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Tiny Homes For Vets Teach USF Students Huge Lessons

Aug 1, 2016

There’s a growing movement to help homeless veterans by providing tiny houses – structures of only a couple hundred square feet. The idea has taken root in Eugene, OR, Kansas City and Huntsville, AL. Now, you can add St. Petersburg to that list.

The interfaith group, Celebrate Outreach, is embracing the tiny house concept and building on it.

For a start, their tiny houses are custom designed by students at the University of South Florida School of Architecture and Community Design.

“Our main intention is that students design a home and not a house,” said Josue Robles, University of South Florida research faculty in Architecture and Urban Design.

He embraced the “mini home” concept and used it to challenge his students to push their designs. Just like cell phones do more than handle phone calls, he said interior space can perform more than one function.

“How can we step away from conventions of – yeah I need a bedroom, I need a bathroom, I need a living room and a kitchen,” Robles said.

But don’t mistake their designs with the “Tiny Houses” on wheels like those seen on cable TV.

“These are going to be on foundations, permanently affixed. Meeting code, that’s why I’m involved,” said Bradenton architect J.B. Taylor. “This is not a glorified shed. This is not a glorified trailer.”

Taylor, an alumnus of USF, is volunteering his services for the Celebrate Outreach Veterans Tiny Homes project from critiquing the students’ work to sealing the final drawings.

Students in the spring class were charged to design mini- homes of about 500 square feet that could be built for around $30,000. The three top designs were selected and passed along to the summer class where students produced construction documents or blueprints.

One of the architectural students is Thomas Martineau, a veteran who is paralyzed and relies on a wheelchair for mobility.

Military veterans and USF architectural students Thomas Martineau, left, and Aaron Faticone, right.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media

“When I first saw this project, I knew immediately I had to do it,” Martineau said. “I want to serve my community. My community is not only veterans but people with disabilities or different abilities.”

His design offers total wheelchair access with a roll-in shower, roll-under kitchen sink and stove. Those features are a point of pride for his co-designer Talia Smith-White.

“It’s accessible, but it doesn’t scream wheelchair,” Smith-White said.

Accessibility and flexibility of space are key components in all three designs. Yet each is unique.

The tiny home worked on by USF student Yesenia Vega uses translucent panels to flood the space with natural light. And she refined it to better fit veterans’ needs like creating a space that is soothing for veterans living with post-traumatic stress.

There was another veteran in the class, Aaron Faticone, who worked on the third mini-home concept.

Construction documents for one of the three USF student designed custom tiny homes.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media

“Our design uses structurally integrated panels, they’re called SIPs,” Faticone said. “Premanufactured so you basically order the parts you need, they ship it to you and you put it together.”

That’s an ideal scenario because volunteers will help construct the Celebrate Outreach homes.

Building the homes is the next phase and that is closer thanks to the drawings produced by the summer students although they initially thought their class would do the actual construction according to USF laboratories manager and co-teacher Mike LeMieux.

“It’s a much more romantic to be out on site with a hammer and a tool belt and putting something together and getting your hands dirty than it is to sit up all night in front of a computer,” LeMieux said.

But construction documents are essential to get cost estimates, city permits and help Celebrate Outreach raise money.

Another difference with this project, while other veterans’ tiny homes projects cluster the houses into villages, Celebrate Outreach plans to integrate their mini homes into existing St. Petersburg neighborhoods.