Student-led tiny house project lays foundation for affordable housing conversations

Video by Ron Bend/CSU Digital Media Team. March 6, 2021.

In Spring 2021, 24 Colorado State University students representing eight different majors teamed up to research, design and construct a tiny house on wheels outside the Nancy Richardson Design Center on campus.

The project is part of IDEA 450 Design Thinking Collaborative, an interdisciplinary, student-led capstone course for graduate and undergraduate students to engage industry and community partners to address and solve real-world problems.

Since February, the class has been working in rotating shifts to complete the build before the end of the spring semester. The group intends to auction off the finished piece to support future tiny house projects on campus.

Tiny house, big impact

Students construct the tiny house on wheels outside the Nancy Richardson Design Center, March 6, 2021. Photos by John Eisele/CSU Photography.

Nearly 11,000 Coloradans experienced homelessness in 2018, and almost a third of those went without shelter for the entire year. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, roughly 580,000 people in the U.S. experienced homelessness on a given night. These numbers have only risen for four years straight.

“This project calls attention to prevalent housing insecurity issues Coloradans are facing and educates people on the need for affordable housing solutions,” said Design and Merchandising Assistant Professor Maria Delgado, Ph.D., the course’s co-instructor.

Delgado and the students hope the project will raise awareness and spark dialogue around alternative and affordable housing for people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity, as well as anyone who may prefer a smaller dwelling for benefits like improved energy efficiency and lower maintenance costs.

The team created a CSU RamFunder campaign to support future tiny house projects on campus. Additional funding was provided by the Richardson Design Center and donations from industry partners including GE Appliances, Pella, Flatiron Steel, Distinctive Spray Foam, Huber Engineered Woods, Takagi and The Light Center, among others.

Maria Delgado standing in front of spruce tree.
Maria Delgado

Built to last

Nina Struble, a fourth-year interior architecture and design student, worked on the design team and created the 3D model for the tiny house using the parametric design software Revit.

Struble also coordinated the diverse student team and project groups to ensure equal representation through the design phase, and to mitigate any potential issues between the digital design and physical construction.

“It was cool to see how everyone’s minds differ,” she said. “It’s been nice to have people from different fields.”

The class is working with the National Organization of Alternative Housing to receive the organization’s certification, ensuring the structure’s integrity and compliance with national and international safety, construction and energy efficiency standards for tiny houses on wheels.

“It’s been really enlightening to work with NOAH,” said Struble, highlighting NOAH’s support in allowing the students to learn without being overly critical.

CSU Facilitates Management has also provided support to students through class engagement consultations and demonstrations.

“Seeing our design come to fruition is pretty awesome,” Struble said.

Interior Architecture and Design students Nina Struble (left) and Emmalyne Axtell in front of the Tiny House on Wheels, March 27, 2021.

Interior Architecture and Design students Nina Struble (left) and Emmalyne Axtell in front of the Tiny House on Wheels, March 27, 2021.

The course’s other co-instructor and Adjunct Professor Mitch Holmes designs and builds custom tiny houses for customers nationwide through his company MitchCraft Tiny Homes.

With his expertise, Holmes has helped Struble and the team navigate the NOAH certification process and construction while also sharing his passion for sustainability and alternative housing.

‘Healthy, stable, affordable’

The tiny house movement has grown in popularity in recent years – with a noticeable spike during the coronavirus pandemic – but city land-use codes and zoning regulations often present barriers for residents interested in alternative housing options.

“For tiny homes to be a viable city option, communities must work with municipalities to advocate for ordinances that integrate tiny home village language, which will expand current housing options,” said Delgado.

Fort Collins planners Sylvia Tatman-Burruss and Ryan Mounce are working to update the language in the city’s Land Use Code to be more inclusive of smaller housing units or other alternative dwellings.

In March, the interdepartmental team completed an update to the city’s Housing Strategic Plan, which now includes language and guidance to achieve its vision of ensuring everyone in the city has access to healthy, stable, affordable housing.

The plan assesses who currently has access to such housing, with design strategies for all residents regardless of status or identity; addresses residents’ physical and mental well-being; recognizes housing as “the most important platform for pursuing all other life goals” and a requirement for quality of life and health; and ensures adequate housing supply to prevent residents from ever having to spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

Tatman-Burruss is working with CSU graduate student Maria Steffen and political science senior Lauren Myli to compile and evaluate definitions for terms such as “tiny houses on wheels” and “accessory dwelling units” – evaluating how cities such as Seattle and Denver have incorporated and implemented them.

“The students are helping us understand aspects of our code that are constraining,” said Tatman-Burruss. “We plan to take their work and have that inform our approach to smaller dwelling units in different areas of the city. It’s very useful work.”

Steffen and Myli are comparing other cities’ existing land use and construction code requirements for alternative housing types with those of Fort Collins, collecting data to support the justification of legalizing various alternative housing types to inform future codes and ordinances.

“Tiny houses provide something for the homeless population that other shelters have a hard time providing,” said Steffen, who is on track to graduate with a master’s in occupational therapy in August. “And that is privacy and a greater sense of dignity, with a lockable space to call their own.”

Building more tiny homes and other alternative housing designs may not solve the nation’s affordable housing crisis overnight, but eliminating barriers to building them could help residents and families across the U.S.  secure shelter, save money, and live healthier, stabler lives.

Head shot of CSU student Maria Steffen.
Maria Steffen

“The legalization of tiny houses, especially tiny houses on wheels, could help address Colorado’s population explosion and increasingly high housing costs – especially for those with lower incomes and fewer resources,” Steffen said.

Support the build

• Volunteer to help with the final stages of the tiny house construction. Contact Maria Delgado to sign up for a shift:
• Donate to the RamFunder to support next year’s tiny house project:
• Follow @csutinyhouse on Instagram to track the team’s progress.
• Engage with the Richardson Design Center. Contact Director Laura Malinin, Ph.D., for more information: