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University of Arkansas tackles affordable housing crisis with prototype home

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Monday, February 19, 2024   

By Matthew Moore for KUAF-FM.
Broadcast version by Danielle Smith for Arkansas News Service reporting for the KUAF/Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation-Public News Service Collaboration

A barrier of plastic orange fencing surrounds an odd-looking structure just north of Vol Walker Hall on the University of Arkansas campus. John Folan removes a bungee cord that’s loosely holding up the fence and leads the way to what looks like an unfinished home. The whir of construction happening next door at Mullins Library hangs in the air, but is mostly halted at the entryway of a full-scale model of a new kind of home being designed by the Urban Design Build Studio, a part of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design.

“It's going to come apart, and it's going to be put back together,” said Folan. “We're going to have community engagement out here. It's a way for people to kick the tires with technology and the spatial configurations that are being proposed, but it has a very simple form. Materials are very simple, but actually what's being done here is pretty sophisticated.” 

We walk through a doorway into one of the two interior rooms of the house. The ceiling is tall, more than 10 feet at its lowest point, with a strong angle upward. One room features a loft above it for sleeping. And a distinct element of this home is how much lumber is used and seen in its construction. 

“Where we're standing right now is not a full-scale representation of what the home is,” said Folan. “This is just giving you a sense of what the space might feel like with the wood exposed. Over the course of the spring, we'll be adding windows, there'll be an exterior cladding that goes on the outside. The lumber on the north face will remain exposed and then we'll be adding the finishes on the inside. There's stairs that go up to a sleeping loft. And again, that's not the full size of the sleeping loft. It just gives you a general idea of what the layout is.”

The wood is a key component of this structure. Folan describes it as wave layered timber. Imagine the stereotypical drawing you’d see of an elementary student making waves: small rounded peaks and shallow valleys down the length of a piece of wood.

"It’s a material that is shaped in a way this meshes together like that,” said Folan, as he laid the two pieces of lumber on top of each other. “And then there are threaded rods which go through it. There's no adhesives that are used. We’re able to put this together without insulation on certain surfaces. It develops a weather tight airtight bond and that weather tight air tight bond means that when this building has completed its serviceable existence, it can be taken apart and these pieces can be used for other purposes.

“It employs what's known as ‘designed for deconstruction principles,’” Folan continues, “which is something we've been working with for quite some time. We're working with this technology through an exclusive license agreement with WLT Capital Oy, which is a group out of Helsinki, Finland, collaborating with them and this will be the first time that this technology is employed in North America.

The current structure on campus is only 54 square feet, but Folan said do not confuse this for a new kind of tiny home.

I can understand thinking this is a tiny home being here,” said Folan. “The width of the home will be a little wider than twice this width. So it's going to feel a lot broader. The length of the home is around seven feet in length.

Folan said they’ve been working with residents to show them drawings and large scale models of the homes. “They've been saying ‘Wow, I can't believe that. It that looks like a much larger house than I would have thought it was.’ So, what we're trying to do is make sure that everybody has the amenities that they would have in a house. But we're just looking at efficiency. It’s an essay in design and it's not about trying to minimize everything. It's where do you find efficiencies and understanding how people occupy homes, how they use them in different ways and then just providing universal spaces for that.

This home, as cool and technologically advanced as it is, is more than just a class project for Folan and his students. It’s their attempt to help with affordable housing in northwest Arkansas. He said there’s really just three factors when it comes to the issue of affordable housing.

“It’s labor, land and lumber,” said Folan. “If you're going to address this in a sustainable and a responsible way, we have to understand and accept the fact that labor prices are going to fluctuate and they're going to be subject to what market forces present. Same with lumber. The materials are going to cost what the materials cost and the land is going to cost what it costs. And if you're in an environment like northwest Arkansas, it's going to escalate significantly.”

It can be especially hard for people looking to become first time homeowners in a region where labor, lumber, and land are all three very expensive. The United Way has named a subset of households as ALICE – Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed. That is to say, people who have jobs, but may have to decide between saving money for a down payment on a house or paying for childcare. In Arkansas, that’s 1 in 3 households.

Folan said these homes can be built in higher density and on smaller pieces of land. The objective is to customize and modify to meet the needs of the owners while also being environmentally friendly, efficient, and perhaps most important, affordable.

“I think the recognition of ALICE is probably one of the most significant moments and understanding the contemporary housing crisis,” said Folan. “At the AR Home Lab, Urban Design and Build Studio, and Fay Jones School, we've been working on another home prototype with Go Forward Pine Bluff and the Pine Bluff Urban Redevelopment Authority, and it's targeted specifically for the ALICE program that they had been working on in collaboration with Simmons Bank in central and southern Arkansas. So, it's interesting that you brought that up becausem again, it further reinforces that this is a very tangled web and these are all related considerations.

Another demographic to consider with these housing prototypes is Folan’s students. He said one of the advantages of this is having a finger on the pulse of the next generation of potential homeowners.

“There's always a discussion about ‘So who's living in the home,’” Folan said. “Oftentimes, someone will raise their hand and say ‘Oh, well, it's a single mother with two children.’ Or they'll say ‘it's a nuclear family,’ but it's interesting because they have a very firm idea of who's going to occupy the home, and what it does is it opens the conversation to, well we've now constructed 30 different narratives of who might live there, and they're all going to live in there in a very different way.”

When it comes to the students themselves, members of Gen Z, he said their priorities are very different as well when it comes to the design, implementation, and location of the homes.

“Homeownership is not that important to a lot of students,” he chuckled. “That's not necessarily something that they're concerned with. It'll be interesting to see whether that changes with time. I think we've been seeing that trend now for I would say the last 20-30 years where they have this vision of owning their own home. And what we're seeing with a lot of the students is [their priorities are] travel and experiences. What I have found interesting is that, after a period of time, we are finding that adults further on in their life are coming back to that norm of homeownership. It will be interesting to see, but we don't know.

What Folan does know about this generation of students is how they value the natural beauty of the state and their care for sustainability and the environment. 

“One of the things that's emerged from that is, do you really need a large home?” said Folan. “So much of what's valued is actually outside and around the home. So, if you can find ways to have the home find these external spaces that everybody appreciates, you're expanding the footprint without any cost. I think that's been really beneficial in the process.

While there’s just 54 square feet of interior space in the prototype on the Vol Walker lawn, a sliding barn door shows a spacious exterior.

“One of the significant components that's missing right now is we have a long bench and a railing system that goes around the edge of this deck,” said Folan. “The idea is that if there's a group of potential homeowners, they can sit there and we can present information to them about what the actual house would look like. We're going to work with virtual reality and other tools so that they can experience what those spaces might be like. It's going to be a hybrid of looking at drawings, seeing the physical materials experiencing facsimiles of the space, and we hope to get feedback on that so that we can refine everything.

“One of the things that we've been looking at that the deck illustrates is — and the advantage of using this material is — you don't have to use brand new material for this. We've been incorporating reclaimed lumber, we've been diverting from the landfill and waste streams. We're also showing how that can be used to develop patterns. Just kind of blending different. It’s just a full scale experiment at this point.”

Matthew Moore wrote this article for KUAF-FM.

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