innovation and the odds

In July of 2015, a Washington Post article “An Opportunity Gamed Away” shared the story of Linda Fay Engle-Harris, a Tunica, MS resident whose housing and economic situation might have been different if the development possibilities brought by casinos had been tapped into by government and corporate leaders. Ms. Engle-Harris, like many others in rural Mississippi, lives in a dilapidated home and does not have access to affordable housing options that are safe, healthy or dignified. Though we often hear stories of Mississippi and the ways in which the deck is stacked against residents, especially Black residents, adversity also leads to ingenuity. Though a challenge is at the root of Ms. Engle-Harris’ story, in 2016, innovation is becoming the theme.

Olon Dotson, an Associate Professor of Architecture at Ball State University, was inspired by to get involved by the Post article. He contacted Ms. Engle-Harris and the two have embarked on a journey to improve Ms. Engle-Harris’ living situation, but also to engage Ball State students in important questions around affordable housing and social and environmental justice in the process.

My own work documents one story of how Katrina Cottages have been re-purposed as affordable housing after their initial deployment to the Gulf Coast. Now, Dotson and his students are digging into the question of how to utilize remaining one-bedroom (approximately 400 square foot) units that don’t fit well in the demographic of large and sometimes multi-generational households common in Mississippi’s rural environment. Students presented mid-term designs to Ms. Engle-Harris combining two of the smaller units into one large home.

Dotson’s studio is exposing students to topics that loom large in the architecture and community development fields today, such as how design can better be utilized and understood as a tool for building equity, and how the definition of the roles of the architect and the client change faced with contemporary challenges. But likely the most innovative aspect of this project is the balance that the student proposals strike between modular and site-built components. As architects seek opportunities for innovation throughout an expanded scope of project delivery, and interest in pre-fabricated, modular and manufactured housing continues to rise, this type of hybrid thinking is not yet well vetted but implies untapped potential for improving building performance and responding to client’s individual goals within the confines of a budget.

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