Design Challenge Winner Has the Floor

Discussion with 17-year-old Zach Gavin

Design Challenge Winner Has the Floor

We followed up with this year’s Can I Be Your Neighbor Design Challenge winner to learn more about what childhood influences may have contributed to his success, personal insights from the competition and his opinions about affordable housing. Below are highlights from our discussion with 17-year old Zach Gavin of Ankeny High School and a video of the Design Challenge process created by Grand View student Chloe Pacha. Enjoy!

Q: You are clearly passionate about design and specifically housing design – any clues from your childhood this would be the case? 

A: Oh yes, lots of clues! My two brothers and I would tear up the basement, taking apart the sectional couch, and draping and clipping blankets to build elaborate forts.  And then when I was eight or nine I discovered a video game called “The Sims.” It’s a virtual reality lifestyle game that allows you to build, buy, renovate and even furnish a house. I learned so much playing that game.  And then when I was older my parents were in a mode of going to Open Houses as they considered building a house and then later possibly buying one. I went with them and loved looking at all the different living spaces and design options. In fact, even now, if I’m not studying or at work and have free time – I go to Open Houses.

Q: Your affordable home design was impressive, very professional.  What (or who) contributed to teaching you what was important and how to pull it all together?

A: Our teacher, Mr. Vail, is the backbone of our program. He encourages us to keep learning not just at school but outside the classroom. Whether it’s watching a fixer-upper home TV show or taking dual credit classes at DMACC (I took Architectural CAD), every experience is a learning opportunity.  He also set it up so our first semester we did a “Tiny House” project to create a design that was only 600 square feet. So when it was time to do our Affordable Housing Design Challenge project the next semester, the 1,200 feet wasn’t as difficult as it might have been. Also, my grandparents and the architects at ASK Studio were helpful. 

Q: How were your grandparents and the ASK Studio architects helpful?

My grandparents, Ron and Sharon Curnes, used to build affordable housing and worked with HUD quite a bit. They are retired now and I asked them questions about what was important to consider – both the big stuff and little stuff.  For example, something I wouldn’t have thought of was which direction the doors open, especially in a small space so they don’t bang into each other when both are open.

The ASK Studio architects came to our classroom and did desk reviews and they had an Open House at their firm where we got to hang out with them. 

For the desk review the feedback was mostly that my inside work was pretty good, but the exterior could look much better and still stay within budget.  So I changed the roof line, added columns and made it a house that anyone would be proud to live in.  Just because it’s tagged as affordable doesn’t mean it can’t look really nice and fit into any neighborhood.

And when we visited their firm I took full advantage of trying to learn as much as I could about how they approach space and mechanicals and I just kept asking questions and getting all kinds of helpful answers and professional insights.  I also walked away from that event and the competition feeling like I have made so many connections in the industry. I wouldn’t be afraid to email or call any of the people I met. Everyone was so encouraging.   

Q: That in and of itself was valuable – but you also won a $2,000 scholarship from the Greater Des Moines Homebuilders Association and you’re only a Junior. Do you plan to compete again next year and do you know where you’ll go to college?

A:  I will most definitely compete again next year.  I want to keep getting better and I want to try and recruit more students compete.  I’m not 100% sure where I will go to college. I just know I want to study something related to design, engineering, construction and continue on the path of learning all I can to have a future in the homebuilding industry.

Q: Insights or observations from this affordable housing experience?

A:  I learned that affordable housing can be and should be nice, attractive housing. It can fit into any neighborhood.

I also noticed that most of the affordable homes in our area, say under $100,000, are at least 50 years old and I’m not seeing many new single family homes under that price being built. Same goes for multi-family, new construction or townhomes and townhouses with rent of less than $700 a month. It just doesn’t appear to be enough of it being built for the number of people who need it.

The day of our competition Mr. Knoup from the Homebuilders Association talked about the average price of newly constructed homes being in the $300,000+ range. That’s just not affordable for many families even if there are two people working full time. I also learned a rule of thumb that no more than 30% of your income should go to housing.

I just don’t understand why builders aren’t building more affordable housing units and options if the majority of people working need them.

Q: What would you do or consider as a builder? 

A:  I’m still learning, so I can’t say for sure, but one thing I saw that was really intriguing was a tiny house community where there were 24 houses around a shared pond. The entire community was on just 2 acres. The footprint was tiny and made me think about all the people who have large yards, houses and wasted space.

Whatever I do in the future, I know top of mind will be providing value, not wasting space and thinking of how space can be used for not just a person or family – but others in the future.

Q: I noticed your family was at the final presentation and competition. What did they think or say about winning?

A: They were of course proud of me and because I took off from work that Saturday my dad said something like, ‘So you would have been making $60 at Best Buy today and instead made $2,000. That’s a pretty good day.’  We all knew the competition was so much more than just the money, but it still made me laugh.

Q: Closing thoughts?

A:  I want to help get more people involved next year and I want to thank everyone who made it possible - and hope I don’t leave anyone out. 

I’ll start with the Polk County Housing Trust Fund because they’re the ones who started the Design Challenge competition as part of their Affordable Housing Week. Then the architects from ASK Studio for providing guidance and confidence to me and the other competitors throughout the process. The judges who volunteered their time and had the tough job in assessing all the designs and asking us questions. The Home Builders Association and Mr. Knoup for providing such a generous scholarship. I still can’t believe I won it and that others from our school, Jenna Iversen and Rileigh Sheaffer, received $500 from ASK Studio and the Housing Trust Fund.

And last but not least, I want to thank our teacher Mr. Vail. This was his last year because he is retiring. He brought a spark and a passion that is going to be hard to replace. I’m lucky I had him as a teacher and hope we get another great teacher to continue the tradition. 

Click here to see photos of the final Design Challenge judging on the PCHTF Facebook page. While you're there, 'like' us to stay up to date with the latest affordable housing news!