After a decade of homelessness, a Duluth woman now has a roof overhead, albeit a small one.
This past week, she became the initial tenant of a home that represents Center City Housing Corp.'s first foray into "micro-housing."
The Urban Land Institute defines micro-housing as a unit less than 350 square feet in size with a fully functional kitchen and bathroom.
The 28-by-12-foot house Center City recently built with the help of volunteer labor in Duluth's Central Hillside neighborhood certainly fits that bill.
Open the door, and enter the kitchen area. There's a bedroom to your left, a living area to the right and a bathroom in the rear of the home.
In the next 12-18 months, Center City plans to provide the home to three successive tenants, asking each in turn to critique the structure.
Lori Reilly, regional housing director for Center City, helped select the first tenant, described as an elderly homeless woman who has struggled with mental-health issues and had been living in a shelter until moving into the micro-house.
"This is a prototype. We want to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses and then decide if we want to go forward with more," said Rick Klun, Center City's executive director.
He suggested micro-housing units such as the one now under trial in Duluth could potentially prove a useful option for single adults who have few places to turn.
"We know the need for housing for single adults in Duluth, and the numbers are huge, particularly for homeless adults," Klun said.
Stick or steel?
Initially, some thought was given to converting a standard 8.5-by-40-foot shipping container into a home, but Center City chose stick-built construction instead.
Wagner Zaun Architecture of Duluth designed the dwelling at no fee. Doug Zaun, a principal partner in the firm, said a side-by-side analysis indicated conventional construction probably would be the most cost-effective option and offered other benefits as well.
He noted that stick construction allowed for more design flexibility and a more thoughtful layout with better proportions, even though the finished product actually is 4 square feet smaller than a shipping container.
Zaun also observed that turning a heavy-gauge steel box into a comfortable, winter-worthy home in Duluth would have required considerable insulation.
Then again, lots of work went into winterizing the stick-built house that is now occupied. The compact dwelling is tightly built and insulated with spray foam. Its only source of heat is two small electric baseboard heaters along opposing walls.
"We're minimizing the heat load and the energy that it needs, but we're also able to install a very cost-effective heating system. So by spending a little more on insulation, we were able to save money and energy on the heating system," Zaun said.
Although final figures aren't yet available, Klun estimated that the home cost about $60,000 to construct.
Zaun said putting up micro-housing potentially could be a far more cost-effective way to accommodate solo adults than typical apartments, which might cost $150,000 per unit, without land.
If not for the talented volunteer crew that constructed the house, Klun figures the cost would have been double what Center City spent.
John Miller is part of an eight-member group of volunteers who built the micro-house. Miller and most of the members of his volunteer crew are retirees who showed up reliably three days per week to methodically plug away at the project, beginning last fall.
"They're amazing guys," he said. "There's nothing fast about how they work. Everything has to fit. Everything has to be level and plumb."
Miller and his crew have worked on a number of other projects involving nonprofits throughout the area.
Besides volunteer labor, Center City also enjoyed the benefit of not needing to purchase land for the project. Miller said a landowner, who would like to remain anonymous, allowed for a micro-house to be built along the alley, behind an existing conventional home on the same lot.
Zaun said his firm sought to strike a balance with the design of the home, wood accents and its angled single-plane roof.
"We wanted to keep it simple to build and economical, so we went with a very basic shed roof, which provides some extra ceiling height and a little more interest on the inside," he said. "We were able to get some big windows into the living room, if you can call it that. So it gave it more character and a better feel."
Zaun explained why he didn't want to scrimp on glass.
"Windows provide natural light. They provide ventilation. And in this case, they're proportionately large enough that, even though it's a small space, they make it feel bigger from the inside," he said. "It's a large enough window that it's not like some hole punched in the wall. It gives you a sense of expansiveness."
The current house was put up as an accessory dwelling unit, as allowed under city code.
If the micro-housing unit earns good reviews, similar structures could be sprinkled similarly throughout Duluth's residential neighborhoods or could be built in clusters. But Klun acknowledged that building multiple micro-homes in close proximity to one another probably would require a change in code.
There could be merits or drawbacks to either approach.
"Time will tell, but I think both would work great," Klun said.
Interim Police Chief Mike Tusken expects law enforcement officials will be part of the discussion but said he reserves judgment as to the idea of higher-density micro-housing clusters, saying it would be premature to take a position either pro or con.
"I would want to see and know more before making any assessment," he said. "If we're going to do this type of housing, of course we want people to succeed."
Toward that end, Klun said Center City plans to partner with CHUM to provide any needed support services to micro housing residents.
"We're going to take this one step at a time and make sure it works," Klun assured.
Even though he personally thinks it can work, Zaun said he understands why people may need time to evaluate and become comfortable with micro-housing.
"This is a new, unique housing type in and of itself, and so it's probably going to be subject to more scrutiny because of that," he said.
Tusken said it's important to consider how any new housing fits into the social fabric of the city.
"All residents deserve to be in an environment where they feel a part of the community," he said.