Architectural Design one Focus of People’s Liberty Grantmaking
Civic-minded Individuals Gain Support for Creative Initiatives
People’s Liberty staff leaders describe the operation as a philanthropic laboratory. This forward-looking, deep-pockets organization, which values disruptive ideas and innovative methods, is changing the character of local philanthropy and the face of urban neighborhoods. People’s Liberty is a collaboration by the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U.S. Bank Foundation and The Johnson Foundation. Timothy J. Maloney is CEO of the Haile Foundation. Haile’s Eric Avner is CEO of People’s Liberty and Amy Goodwin represents The Johnson Foundation in the joint venture, which funds and mentors civic-minded individuals who offer programs addressing a problem or an opportunity to effect a positive transformation in Greater Cincinnati.
The arts and community development figure large in the mission of this new organization. Launched in 2014, People’s Liberty demonstrated its priorities by establishing a headquarters and gallery in Over-the-Rhine, in the former Globe Furniture Building at Findlay Market. The rambling Queen Anne structure has been beautifully renovated with a street-level gallery, meeting rooms, and offices for fellows and grantees. And many of the first grants will benefit OTR.
People’s Liberty has a refreshing approach to grantmaking in that it goes beyond the standard practices of most foundations, which too often reward conventional requests from established nonprofits, seeking support for current practices. Whereas traditional U.S. grant makers often hesitate to make large awards to individuals, People’s Liberty has decided to invest heavily in select individuals with innovative ideas. Top awards of $100,000 are made to “fellows,” who pledge a year of their working life to complete a promising project.
In 2015, the lab funded its first round of projects, with eight grants of $10,000 or less going to individuals and their teams. These projects are now coming to fruition. As an architectural writer and urbanist, I was pleased to see that a number of grants went to fund programs that will improve the built environment of Greater Cincinnati through architecture and design.
Architect Bradley Cooper won a fellowship for the most intriguing architectural design project: “Start Small: Live Large in a Tiny House.” Cooper addresses the problem of the shortage of affordable housing, especially units suitable for prospective homeowners who wish to live in the urban core. His design and construction project is starting small by erecting two tiny (250–270 square-foot on two floors) houses on Peete Street, in Over-the-Rhine. The “tiny house movement” is large right now. It began in the 1990s, inspired in part, by architect Sarah Susanka’s best-selling book, The Not So Big House. The author described the small-house movement as a reaction to the waste and excesses of the suburban “McMansions” and soulless houses that favored size over quality materials, custom design, and craftsmanship. The small or tiny house concept has since been adopted by numerous designers, young professionals, and empty-nesters as key to an economical, liberating lifestyle.
The American Tiny House Association has attracted a large membership and following. The nonprofit organization coordinates housing code and zoning revision efforts, which will facilitate building small dwellings in urban areas throughout the nation. A number of cities are changing codes to allow for dwellings and rooms that are smaller than current minimum standards. Several national construction firms are building and delivering tiny houses to individual buyers. Tiny house enthusiasts gather for international festivals and conferences, most recently in Jersey City and Quebec. And plans are available online for prospective do-it-yourself builders. Architects like Brad Cooper are available to design custom houses that satisfy the needs of individual homeowners and meet local building and zoning codes. Some political entities, such as the City of Cincinnati, offer incentives for sustainable building. It is an exciting time to be considering new construction in the inner city.
But the appeal of living small goes beyond the need or desire for economy. It has an aesthetic and spiritual appeal, reminiscent of Thoreau and early American Utopian communities, such as the Shakers. One of my favorite tenets for understanding the history of art, architecture, and interior design is this: “There is a basic human need for simplicity, which reasserts itself from time to time.” Think Giorgione, Caravaggio, and Picasso in painting. And consider Bramante, Palladio, Corbusier, and Mies in architecture, along with the Bauhaus, Cranbrook, and Knoll in design. When material things become overly grand and refined, people tend to reject complicated designs in favor of basic models, which are easier to comprehend intellectually and emotionally. Such instincts are manifested in the enduring appeal of nature, the cabin in the woods, and even the sensory appeal of Apple products. The tiny house appeals to all those who, through preference or necessity, choose to simplify their lives. Retirees, in particular, have welcomed shedding the responsibilities of caring for large properties and countless possessions.
Cooper’s goal for the houses at 142 and 144 Peete Street is to elevate quality over quantity. He warns prospective homeowners that they should expect to sell, give away, or recycle extraneous belongings. Cooper is creating sustainable, net zero-energy tiny buildings that will generate as much energy as they use. To that end, he has installed high-grade insulation, super-efficient HVAC systems, and natural ventilation, along with solar panels. His design and construction methods will make the dwellings as energy efficient as possible. These houses are designed to be affordable to purchase and to maintain. Advocates of tiny houses in some communities see them as a potential solution to their homeless problems, but the possibility is not a widespread practice as yet. Cooper has high praise for the Over-the-Rhine Community Housing Organization, which is a partner in his project.
The house exteriors are frame, which is in keeping with the historic character of this part of Over-the-Rhine. The ground floors feature an open plan of 140 square feet. The kitchen, which opens into a spacious living-dining room, enjoys good light from a sliding glass door and ample windows. The second floor contains one bedroom of 8.5 x 7.5, plus an attractive alcove, which could accommodate a desk, chest, or crib. This level also features a full bath and ample closets.
For the owner of a tiny house, the monthly payment might be $500–550 month, depending upon the down payment. That compares to the expected rent of around $1,000 month for a comparable apartment in the popular Over-The-Rhine neighborhood.
Cooper’s concept and architectural plans could be replicated, which is a primary goal of People’s Liberty. Cooper says the program is especially “suited to Cincinnati’s hillsides because the structures are relatively light weight, and the small footprint allows room to plant stabilizing trees on the hillside lot.” His emphasis is on quality materials and construction rather than an abundance of indoor space. Each house will have a patio and garden plot.
Buying a Tiny House
The Peete street houses are available for purchase. Prospective buyers must attend at least one of the free educational sessions (there are three in August) listed on startsmallhomes.com website, where they may express interest in ownership and discuss the matter with Mr. Cooper. One house is reserved for an individual buyer whose income is at or below 80% of the AMI (area median income) of around $40,000. The second house purchase is unrestricted.
Impact of the Philanthropic Lab
In another welcome departure from conventional grant making, People’s Liberty is amenable to funding production costs rather than only research and planning of publications and exhibitions. One of its project grants will help launch a quarterly magazine about historic building renovations and laudable but little known practitioners of the art in Cincinnati. Kunst: Built Art will premiere September 2015, and we will review it here.
All in all, People’s Liberty and its community laboratory concept is remarkable for its scope and daring. Greater Cincinnati is fortunate indeed to be home to the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./ U.S. Bank and Johnson Foundations, which are true pioneers in modern philanthropy. The People’s Liberty initiative is boldly contemporary in its goals and objectives, but its faith in the creativity of individuals and in entrepreneurship recalls the brash, disruptive spirit of early American civilization. We applaud the vision and courage of the original donors and present leaders.
–Sue Ann Painter