Photo Credit: Leonid Furmansky; Community First! Village in Austin, Texas

One of Architect Magazine’s top stories of 2021 included “Small Houses, Big Impact,” by Madeleine D’Angelo, about two microhome developments in Texas build to combat homelessness with attention on having a sense of community in the design. Metal takes center stage in the design and construction of the majority of the microhomes.

Community First! Village is located 8 miles east of downtown Austin, Texas, and is a 27-acre master-planned neighborhood with cul-de-sacs and residential circles that branch out from a central avenue, Goodness Way. But there’s nothing conventional about the community, which provides affordable housing for over 200 former chronically homeless individuals, many of whom have disabilities, and includes an eclectic mix of model RV units, microhouses, communal kitchens, and even an art house. Sarah Satterlee, AIA, the Community First! director of architecture and site development, who also happens to be a resident says, ““Community First! is the type of place that you can describe all day, but it feels different when you’re there.”

Photo Courtesy Mobile Loaves & Fishes; Community First! Village Phase I and II Masterplan

The village was the brainchild of real estate developer Alan Graham, whose local nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a network of food trucks and 20,000 volunteers, delivers food, clothing, and other necessities to those in need. In his work with Austin’s homeless community, Graham came to believe that the “single greatest cause of homelessness is a profound, catastrophic loss of family.”

The design process began in 2014 when Graham partnered with the AIA Austin DesignVoice Committee and created “Tiny Victories,” a competition to design an affordable microhouse. Fifty-four firms from around the world submitted designs, and a jury selected four winning entries. Each house was between 144 and 200 square feet and cost just $12,000 to $20,000 to build. During the construction process, Community First! welcomed additional microhome designs, materials, and construction help, and the neighborhood was born: 135 microhouses—30 of which are Tiny Victories designs—and 100 model RV units, as well as communal bathrooms and laundry facilities, gathering spaces, and other resident resources. 

Based on the success of the first phase, a second phase was built creating another, 24-acre community next to the first one. A second set of five microhouses were designed by five new winning firms: Chioco Design, Jobe Corral Architects, McKinney York, Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, and Thoughtbarn. By the end of this year, when the second phase is completed, the two developments will offer a total of 545 units that will house 560 residents, bringing the cost of the privately funded project to $40 million.

Nkiru Mokwe Gelles, a project designer with Michael Hsu Office of Architecture (MHOA), says the long process of Tiny Victories 2.0 was a “humbling experience,” but it’s given her new insight into the way architecture can help drive social change.

Photo Credit: Leonid Furmansky; Jesse Brown in his residence, designed by Jobe Corral Architects