Kansas Profile – Now That’s Rural:  Carolyn Dunn, housing 

By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University 

Net Positive. That’s the name of an innovative architectural studio that is helping create affordable, energy-efficient housing in communities across Kansas.

Last week we learned about Carolyn Dunn, president of the Stafford County Port Authority and past director of economic development in Stafford County. She recognized that lack of housing was a significant obstacle to her county’s economic growth.

“You can’t do anything without housing for people,” Dunn said.

Evidence suggested that local homebuyers needed houses closer to a $100,000 price point, rather than the $300,000 houses being built in some places.

“We’ve got to find a way to build housing less expensively,” Dunn said. “We looked into all sorts of things: Modular homes, kit houses…but couldn’t find just the right thing.”

In spring 2019, Dunn took her sons to a livestock judging event at Kansas State University. While on campus, she visited college departments regarding open Americorp positions. She learned about Michael Gibson, a faculty member who was leading an innovative housing design build project in Kansas City.

“Would you be interested in a rural project?” Dunn asked.  The answer was yes.

Gibson is an associate professor in the K-State College of Architecture, Planning and Design and the founder of the Net Positive Studio. The Net Positive Studio takes its name from the principle that lessening environmental impact is not enough: Sustainable actions should have a positive social and environmental impact as well.

In housing, for example, the design should not just save energy; it should make a positive contribution to the homeowner’s quality of life.

Gibson and the K-State students at the Net Positive Studio took on the idea of improved housing in Stafford County, specifically in the rural community of St. John, population 1,228 people. Now, that’s rural.

During fall semester 2019, students researched housing needs in St. John and developed a design for a less-expensive, energy efficient home to build there in the spring. It was a pre-fab design with lots of insulation, solar panels on the roof and a large family living area.

Then COVID hit. Gibson and a small group of students worked with volunteers and Americorp VISTA participants to get the house up in 2020.

“This wouldn’t have happened without a personal commitment from Michael,” Dunn said.

The next year’s studio class finished the house with help from local contractors and Stafford County Economic Development. The house came in at a cost of about $140,000.

The project was so successful that Stafford County Economic Development acquired grants to construct an additional nine houses to meet increased demand. The Kansas Housing Resource Corporation, HUD, Federal Home Loan Bank, and Sunderland Foundation all helped.

“We opened these (nine homes) incrementally, one at a time,” Dunn said. “At one point, we had a waiting list of 29 potential renters.”

The focus in these houses is liveability, not necessarily curb appeal. “We put the emphasis on the inside of these houses,” Dunn noted.

In the spirit of being Net Positive, the bedrooms were smaller but the classes designed the family gathering area to be the most spacious.

“Having an additional 10 houses is a success. It fills a need,” Dunn said.

Net Positive has gone on to partner with Manhattan Area Habitat for Humanity, Manhattan Area Technical College, Flint Hills Job Corps, Flint Hills Renewable Energy and Efficiency Cooperative, and the Fort Riley Home Builders Institute to construct another home in Ogden.

For more information, see www.staffordecodevo.com/housing or www.netpositivestudio.org.

Net Positive. It’s a term suggesting that design should not only save energy, for example, but also make a positive contribution to those it serves.

We commend Carolyn Dunn of Stafford County and Michael Gibson and all the architecture students of Net Positive Studio for making a difference with innovative design and local commitment. Did this project net out good results?  Of that, we can be positive.

And there’s more. As mentioned, Dunn is now president of the Stafford County Port Authority. What is a port authority doing in the middle of Kansas? We’ll learn about that next week.

Audio and text files of Kansas Profiles are available at http://www.kansasprofile.com. For more information about the Huck Boyd Institute, interested persons can visit http://www.huckboydinstitute.org.