Architecture as Social Art: NDP Students Design “Tiny Houses” to Affect Social Change

Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul…architects should lead in procuring social and environmental change. […] If architecture is going to nudge, cajole, and inspire a community to challenge the status quo into making responsible changes, it will take the subversive leadership of academics and practitioners who keep reminding students of the profession’s responsibilities.

–Samuel Mockbee, founder of Auburn University’s Rural Studio

Tiny House NationSpend an evening watching HGTV or the DIY networks, and chances are you will find someone trying to build or buy a “tiny house.” Seemingly the architectural rage these days, tiny houses may ultimately present a solution to one of society’s greatest ills: homelessness. And in the hands of eight very capable Notre Dame Prep architecture students, this brainstorm is being moved from concept to reality.

Rural studioThe idea of tiny houses for the homeless emerged after Anne Walker, art teacher, introduced the idea of architecture as “social art” to her students. Two videos helped illustrate social art: Rural Studio about Auburn University’s program which connects architecture students with community members in Alabama’s Black Belt, and As We Forgive, about reconciliation in Rwanda. These films, coupled with the girls’ awareness of social justice issues, inspired the students to do a hands-on project which reflected the NDP mission of transforming the world.

Tackling the concept of “mini homes for the homeless,” Megan Chaney, Anna Littleton, Riley Loskot, Casey Lowe, Cassidy Lumpkin, Liz Meyers, Caroline Walker, and Selah Peacock brainstormed about how a mini-living space can provide shelter and promote physical wellbeing. They then branched out to consider how design improves a person’s spiritual and mental wellbeing.  “This project … kept me on my toes thinking about a person’s daily life,” says Riley Loskot, a senior. “Incorporating everything necessary to live comfortably was an exciting challenge.”

Katie Leage and Architecture Students
Katie League and Architecture Students

Helping the students work through their designs was Katie League, an outreach and enrollment manager for Baltimore’s Healthcare for the Homeless, which provides health, education, and career resources to the area homeless. The girls presented their initial concept models to League, who provided feedback in light of the realities facing homeless individuals.

Armed with newly acquired knowledge, the four teams of two students moved on to creating three-dimensional scale drawings in SketchUp, with one student focusing on the interior and the other focused on the exterior. When it came to melding the outside with the inside, the teams realized the importance of successful communication. They often found that they needed to make compromises and change parts of their designs to actually function. This became even more apparent, when they began to create hand-rendered elevation drawings of the four exterior faces and two adjacent interior views.

Liz Meyers and Megan Chaney
Liz Meyers and Megan Chaney mock up their tiny home

“This project allowed me to use all parts of my brain,” said Meghan Chaney, a senior. “It required creativity, logic, communication skills, and helped me put myself in the place of the people these homes would be built for.”

The students plan to take their project to the next level, potentially printing out some of the models using the new 3-D printer in the STEAM Center.  The long-term goal is to build one of the mini-homes on campus, pending the acquiring of permission, woman power, know-how from the Engineering class, and materials!

Caroline Walker and Casey Lowe

Caroline Walker, a senior who plans to attend Auburn University for Interior Design, reflects, “This project has become a very interesting opportunity for us to apply our new knowledge of architecture fundamentals to attempt to solve the service issue that is the lack of quality housing for those trying to transition out of homelessness.”

The intersection of academics and social justice inspires not only the students, but also the teachers, as Anne Walker explains: “As a teacher at NDP, I am gifted with the opportunity to plant a seed in so many students through the making of art. That seed, the desire to use their creative vision and abilities to develop a more humane and beautiful world through art and design, has taken root and is growing in our current students and our graduates.  This is one of many rewards of teaching art at a school that values social justice.”

Casey and Caroline3 Cassidy and Riley2 Liz and Megan1






N.B. In addition to Caroline Walker, three other architecture students—seniors Casey Lowe, Liz Meyers, and Anna Littleton—plan to pursue majors in interior design or architecture. Junior Selah Peacock, who is also exploring architecture as a possible profession, participated in a summer Career Exploration Opportunity with Peggy Brennan ’09, who graduated with a degree in Architecture from UVA and works for SM+P Architects in Baltimore.


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