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Full-scale studio apartment model points toward Anchorage’s housing future

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: June 26, 2017
  • Published June 23, 2017

"Refrigerator," "Wall Cabinet-Large," "Twin Bed," say the labels on square wood boxes stacked in the annex of a church-turned-arts-and-culture-hub in Spenard.

On a recent weekday morning, Anchorage artist Sheila Wyne and writer Bruce Farnsworth pushed box after box into an area with four wood walls and a gauze roof. They used power tools to screw wooden posts into a gridded floor. A full-scale studio apartment began to emerge.

"This is like being in a dollhouse," Farnsworth said at one point. "A big, grown-up dollhouse."

Cook Inlet Housing Authority, the nonprofit Anchorage housing developer, wants the wooden walls and boxes to be a laboratory for the more efficient apartments of Anchorage's future — and a way to crowdsource apartment designs from people who may actually live in them someday.

The installation is inside what's known as the Church of Love, a former church next to the housing authority's offices on Spenard Road near 36th Avenue. Authority officials say the "3D Living Big Living Small" project aims to merge art with discussions about how Anchorage will change and grow in the future.

The authority promotes affordable and mixed-use housing projects across income and age levels and has bought several properties along Spenard Road. In the past year, officials were brainstorming designs for small apartments for the former post office next door to the Church of Love. But no one was quite satisfied with the results of computer modeling or paper mock-ups, Wyne said.

Wyne and Farnsworth work on the apartment mock-up. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Tyler Robinson, the housing authority's director of development, planning and finance, also decided he'd had enough of community meetings and panels. He was seeing the same faces over and over again.

"You stand around and a quote-unquote 'expert' — which sometimes is me — tells people something, takes a few questions and that's it," said Robinson. "We draw our conclusions as though that's representative of Anchorage."

He and his colleagues hope to tap a broader collective wisdom with their new interactive installation. Any group that wants to participate has just a few rules to follow: The unit has to have a kitchen and a bathroom.

"We're all experts at living," said Candace Blas, who coordinates Church of Love events and installations. "We all have pretty good insight into what it means to live inside a box."

A $3 million grant from a New York-based organization called ArtPlace America is financing the project. The organization uses the grants to encourage "arts and culture as a core segment of community planning and development."

To build a scale apartment inside the Church of Love, which is now owned by Cook Inlet Housing Authority and has hosted a variety of arts and culture events, Robinson and his colleagues turned to Wyne, who lives in Spenard. She has experience in theater set design.

Sheila Wyne and Bruce Farnsworth construct a life-size mock-up of a studio apartment Friday, June 16, at the Church of Love in Spenard.  (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Wyne came up with a design for a studio apartment and a one-bedroom apartment. At less than 300 square feet, the studio is smaller than a two-car garage.

She dug up the dimensions of typical pieces of apartment furniture — a shower, a refrigerator, a kitchen sink — and worked with housing authority carpenters to build dozens of wood blocks of the right sizes.

The walls are covered in a material that resembles a dry erase board, so participants could draw on the walls or take notes. Huge rolls of paper are wrapped around the front to make the apartment feel closed in. Last week, Wyne and Farnsworth, a consultant on the project, spent about two hours assembling one of the apartments to teach Farnsworth how to run a future "build."

Robinson said he hoped to bring in as many groups as possible to arrange the blocks and create their versions of livable apartments. So far, that's included six housing authority employees who work in maintenance, leasing and community directing, and several members of a housing committee with the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.'s "Live. Work. Play." initiative.

Wyne and Robinson said the initial rounds over the past week went fluidly.

"Constructing a fort, making a house in the woods, just all those things we did as kids … now you're just channeling that for a more adult purpose," Wyne said. "So it turned out to be a really joyful thing to work on."

But the insights into what people wanted were also fascinating, Robinson said.

The apartment Wyne and Farnsworth designed — for someone like them, middle-aged and looking to downsize — favored a Murphy bed that folds out from the wall and a sink in the kitchen but not the bathroom.

Next month, Wyne will merge the two micro-apartments into a one-bedroom apartment that's close to 600 square feet. She plans to save each of the designs in a 3-D computer modeling program for future reference.

The project budget, drawn from the ArtPlace America grant, is about $26,000, with about $8,000 paid to Wyne for designing and curating the project, said Sezy Gerow-Hansen, the director of public and resident relations at Cook Inlet Housing Authority.

Robinson said that any interested groups should contact Cook Inlet Housing Authority about participating before the installation wraps up at the end of July.