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Affordable housing talk continues in Fairmont

FAIRMONT– The Southwest Regional Sustainable Partnership had its monthly board meeting at the SMEC building in Fairmont on Thursday. One of the topics discussed was an affordable housing project.

Alex Young-Williams, community activator through Lead for Minnesota, got involved with the project through his engagement with Project 1590. Young-Williams said conversations about the project were already taking place when he came to Fairmont a year ago.

“We’ve had some conversations with various organizations in town including the school district, Habitat for Humanity and the Fairmont HRA on ways that we could produce a code-compliant, resilient housing solution in Fairmont in the next couple of years,” said Young-Williams.

They received a grant from the Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership at the University of Minnesota to get started.

One key piece to the project is the involvement of the school district. Young-Williams said they’ve recently had some positive conversations with the Superintendent. Fairmont High School is also about to break ground on its new vocational center and the plan is to use some of the space to produce the housing assets.

The technology that will be used for the housing project is called a utility core, which is a modular piece of building that contains all of the systems and appliances needed to make a house function.

The concept of the utility core was developed by Jacob Mans, an associate professor for the college of design at the University of Minnesota. Mans also runs a practice called the Decentralized Design Lab. He said they’re working on bringing the cores to three communities in three different regions:

White Earth, Hackensack and Fairmont.

Mans said through his work with the Greater Minnesota Resilient Housing Project, they’ve transitioned away from the idea that a specific design solution is going to solve housing issues across Minnesota, and the thing they should be working on is education and building capacity across the state.

“One of the challenging pieces about constructing anything affordable is that we have to change the way that we build which requires us to educate the next generation of contractors who will come up and build what is right now a significant labor shortage in the construction industry,” Mans explained.

Mans admitted that one of the big hurdles they’ve had is showing people what the cores look like. They’ve received funding through Pine Community and Technical College to get the program started to build some cores there. He said in the next month the plan is to meet with people from Fairmont, White Earth and Hackensack in Pine City so everyone can see the cores.

Steve Hawkins, a member of Project 1590 involved with the project said he understands people are cautious sine it’s a pilot program, but he thinks the upcoming trip to Pine City will allow the HRA and Habitat to see the product and better understand how it will work.

As for now, Mans said they’re working to develop a construction technology curriculum for high schools around the cores. Students will learn framing, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, finish work and cabinetry.

“Through the process in teaching students how to build, we’ll be producing usable assets for the community to share that schools can sell to help recover costs for the program, provide scholarships to expand the program, as well as to provide opportunities for community partnerships”, Mans said.

He said in Fairmont those partnerships are with Habitat for Humanity and the HRA.

Mans said this fall he hopes to engage in conversations with the local building inspector as well as the state department of labor and industry to help everyone understand what they’re doing and to show the city that they’re following code compliance.

“Our goal for the project in Fairmont is to have an agreement in place by the spring with the key stakeholders, the school, the HRA and Habitat for Humanity,” Mans said.

He said they’re also looking to have the curriculum framework reviewed and adjusted, based on what they’re doing at Pine Technical and Community College.

“The curriculum is based on making small things and having them add up to something large,” Mans said.

The cores are meant to be flexible so that communities and people who would buy and build the homes can build whatever style they want as long as it’s built to the state’s energy code.

“Everywhere we go people are talking about the needs for affordable housing and while this won’t solve everyone’s issue, it’s definitely a step in the right direction,”Mans said.

Mans said Fairmont won’t be building one until after the new vocational center is done and the program is up and running. He said right now they’re focusing on the commitments between the high school and Habitat and what the timeline will look like.

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