Luke Nichols’ first year at the University of Minnesota was “glorious.” While his courses were stimulating, that high praise was reserved for something else. For Nichols, college meant a warm bed, hot meals and a dorm room where he could safely store his stuff. Nichols, 29, earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences and graduated last May with a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the U’s College of Design. His passion is housing instability, because “you just never know who” will be caught in its grip. Now a design associate with Minneapolis’ Travis Van Liere Studio, he shares his hope of bringing his capstone project, the Cabin Cooperative, to life.
Q: Homelessness is not theoretical to you.
A: I grew up in Prior Lake with a single mother, although my father lived in the same town. We always struggled, moved around a lot, slept in cars, churches, motels. Right before college, my father’s house where I was living at the time was foreclosed upon. I was told, “You gotta leave.” My friends opened up their homes to me and I’m very grateful for that.
Q: Your vision for the Cabin Cooperative began with an assignment to use design as a catalyst for change in Duluth. For you, this meant addressing the lack of affordable housing in that city. You drew on the small-house movement, but with a twist.
A: The tiny house movement isn’t a new idea. But I explored building small houses on vacant, tax-forfeited land throughout Duluth, land that is sitting idle. We would build six- and 12-unit tiny homes on those parcels. It would be a win-win. The city could get tax income for the land and provide affordable homes. I’ve consulted with developers and lenders. Duluth Mayor Emily Larson has expressed interest as has the housing authority.
Q: Did you actually build a sample?
A: I created a 3-D model and a film.
Q: When you say small, how small?
A: From 350 to 450 square feet. I don’t think most people need a 2,500-square-foot house. Americans are just used to that. But the suburban lifestyle separates us from one another. All that driving and traffic and lack of social cohesion is impacting our democracy. Encouraging smaller and more compelling dwellings is absolutely crucial.
Q: Along those lines, you talk a lot about the importance of lower-income people experiencing community, feeling part of something bigger than themselves.
A: When I was a teenager, I’d go to my father’s house and he tried to instill in me the idea of stewardship in the place you live, no matter how small or simple. I started growing carrots with him, planting a lawn. That’s likely where my interest in landscape design comes from. The challenge in Duluth is that it is largely a 26-mile city spread thinly along the shoreline; it’s a very linear city and most lower-income housing is at the ends, where land and rent is the cheapest. But it’s isolating.
Q: So, this is about bringing lower-income people into the center?
A: Yes, bringing them into the center of the city and offering them a social network that is supportive. They’d have their own property, their own gardens, their own space. But there would be a communal laundry facility, office space and a picnic space for gathering. It’s the closest to the American dream that many people can achieve.
Q: And a porch with every unit. I’m guessing that was intentional.
A: Very intentional. Most of the tiny homes I’ve reviewed have porches. This is about building community.
Q: You were also intentional about using “cabin,” not “mobile home.”
A: I lived in a mobile home community in high school and I found it almost the perfect home. But few people want to live in a mobile home community. Most people embrace cabin culture.
Q: Who would pay for these homes?
A: My model is based on cooperative financing, where share revenues from residents are used for the down payment on a cooperative loan to build the development. Costs are offset with donated land and grants for residents. My demographic are people who are unstably housed, not homeless. They have enough money to support themselves but, if there were some type of disruption, they could lose their home. They could move here, decrease their expenses. My goal is to offer housing that’s cheaper than a one-bedroom apartment and that offers a more compelling and connected, albeit smaller, lifestyle.
Q: You took some time off before graduate school. What did you do?
A: I completed my bachelor’s degree in 2012, then spent some time as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer serving Urban Roots and the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. I also worked as a baker. There’s nothing better than a piece of warm, crusty bread with salted butter.
Q: What are your next steps?
A: Most capstone projects end after a student graduates. I set this up to be different. I really wanted it to go back to the Duluth community for discussion. And not just Duluth. Minneapolis has a lot of vacant land. My goal is to have people rethink what is possible in their community.
Q: For people who would like to learn more about the Cabin Cooperative, where might they find you?
A: They can visit tinyurl.com/y3s9l4fy.