Growing up in rural southeast Minnesota, I never knew I wanted to become an architect until I was introduced to the idea by a school counselor in high school. In my mind, as an architect I could connect the two things I love most in life – my fascination with people and an ability to shape space through design.
I spent most of my childhood roaming farm fields, playing in creeks near cattle, and playing “house” in the driftwood. One time my sister and I tried to make a teepee out of some dead trees….it’s harder than it looks. The point in telling you all this is that I felt truly inspired by my rural surroundings growing up and I believe I’m not alone in this amongst architects and designers, especially in the Midwest. However, I don’t believe our architectural education and the overall profession has led us to believe these experiences are worthy to creative processes and design. Whether this is because we don’t see many rural architects practicing (and being celebrated) in the US, the economics of architectural business hasn’t allowed for this exploration, or our educational systems praise more high-end world-renowned firms in large cities, we haven’t yet tapped into a sector of architecture that I believe is really exciting for designers and the profession alike.
I truly believe that the variety of experiences we have as Midwesterners (such as growing up working-class, living in small towns, farming, playing amongst the prairie grasses), nurtured through education and artistic exploration, can absolutely aid in the design of rural spaces. In my opinion, this is the real strength that architects in the Midwest have access to and it can lead to more place-based and supportive architecture designed to assist our communities.
This idea is not to negate other childhood experiences and socio-economic contexts, but I believe as a rural person who went to two Midwestern universities that these experiences are especially unspoken about or ignored in school and deserve to be discussed in today’s expanding architectural profession at a time where our nation is becoming increasingly more aware of rural communities, thanks to the Internet and the current (sometimes awkward) political discourse.
Now, I know what I have just laid out above is probably being met with skepticism from seasoned architects, engineers, and builders alike. This is a totally justified way to feel considering how difficult it is to access rural people as a client base for business (I’m currently finding this out right now). But what if we just put that aside for a moment…
I would like to share a couple projects I’ve had the honor of being a part of recently that I think are starting to redefine rural innovation in architecture and building.
First, I want to highlight my recent partnership with the City of Spring Grove (Southeast Minnesota, pop. 1,330), Spring Grove High School’s Makerspace class, and the Habitat for Humanity – La Crosse, WI chapter where we are collaborating on designing a Norwegian-American inspired home. Being half-Norwegian myself, and very interested in historic cultural architecture, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to serve my community, help teach high school students about architecture and the profession, and receive some project experience designing a new construction house while unlicensed (Hello, AXP hours).
One fundamental component to know is that this project was all due to the Southern Minnesota Initiative Fund’s Small Town Grant that Spring Grove was awarded and the brainchild of local community economic adviser, Courtney Bergey who works with CEDA. Bergey initially connected with me regarding an idea for new affordable housing in county in the summer of 2018 when I was a Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge Citizen Artist in Residence (hosted in Houston County, Minnesota).
Following this, I was hired in Fall 2018 by Spring Grove High School through the grant funds to be the head designer working alongside Habitat for Humanity-La Crosse and the Spring Grove High School Makerspace class students to design and build a new house in town. In lieu of making this article longer, I invite you to read up on this project through the article I wrote for the Young Architect Forum’s CONNECTION magazine’s July issue, pages 32-35, entitled “Spring Grove Heritage House: Designing Affordable Housing with Cultural Histories in Mind” https://issuu.com/youngarchitectsforum/docs/2019_q2_leadership_0620_issuu/32.
I believe this type of project and partnership is an avenue architects and emerging professionals alike can look into for projects to create more place-based affordable housing. An important aspect of this project is that Spring Grove did have a grant to secure funding for the up-front design which was essential to the Norwegian-American concept. I highly encourage architects/firms to reach out to community development offices and artists to start these conversations and prepare for grant applications. This communication is so important to strengthen architects’ connections to their community and other professionals/tradespeople outside of architecture that are integral to city economic and architectural project development.
Due to its length, this article has been formatted into a two-part series. Begin reading Building Innovative Partnerships for Projects in Rural Areas, Part 2: Yes! House.
Featured image: Design Round 2 showing updated exterior elevation of Spring Grove Heritage House. Photo Credits: Miranda Moen 2019
About Miranda Moen
Miranda Moen is an Architectural Designer based in Austin, Minnesota. Moen is passionate about rural design and cultural heritage research, working with rural artists, economic development leaders, and private clients in Southern Minnesota and Northern Iowa.
AIA South Dakota is the professional non-profit membership association of architects, future architects, and partners in the building and design industries, and the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) AIA South Dakota advances the mission that design matters in every South Dakota community.