The 10 Most Inspiring Stories of 2021

These projects cleverly address issues ranging from affordable housing to building sustainably in the face of climate change.
Text by

The past year brought with it a number of groundbreaking projects, from a 40-unit prefab tiny home village for people who lack shelter in Los Angeles to the first legally habitable house in Europe with 3D-printed load-bearing walls. The dwellings below were designed to address a range of issues including—but not limited to—affordability and greener living. These are some of the most inspiring stories we published in 2021.

A Minnesota Couple Build a 324-Square-Foot House That’s a Blueprint for Greener Living

Sophia Jungbauer, a former architectural drafter, and her husband Henry, a professional builder, constructed the tiny home they live in with their dog, Cora, in Duluth, Minnesota. For the name of the dwelling, RAD (Rethinking the American Dream) Tiny Home, the duo took inspiration from a capstone paper Sophia wrote in college titled "Rethinking the American Dream—Downsizing as a Sustainable Solution," which examined the tiny home movement.

The Jungbauers spent almost three years planning and designing their 324-square-foot tiny house. A large pantry and abundant counter space allow them to store bulk foods and prepare fresh meals, cutting down on waste. The couple also incorporated salvaged windows from Craigslist, Energy Star appliances, and LED lighting. A sliding barn door accesses the bathroom, where the couple installed a compost toilet and low-flow fixtures for the sink and the shower.

Todd Vogel and Karen Hust renovated their waterfront home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in accordance with the energy and environmental standards of the Living Building Challenge. Working with architects at The Miller Hull Partnership and interior designer Charlie Hellstern, they honored the 1960s Northwest-modern design while pushing the boundaries of renovating sustainably. 

The house meets Living Building Challenge standards for net-positive water, on-site water treatment, and net-positive energy. "We’re hoping this renovation provides some solutions for how to take our existing homes and make them sustainable into the future, because we’ll never build completely new homes for everyone in time to handle the climate crisis," says Todd.

In Detroit’s Core City neighborhood, a prefab Quonset hut hosts six apartments and two live/work spaces surrounded by an urban forest planted with 150 trees. Named Caterpillar after its long and slender shape, the 9,000-square-foot, commercial-grade steel structure is the result of a collaboration between local developer Prince Concepts, architect Ishtiaq Rafiuddin of UNDECORATED, Studio Detroit, and landscape architect Julie Bargmann of D.I.R.T. Studio.

The team worked closely with Virginia-based company SteelMaster to manufacture the 192-foot-long, 46-foot-wide modular structure, which is divided into eight units that range from 750 square feet to 1,300 square feet. "Within each apartment, we employed an organizational strategy of utility versus ceremony," says Rafiuddin. "We placed a compact, inhabitable box in the middle of each apartment to house all of the services, such as the bathroom, shower, and kitchen."

Before moving into the Community First! Village outside East Austin, Jesse Brown spent 30 years without a home. Now he’s giving feedback for the second phase of the nonprofit development, which is in the midst of adding 310 new micro-homes to the existing 27-acre village.

Austin firm Jobe Corral Architects worked with Jesse to design the home. "Permanence was one of his biggest concerns, and relaxation was also very important," says the firm’s cofounder, Ada Corral. The architects chose a palette of durable, off-the-shelf materials—Hardie board, concrete, and plywood—to make construction and future maintenance straightforward.

Award-winning firm Chioco Design also designed a micro-home for the Community First! Village’s Phase Two. The architects collaborated closely with Sheila, a community resident who lost her house after a devastating divorce and debilitating illness, to better understand the unique needs of someone who has experienced chronic homelessness. 

The team designed a 200-square-foot dwelling—the maximum interior living space on the brief—that balances private and shared gathering areas for their extroverted, art-loving client. "We created separate living and sleeping areas by offsetting the plan elements in hopes of fostering a greater sense of privacy with multiple rooms," says Jamie Chioco, the firm’s founding principal.

In October 2017, the catastrophic Nuns fire incinerated a ’70s-era A-frame in Napa County, California, that had served as a family retreat for 20 years—and that the owners, who are mostly retired, were in the process of turning into their permanent home. (When the fire hit, the couple had already brought nearly all their family keepsakes and heirlooms, making the loss especially poignant.) Working with architectural designer Brandon Jørgensen, the couple turned the loss into a chance to build what is now their permanent home with fire resistance baked into the design.

Jørgensen "hardened the structure" with a series of protective layers (including two composed of fire-resistant magnesium board) between the wood frame and the metal cladding. The window-lined living room is the heart of the 2,316-square-foot home.

With the pandemic raging and her father’s health worsening, architect Monica Chang and her partner, Antony Tran, left their apartment in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles for her parents’ garage in Torrance, California. Enlisting the help of friends and making creative use of materials, Monica converted it into a live/work space for $2,695—all in less than two months.

The move allowed Monica to accompany her father on most of his doctor’s appointments and help with cooking, cleaning, and other errands. Monica’s dad comes over to do his physical therapy stretches  on the climbing wall, and their daily conversations help with his memory loss. Meanwhile, Monica and her mom tend to the vegetables and herbs planted in their outdoor space.

Interior designer Laura Britt and architect Stephen Andrews took notes from WELL Building Standards—and their physician client—to craft a nurturing family residence in Houston’s Museum District that also protects against harsh weather.

With a primary focus on indoor air quality, the interior designer worked alongside the owners to select furnishings that would lighten the home’s toxic load as much as possible. The interior designer utilized formaldehyde-free finishes and glues, as well as low-VOC paints, which contain reduced amounts of volatile organic compounds. The wellness-focused approach also prioritized the home’s natural ventilation, which was already a central aspect of its design. 

Mark Lawton Architecture created a net-zero home inspired by the typology of a fisherman’s shack on the banks of the Westport River. Although the site looks idyllic, it posed a considerable set of constraints, including a modest and unmodifiable footprint and its location in a high-impact flood zone.

Every square foot of the home has a purpose—including the hidden bar integrated into the living area. The structure also incorporates a wide range of sustainable building strategies: It’s entirely powered by a rooftop solar array, which runs an electric car charging station. Smart and efficient heating and cooling systems are integrated throughout the home at a cost of $50,000.

For designer Susie St. John of Embrio Design Studio, supporting her mother through years battling cancer in an environment ill-suited to someone with impaired mobility fundamentally redefined her concept of home. The 2,740-square-foot, butterfly-roofed house she designed for herself, husband Rick, and their 11-year-old son, Otto, in Carlsbad, California, is focused on family—not just for the people they are now, but who they will become as they age.

Susie’s approach is reflected in the home’s entry ramp and wheelchair-accessible halls and showers. "Those are the features that would have made my mom’s life significantly easier—and definitely more enjoyable—both for her and those who cared for her," she says. "And these are the features that will allow us to stay in this home forever."

Published

Topics

Roundups

Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.