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U alum dreams of Duluth 'Cabin Cooperative'

Luke Nichols designed "The Cabin Cooperative," a cluster of tiny houses, while he was a landscape architecture student last school year. (Rendering courtesy of Luke Nichols)

Every fall, University of Minnesota architecture graduate students wrestle with a real-world issue facing Duluth.

The assignment in the U of M's Design Duluth Studio last fall to address the city's lack of affordable housing got the wheels turning in the mind of landscape architecture student Luke Nichols. But the assignment became larger for him than the one-semester class at the Twin Cities campus. He designed "The Cabin Cooperative," a cluster of 4-6 cabin-like tiny homes that could be built on less than 1 acre of vacant property, for his master's degree capstone project and he hopes to bring the project to fruition in the future.

"I wanted to focus on how I could better use this land. How do you do affordable housing that's not an apartment complex, but is also not a mobile home community in the center of the city?" Nichols said.

The tiny homes would give residents the ability to own a home at a reasonable cost while finding a purpose for unused land in the city, explained Nichols, who now works in Minneapolis after graduating from the U of M in May. A large step in the project is branding a tiny home neighborhood so that it's seen as an asset to the community, he explained.

Tom Fisher, the director of the Minnesota Design Center at the U of M, worked with Nichols on the project and described it as "a creative idea."

"We have cabin culture in Minnesota — people have cabins up the lake — but somehow we don't bring that same way of thinking and living into the city. His idea of bringing the kinds of environments that we accept in our weekend cabins into the city is a strategy for utilizing land that hasn't been built upon and to lower the cost of housing, I thought, was really great," Fisher said.

Fisher said the design studio's role is to get students thinking outside the box. The course is "a great educational opportunity" for architecture and landscape architecture students, who work with faculty and city officials on the projects, Fisher said. The focus differs from one school year to the next, but each project is related to strengthening Duluth and meeting the city's needs.

"Our college is very interested in helping our students learn how to apply their knowledge in real situations," he said, adding that the intention is for students to create projects that could be completed in reality.

The lack of affordable housing hits close to home for Nichols. He was raised by a single mother in a low-income household and they moved a lot, periodically becoming homeless when he was a child. He explained that unstable housing becomes "a cycle" in families — while he was working on the project, he was helping his mother find a new place to rent and that's the reality for people who can't afford to purchase a home.

"I was really interested in these unstably housed families and how we could provide an avenue for home ownership, or at least cooperative-shared ownership, and have it be affordable because that's something that my mother always wanted," he said.

Nichols designed The Cabin Cooperative to have studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom tiny homes, all between 350 and 450 square feet in addition to a porch. He said the likely residents could be retired residents, single parents, childless couples or young adults fresh out of college.

"The American household is changing. It's no longer the two parents and two kids household. Many households have one child or no children. I think the 2,500-square-foot house is no longer needed for most people," he said.

He also designed the tiny home cooperative to include a laundry facility, office space and a picnic space that could be gathering places for the residents. He said he approached the project from his interest in shared spaces.

"You need to provide affordable housing, you need to have a rich social network. Your feelings of safety, your feelings of well-being and psychological health are directly related to whether or not you feel like there's a lot of social capital in your neighborhood," he said.