A collaboration between students in Montana State University’s School of Architecture and Department of Education could help solve a housing crisis for teachers in small rural districts in Montana and perhaps nationwide.

Architecture Students Design Housing for Augusta Teachers
Morgan Bloom, an architecture graduate student at Montana State University, works on scale models of various housing designs. (MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

This summer, students from both MSU departments worked jointly with school district officials in Augusta, Montana, to design and build an 864-square-foot model home that could be built on school property and used as teacher housing. The research design and construction of the model home has been funded by a $15,000 Humanities, Arts and Social Science grant, which was introduced this year by MSU’s Office of the Vice President of Research and Economic Development and Graduate Education. MSU faculty mentors are applying for an additional grant that would fund further development of the project as a solution to teacher housing shortages in small districts throughout the state.

“Teacher housing is a critical issue in Montana and across the country,” said Jayne Downey, associate professor in the Department of Education in the College of Education, Health and Human Development and director of MSU’s Center for Research on Rural Education. “Rural areas face particular challenges due to some of the limits to available contemporary housing.”

Ralph Johnson, director of the MSU School of Architecture in the College of Arts and Architecture and mentor to the six graduate architecture students who worked on the proposal, said the project was inspired by the school’s work on the tiny shelter project for Bozeman’s homeless. In partnership with the Bozeman HRDC and the city’s faith community, architecture students in Johnson’s studio have worked for three years to develop a 150-square-foot tiny shelter prototype for the HRDC’s proposed First Village project. Students designed and built the first tiny shelter prototype in 2018 on campus. An MSU student lived in the prototype for a year, testing its weatherproofing and livability. This summer another group of architecture students built a slightly larger version of the shelter that is handicapped accessible.

Johnson, whose wife, Hilary, is a teacher, said he began thinking about the tiny shelter concept as a possible solution for the need for comfortable and affordable housing for new teachers beginning their careers. “We have heard that there are districts that can’t get contracts with teachers because there is no housing.”

He said 96% of Montana’s school districts are considered rural, and MSU research indicates that 75% of Montana teachers under age 40 said the availability of acceptable housing was one of the most important factors in choosing a teaching job.

While Johnson theorized that a variation of the HRDC tiny house prototype could be a solution, interviews with both school district officials and MSU education students revealed that teachers wanted something a little larger and that felt more permanent, allowing them to put down roots. The research indicated that updated, modular housing was appealing and cost-effective.

So, the architecture students expanded their designs. Initially, the students each designed an 800-square-foot house with a garage. MSU education students reviewed and critiqued the six plans.

“The pre-service teachers (MSU students) offered insightful, thoughtful comments, sharing with us their interest and eagerness to be a rural teacher,” Downey said. “They want to be part of a rural community. What was so helpful for us was to hear and understand their perspective about things they are looking for to make a life in a rural community… And housing is a really important piece of the equation for them.”

Then the architecture students went back to the drawing board, combining the best aspects of the designs into one collaborative plan, which they built to scale from pressboard in the MSU architecture studio space. CTA Architects and Engineers, a sponsor of the project, also advised the students.

The students hosted an open house where observers provided more feedback about the plan, which included a mud room entry, one large bedroom, a bath and a half-bath, a combined living/kitchen and dining space and an additional room that could be used as an office or bedroom. The model also included a loft for an extra bedroom and storage. Johnson estimated the prototype would cost about $135,000 with the school district supplying the land.

The research faculty will write a final report about the project that will be submitted for phase II of an MSU Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences grant, a Johnson said that, if awarded, the $100,000 grant would fund the manufacture of the first prototype by students in the School of Architecture.

Johnson believes the concept could also be a solution for other professional groups needing housing in rural places, such as nurses and firefighters.

“This project demonstrates how interdisciplinary synergy at MSU can address Montana’s challenges in practical ways by involving students, faculty and community stakeholders in a collaborative dialogue,” said Alison Harmon, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Development.

Downey said the shortage of teacher housing is not confined to Montana. In fact, from North Carolina to California, educators are working hard to address it. “Rural communities want good teachers to come and join their communities and suitable housing means new teachers can settle in and really belong.

“What we are doing here is one of the most innovative approaches to rural teacher housing that I’ve seen yet. I am just delighted to be part of such an exciting undertaking.”

- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service -

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