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Visitors looking at pictures on a wall.

Visitors to the Weisman Art Museum's current exhibit ponder the various architectural designs for affordable houses.

The future of affordable housing

Weisman exhibit showcases possible single-family houses for low-to-moderate income families

By Pauline Oo

February 10, 2006; updated February 22

First we had the Fab Five (of the TV show "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy"). Soon, maybe, we'll have the "Fab Tree Hab"--a living tree house.

The Fab Tree Hab is one of nearly 80 green and affordable architectural designs appearing in "The HOME House Project: The Future of Affordable Housing" exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis.

The eye-opening exhibit (though the fineprint used in the drawings can make it seem overwhelming) springs from a competition organized three years ago by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in North Carolina. SECCA challenged designers and architects from around the world to propose novel ideas for affordable homes that employed green or sustainable methods, materials, and technologies, but with a catch. They had to use the Habitat for Humanity's basic three- and four-bedroom house as a point of departure.

The drawings, scale models, and building sections at the Weisman range from the peculiar (the Fab Tree Hab brings to mind a beady-eyed bug being squished by fingers) to the practical (how would you like a house with movable walls for when the size of your family changes?) and are organized into thematic sections: innovative materials, modular and prefab, user customized, energy innovation, rethinking the traditional house form, and adaptive reuse of existing structures.

The "drape wall"

In 2003, Marc Swackhamer from the U's College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture was part of a design team that came up with "Draft House," from which drape wall--a full-scale wall section--evolved. (To learn more about the innovative wall, click on the link in the title.)

"The demographics of those who can afford decent housing have fallen since 1975--three in ten U.S. households have affordability housing problems," says David Brown, The HOME House Project director and senior curaor at SECCA. "Affordability is one of the greatest challenges in the United States, and affordable housing is an acute and hotly contested issue. It is a noble cause with a bad reputation [because so much of it is poorly constructed]."

Brown says one of the goals of the HOME project is to change the stigma attached to affordable housing by establishing a new national housing model, one that's based on good design, energy efficiency, environmental consciousness, and cost effectiveness. Affordable housing, he adds, can be well designed--pleasant to look at and healthy for the residents--and sustainable.

Green and affordable events

On Tuesday, March 28, Ann Forsyth, director of the U's Metropolitan Design Center, will contemplate the future of affordable housing with Nicolas Retsinas, former federal housing commissioner for the Clinton administration, at 7:30 p.m. in the Ted Mann Concert Hall. Tickets are $28.50 ($23.50 for U faculty, staff, students, and UMAA members). To order, call 612-624-2345.

For a complete schedule of related lectures and other events on affordable housing, visit the Weisman Art Museum.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, affordable housing means homes on which a household spends no more than 30 percent of its annual income. It states that "families who pay more than 30 percent of their income toward housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care."

"The Twin Cities metro area is blessed with the best system for preserving and producing affordable housing because of public policies, programs, and commitment from the public sector and housing advocates," says Thomas Fulton, president of the Twin Cities-based Family Housing Fund. "But the bad thing is, 171,000 or 46 percent of low income households in the Twin Cities metro area are paying more than they can afford. And 33,000 new housing units will be needed for low income households in Minnesota by 2010."

While Fulton believes that none of the affordable housing ideas featured in the Weisman exhibit would become reality in the Twin Cities--because of zoning and building issues--Marc Swackhamer is optimistic. The University of Minnesota assistant professor of architecture says, "This exhibit is not intended to provide answers, but to form seeds for future growth and for us to see what potential is out there."

And, he adds, "if you see something strange or odd, there is sound reasoning for it."

"The HOME House Project: The Future of Affordable Housing" exhibit runs through April 30. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. Admission is free.