoice Committee, who organized a design competition called Tiny Victories in 2014. Fifty-four microhome designs from designers and architects across the country were submitted to the competition.
Shelby Blessing, AIA, an architect at Page, shared her experience of helping to design a microhome for the competition. Page’s design was among those selected to be built at the village. “We were given a set of guidelines and considerations and were able to visit the Community First Village site, but we didn’t have the opportunity to meet or talk with any potential residents — they weren’t there yet.”
Blessing said that the lack of direct feedback and participation from the future residents was a significant limitation in the design process. “We did our best to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine what they might want and need, but the fact of the matter is that nobody on our design team had ever experienced homelessness. We knew that our best assumptions were still just assumptions.”
The Page team did their best to reconcile with the gaps in their knowledge. “Without direct client engagement during the Tiny Victories design competition, we ran the risk of missing something important,” said Blessing. “After exploring a huge variety of design concepts, our team united around the idea of designing a house that could change and grow to include whatever we were missing. We didn’t want to assume that the needs of all people experiencing homelessness would be the same, so we designed a framework that made room for choice, variety, and adaptation over time.” She also expressed regret over the fact that the team did not consult with any individuals experiencing homelessness during the design process. “In retrospect, I really wish we had.”
Nonetheless, as has been illustrated by the thriving community that has developed, the Tiny Victories competition proved to be a success. In 2018, with 135 microhomes and 100 RVs, the development neared capacity as Community First! Village staff made plans for Phase 2 of the Village. Meanwhile, DesignVoice began a robust qualitative post-occupancy study of the Phase 1 microhomes and community spaces, seeking to include and learn from those voices that were missing during the initial design process. DesignVoice volunteers (including Blessing, who became an active AIA volunteer as a direct result of her participation in the Tiny Victories competition) conducted more than 30 hours of resident interviews and staff focus groups, resulting in valuable insights about Community First! Village’s success, as well as recommendations for continued improvement.
“We started with outlining what goals we wanted to accomplish with the interviews and worked on brainstorming a huge list of questions,” said University of Texas School of Architecture student Mackenzie Thering, a member of DesignVoice who helped conduct the post-occupancy evaluation. “From there, we spent many hours curating the list, trying to limit it to an hour-long interview. During this process, we brought in Michelle Janning from Whitman College, a sociologist whose focus of study involves interviewing communities about their everyday life. Michelle helped us further craft our questions and shared her expertise working with vulnerable populations.”
Thering also shared the variable nature of the responses from the residents. “A question might get a one-word response from one resident and a 10-minute monologue from another. Our questions were really trying to get at what aspects of the community and the homes the residents truly valued and why.”
The multidimensional responses from the neighbors at Community First! reflected a wide range of opinions, much as one might find in a similar study of any neighborhood. “I was surprised by the dichotomy we encountered,” Thering said. “After the first interviews, we came back and regrouped, comparing our experiences and major takeaways. We found that our interviewees had completely opposite feelings on many topics. As we went along, we found that this was not a singular occurrence either.”
Yet, there was one feeling that all of the interviewees seemed to share. “The value of a home,” said Thering. “Over and over again throughout the interviews, I could see major themes emerging. Chief among these was the idea of control and autonomy. We got a multitude of responses to the question ‘What makes a house a home?’, but they all got to the same point: A home is a place that is yours, a place where you make the decisions.
Following the post-occupancy study, Community First! invited DesignVoice to partner on a new iteration of Tiny Victories for Phase 2 of the Village, which, when completed, will include 200 additional microhomes. This time, however, DesignVoice wanted to approach the process from a new angle. Armed with the feedback from the post-occupancy evaluation, they realized that they now had a powerful new tool for the creation of the Phase 2 microhome designs. “We used the post-occupancy information to decide what would be a priority in Phase and ensured that our findings would be incorporated into future designs,” said Thering. “As architects, it is so rare that we have the opportunity to talk to the people who use the spaces that we design and then respond to that feedback through new designs.”
The most direct way to respond to the feedback of the people actually living in the houses, they came to realize, was to directly incorporate them into the design process. In creating Tiny Victories 2.0, DesignVoice scrapped the idea of a traditional call-for-entries-style design competition. Instead, they put out a call for qualified architects and builders, evaluating teams based on design approach, commitment to the participatory design process, relevant past experience, and overall alignment with the mission and vision of Community First! Village. From these applications, five teams were selected for a pro bono process to design five new homes in Phase 2 of the Village, each of which will eventually be built multiple times on the new plot of land.
As for the participatory aspect of the process, five current Community First! residents were selected to be “Seed Neighbors” for Phase 2. In essence, they were the clients for these new microhome designs and would provide direct feedback and guidance to the designers based on their experiences living in Phase 1. Once the construction of Phase 2 is completed, the Seed Neighbors will be among the first residents to move into completed homes in Phase 2 to serve as “seeds” of community, helping to guide new residents and ensure the new section of the Village will thrive in the same way as the first.
Austin firm Jobe Corral Architects, one of the teams selected to design a house for Phase 2, shared their experience with their team’s Seed Neighbor partner, Jesse Brown, who offered a distinct sense of agency and insight in the design process. “It was incredibly important to meet Jesse, to get to know him as a person, and not just in the context of the architecture that resulted,” said Jobe Corral designer Allison Walvoord, Assoc. AIA. “Jesse has been given agency over his own domain, and we did our best to accommodate his particular desires and needs.” Jobe Corral project lead Kevin Keating added: “I don’t know if I’ve ever worked with a client who has had a better understanding of what they want.”
“On a greater scale, our house design was both for Jesse and for the larger community as a whole, because the houses designed for the second phase of Community First! are going to be built multiple times,” said Walvoord. “We considered the general functionality and experience of place of all the neighbors, based on the post-occupancy evaluation. But, Jesse made the process personal.”
“I was continually impressed with Jesse’s exact understanding of how he prefers to live in his house,” Keating said. “He has his friends, his plants, and his recliner; those are the critical components of a good house for Jesse. He was always evaluating our designs in the context of those things, catching us if we let one of them slip out of focus.”
The post-occupancy feedback collected by DesignVoice was particularly helpful in its wide range of insights from a variety of neighbors, helping to contextualize Jesse’s personal tastes against those of residents who would live in future versions of Jobe Corral’s design. “What was particularly inspiring about the post-occupancy evaluation was the qualitative valuation of considerations that are normally taken for granted,” said Walvoord. “For instance, the significance of stability, permanence, and safety associated with the idea of ‘home’ are notions that resonated with the Seed Neighbors because of their experience living without a home. This was profound for me, making this project one that had me reevaluating the very definition of home. For our Seed Neighbor, the idea of permanence was particularly pivotal to his idea of place.”
Richard Devore, another Seed Neighbor who was also surveyed in the post-occupancy evaluation, shared that he enjoyed his post-occupancy interview. “I felt like my input counted, and they wanted to know both the good and the bad.” After being selected as a Seed Neighbor, Devore progressed from the post-occupancy evaluation into the more personalized process of designing his new home with his own team of architects. He felt that the whole process was exceptional. “The people, the meetings, and the end result. My new team definitely took my input and incorporated it into the designs for the new home, the result being something far better than I had hoped for at the outset.”
Richard’s design team at Michael Hsu Office of Architecture was careful to consider specific input regarding Richard’s likes and dislikes in his old home. “Currently, I have separate buildings for my living room and bedroom. In the new house, it will be one building with a bed nook that can be sectioned off from the rest of the house. They also kept what was good about my current storage and improved upon it. I currently have no drawers, and they added some in the right places. They also added a storage unit on my porch.”
The changes that will be incorporated into Richard’s new house are the perfect indication of the value of post-occupancy feedback. While the original Tiny Victories competition was a great success in building a supportive community at Community First! Village, specific feedback from the lived experience of a formerly homeless individual inhabiting a microhome couldn’t be incorporated into the designs. The success of Tiny Victories 2.0 has hinged upon a single, radical concept: engaging chronically homeless individuals directly in creating architecture designed to support them, rather than perpetuating a built environment that (at best) ignores and (at worst) systematically excludes those experiencing homelessness.
While post-occupancy studies are infrequently conducted for small-scale residential projects, Tiny Victories 2.0 provided the opportunity to hear firsthand how the microhome model had worked for neighbors at Community First! Village. “I think studies like this are so important,” said DesignVoice member Mackenzie Thering. “We can step back from our own assumptions and look objectively at how people respond to the spaces that we create.”
Hailey Algoe is a student at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. Shelby Blessing, AIA, and Beau Frail, AIA, contributed to this post.
This article is part of the TxA Community Design Action Team Blog Series.