Interview with Griffin Gade, winner of this year's student design challenge

We had a conversation with 18-year-old Can I Be Your Neighbor Student Design Challenge winner Griffin Gade (shown at left with Dan Knoup of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Des Moines).


What follows are his insights on the experience of designing an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) for a fictional Des Moines homeowner, what he would say to those who determine zoning and building codes, his plans following graduation, and why he loves Des Moines. 


Q. Any indications from childhood that you might have a future in architectural design?

A. Well, like most kids I loved Legos, which is common, but in middle school I was always looking out the windows as buildings were being constructed around our school. I liked to watch the process of how they were built. Growing up I loved art, but I didn’t make it a priority during school. After realizing how important it is to have that mindset that art gives you when designing, I wish I’d taken fewer math and science classes and more art classes. Thankfully I have YouTube to help me in college. 


Q. This year’s Design Challenge was to design an Accessory Dwelling Unit for a homeowner who wanted a place for her mother to live. Had you ever heard of an ADU and what compelled you to compete? 

A. I hadn’t heard of the term ADU, but I knew what they were and have actually stayed in many on vacations that were set up as short-term rentals (like an Airbnb).


As far as competing, I actually got a late start on my project.  When the architects from ASK Studio came to do the desk reviews, everyone else had their plans well underway and I had like four walls, a roof and a lot of windows. Now thinking back on the process, it might have been a good thing because I got more insight and reassurance on my idea, as well as a better idea of the constraints I had to develop my project around. (What was your idea?) To create an affordable 500 square foot space that didn’t look or feel like a downgrade.


Affordability doesn’t equal cheap. My vision was to include lots of windows and open space to make the house feel larger than it is. I was challenged on this part of the design, but I was pretty stubborn and I’m glad I stayed committed to it. 


Q. Your grandparents were at the final presentation. Would you want one of them to live in this unit?

A. 100% yes — I’d love to live there! I like the idea of being minimalist and living with a smaller space. That being said, there's still plenty of room in the house.


Q. Through this experience, what have you learned about housing affordability and community planning?

A. That there’s a huge need and an obvious solution in my eyes is to allow for more density. The problem as I understand it from listening to architects and engineers is zoning. It comes down to mixing housing options like townhomes, single family homes, ADUs, and small apartment complexes together. Many say that this would be harmful to neighborhoods, but with this example of an ADU, it adds density and affordable housing and it’s hardly noticeable.


One thing I don’t understand is this feeling that providing housing that is affordable is something that has to be forced. That if it’s not forced, it won’t happen.  Why not start with the idea that every community needs people, not just to live there but to work there, too. It seems the zoning and building codes would have to follow that idea and allow for a variety of housing options to match the variety of incomes. 


Q. I can’t help but wish city leaders and planners could hear what you just shared. Anything else you’d add if talking with them?

A. I’m not an expert by any means, but I’d simply ask them, why not? There’s clearly a need. They wouldn’t be taking much risk. I imagine developers and architects know what is in demand and will create if they are allowed or encouraged to. Same for people who have money to invest like we learned about in the AARP video that included ADUs. Fewer restrictions and medium density seem to be the way to go. 


Q. Back to the Design Challenge for Affordable Housing. Since it began in 2013, Ankeny High School has landed students in every final.  Why do you think that is and are there any competitive advantages?

A. I think that just like in sports, if you build a winning program and set the expectation of success, great things seem to happen. My teacher, Mr. Schmidt is very passionate about the competition and designing an affordable house fit into the class’s syllabus, so we have plenty of class time to focus on it. I’d also have to say technology. In addition to the usual design software, I used ENSCAPE for the first time. The renderings are amazing, and you have this virtual reality capability so I could be inside the space, look out the windows and walk around the living areas. I got sucked in and ended up working on my design even more hours outside of class. 


Q. You’ll be graduating shortly. Plans for college, preliminary thoughts on careers and your future?

A. In short, ISU, Architecture and Des Moines. We are an Iowa State University family. My mom has a Chemistry degree from ISU and my dad’s degree is in Civil Engineering. I’ve grown up visiting campus, going to games and I am looking forward to going there this fall. While I understand that financially it may be more lucrative to go the aerospace engineering or business routes, I already know my passion is architecture. I’ve watched my parents enough to know that if you find something you are passionate about, fulfillment and financial success will be more likely to follow. 


I really love Des Moines. (You live in Ankeny, correct?) Yes, Ankeny is great, too, but in my mind the suburbs are part of Des Moines and wouldn’t be what they are without Des Moines. For me the Metro is one continuous city and I try to pay attention to all the developments, amenities and decisions being made. These past 20 years have been especially amazing. So much that was planned years ago is now here. 


I also have a lot of connections in Des Moines, and this is where I believe I could make a difference. I can always travel to Colorado, and I’ve learned that I’m not one to rest on a beach. I can imagine traveling to study architecture and explore city centers, but then return home to make a difference.


Q. Final thought, perhaps people you wish to recognize or thank?

A. Yes, I have a list. Thank you to Dan Knoup and the Home Builders Association for the scholarship prize. It will go straight to tuition at ISU.  Thank you to my teacher Mr. Schmidt, the architects of ASK Studio, the Polk County Housing Trust Fund for starting this competition and the judges for their time and feedback. I also appreciated the ideas and designs of the other finalists. It was evident everyone worked really hard. And finally, a thank you to my parents who provided feedback as I practiced my presentation and who helped me discover my passion for architecture through the privilege of traveling to amazing cities both here in the Midwest and other parts of the world. 

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