Tiny Houses, Big Ideas
Robert Charest is working to create the first learning community of tiny houses and a model of sustainability.
Since his beginnings as an architect and teacher 25 years ago, Robert Charest has been on a quest to revolutionize living spaces by combining elegant design with the sustainable infrastructure needed to construct dwellings that will work for the 21st century and beyond.
Charest has pursued these goals in professional practice with his firm, Atelier Charest and Associates, and in the classroom, where he urges Elon students to think about living spaces in new ways.
This spring, he and the students in his Sustainable Design Technologies course are tackling an exciting challenge. They will construct the first student-designed residence in the new Tiny House Living and Learning Community at Loy Farm, a property near campus that acts as a living laboratory for Elon students and faculty.
“This is as exciting as teaching architecture gets,” says Charest. “Even in architecture schools, the architects who teach never get asked to design a building on campus. It just doesn’t happen. It blows my mind that Elon is so forward-thinking and wants to invest in a project like this for our students.”
It will be a model for how to design houses that are beautiful and comfortable to live in, that are energy efficient, and that contribute to the current discussion of how we can live more harmoniously with the planet.
Last fall, teams of students in the Art of Sustainable Architecture course designed three prototype tiny houses — or compact affordable dwellings, as Charest calls them — for sustainable, comfortable living at Loy Farm. Each was designed to house two students and includes a common area, economy kitchen and bathroom.
One of those designs is a single-story, 500-square-foot home that Charest perfected this winter to ensure net-zero energy consumption via solar and geothermal energy.
The building materials will also be sustainable. Built on pilotis, or piers, and raised several feet off the ground, it will include a wrap-around porch and covered patio that acts as an extra room for gatherings, studying or solitude.
Future phases of the living learning community will include up to a dozen residences and a community center for gatherings and public events.
“We are building this on campus but we’re doing this for the world,” Charest says. “It will be a model for how to design houses that are beautiful and comfortable to live in, that are energy efficient, and that contribute to the current discussion of how we can live more harmoniously with the planet. We have to innovate very creative and very simple solutions to make this happen.”
That level of innovation begins by giving students the freedom to explore ideas beyond their perceived limits. First-year students in Charest’s class were tasked with designing the homes and incorporating feedback from President Connie Ledoux Book about her vision for the living learning community. Most had enrolled without knowing their final projects would be permanent additions to Elon’s campus.
Now in his 12th year at Elon and a cofounder of the Environmental Center at Loy Farm, Charest has been part of the community long enough to see many great ideas find their moment and become reality in and beyond the classroom.
“These kinds of projects put our students’ young, agile and enthusiastic minds to solving a problem, and we see that being fruitful in so many areas,” he says. “It’s incredible how many of my colleagues at Elon do these same kinds of things: They challenge their students to solve real problems in creative, concrete and tangible ways. It’s incredible what they can do.
“At Elon, an idea catches hold, and we seem to have the ability, the resources and the will to make it happen.”
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies // Sustainable Design Expert
Projects & Scholarship
Design-build project highlights
Shirley T. Frye YWCA — Greensboro, North Carolina
With the assistance of Elon students, Charest redesigned and refurbished a 20,000-square-foot 1960s print shop to become the Shirley T. Frye YWCA in Greensboro in 2015 and 2016. It features offices, classrooms, a daycare, women’s shelter and commercial kitchen — a $2.1 million project. The YWCA serves multiple purposes for various populations, lending challenges and opportunities for Charest and students to use in the space. The 1966 building was redesigned to allow abundant natural light, add architectural interest and functionality, and lovingly enhance areas the community uses.
Blawesome! — Saxapahaw, North Carolina
In 2016, Charest and students helped complete the farmhouse at Blawesome!, a 4-acre working farm and homestead for an autistic adult near Saxapahaw, North Carolina. The resident grows and sells flowers and produce to support his livelihood. The home is replete with clean, modern lines, precise wooden and steel details, efficient uses of space, and — Charest’s trademark — flooded with natural light streaming through strategically placed windows.
909 Dillard Street — Greensboro, North Carolina
Constructed in 2006 with Charest’s students in the Urban Studio at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, the 909 Dillard Street house was the city’s first housing replacement project. The innovative, 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home was built with funding from the city’s Housing and Community Development Home Rehabilitation Program. Charest says this project crystalized his ethos of building beautiful, accessible living spaces and his core values of responsible, innovative and affordable construction.
Publications & Presentations
Charest, R.M. (2017, October 16-25). Strawberry Fields at North Burlington – Building a Community of Unorthodox Origins. World Design Summit, Montreal, QC, Canada.
Charest, R. M. (2016, March 31-April 1). Dignity Through Design: Shirley Frye YWCA Greensboro. Third Annual Novem Mason Symposium on Community-Engaged Design, Greensboro, NC.
Charest, R.M. (2013). Manufacturing: The Cornerstone of Responsible Design Apprenticeship. In El-Khoury, N. and De Paoli, G. (eds.), Mobility and Design. Europia Productions.
Nsonwu, M., Gruber, K. J., & Charest, R. M. (2010). The Urban Studio Project Recipe: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Feminist Practice Through Community Engagement. Affilia, 25 (3) 307-312. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109910375368
Charest, R.M. (2009, March 25-28). Design as the Conductor for Social Advocacy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, St.-Louis, MO, 158-167.
Charest, R.M. (2009). Design en chantier, un simple changement de média, ARQ: Architecture-Québec, 146: 26.