Austin Rognes Has the Floor

Conversation with 2017 Design Challenge winner

Austin Rognes Has the Floor

A long-distance runner and Junior at Ankeny High School walked away with the top prize of a $2,000 scholarship from the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines.  We talked with Austin Rognes, who just turned 18 in April, and is the 2017 Can I Be Your Neighbor Design Challenge winner to learn more about him, and his new views on affordable housing.

Q: Let’s start by learning about your family and things you enjoy doing.

A: I have three little brothers, so am the oldest of four boys. My mom is a substitute teacher and my dad owns Rognes Corporation which installs water and sewer lines in big construction projects.

I love Computer Science along with Software Engineering, subjects that involve creating useful products for the modern world. And I also enjoy running with our Ankeny High School Cross Country and Track teams.

Q: What do you like about computer science and did it play any part in how you came to discover your talent for housing design work?

A: The reason I love Computer Science is because to be able to program you first need to learn how to think the way a computer thinks, and then translate through back and forth. Although the process can be difficult, you end up with a skill that is extremely useful.

I signed up for the Computer Aided Design (CAD) class to get more software experience and then I stayed on that track and took Beginning House Design because of the teacher, Mr. Vail.  He’s amazing!  He’s the kind of teacher that truly cares and provided insights and tips from real life that will no doubt help me someday. I also discovered it’s your environment, in this case being excited to go to class, that’s makes all the difference, not the equipment or technology. Mr. Vail is now retired and I am grateful he, and my current teacher, Mr. Schmidt, encouraged so many of us to compete in the Design Challenge.

Q: What was your favorite part of the Design Challenge process?

A: Absolutely when the architects from ASK Studio and the Executive Director from the Home Builders Association came to our classroom and gave us one-on-one feedback! They asked questions to challenge our design choices and provided ideas to improve our designs.

I also liked that we were given the story of a family who we were designing the house for. I threw my original design out the window and started over once I got into how the family wanted to live and what I could do through space to meet all their needs and future plans.

Q: What was your perception of “affordable housing” before this competition and how, if at all, has it changed?

A: Honestly, I’d never thought about it and I don’t imagine many people my age do either. Now I have a whole different perspective on how I see things like just driving through neighborhoods and seeing great big houses and wondering if all that space is really needed and how much is wasted.  And now when I see people doing their jobs, whether it’s at school or the grocery store or just about anywhere, I wonder about the money they make and what kind of house or apartment they can afford. I look around my own community and just don’t see many options. That’s not something I would have even thought of before.

Q: With that new awareness, what do you hope changes in the future or what do you imagine would help communities have the right mix of housing options for those who wish to live near where they work?

A: I think it’s a cultural thing and there’s got to be a shift in thinking for people to realize there is a problem. It’s sort of like how smoking is unhealthy, but nobody seemed to really know or care until there was a big ad campaign to drive the message home. I’m sure many people looking for affordable housing know it’s a problem, and I now understand it’s a bigger issue that should be given more attention by our communities.

I think it would help if the people who built houses and apartment complexes were given incentives to build houses that all working people could afford. And I wonder if cities have rules or policies they could use to help manage the kind of housing being built.

Q: I know you’re only a Junior, but do you have plans for college and any closing thoughts you’d like to share?

A: Iowa State has a great computer science program, so that’s where I plan to go. And as far as anything else – I just want to say thank you to everyone who was part of making the Design Challenge possible. I don’t want to leave anyone out, but I for sure need to thank Dan Knoup from the Home Builders Association for the $2,000 scholarship and coming to our classroom to give feedback, the architects from ASK Studio, the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, the judges, and of course my teachers. 

I can’t believe there is a chance my house design might be built by HOME, Inc. Pam Carmichael, who was one of the judges, and is the Executive Director of HOME Inc. talked with me after the competition about this possibility. While it’s incredible to imagine that my resume might include that I designed a house when I was in high school, it’s even more incredible that a real family may be living in it and I can drive by it and know it’s a good, affordable home.


About the Can I Be Your Neighbor Design Challenge for Affordable Housing

More than 50 students from five central Iowa high schools were given a profile of a fictional family who would live in the home, to be built on a vacant in-fill lot in Des Moines’ Birdland neighborhood. Parameters, such as maximum square footage and limitations on costs were given to the students.

The competition, managed by ASK Studio, a Des Moines architectural firm, included classroom visits by architects to provide feedback to the students partway through the process.

Five designs were selected for the competition event at the John and Mary Pappajohn Education Center in downtown Des Moines April 8, 2017. Each finalist had up to five minutes to present his or her design, followed by a question and answer session with a panel of judges.

The design challenge is part of the annual Affordable Housing Week, spearheaded by the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. Affordable Housing Week activities are designed to raise community awareness of the benefits that safe, stable and affordable housing brings to our community.