This paper aims to provide an example of ways in which research plans may shift and how the research team dealt with necessary changes as they unfolded; within this context, the authors encourage the use of qualitative and narrative methods prior to and during the design process to better understand the population for which they are designing. Second, the stories from this case study illustrate the importance of understanding the overall context in design solutions, understanding the value of working with residents during the design process and using design as a tool for advocacy and empathy.
Initially, a traditional mixed method approach was developed to study the feasibility of tiny homes in homeless populations. Responding to unforeseen circumstances, the research team shifted to more appropriate narrative research methods, capturing a profile of the community. The paper shares narrative accounts from the tiny home village residents.
Overall, the stories from the Portland visit illustrate the importance of social impact and the understanding of the overall context in design. This study also advocates the use of qualitative interview and narrative methods in design research, especially when used to better understand the “houseless” or other special populations.
There were limitations to the research that likely affected the outcomes and the results. The most apparent limitation was the unanticipated shift in methodology that occurred during the research study, which is also arguably one of the best strengths. Also, because of the qualitative nature of this research, the results are not generalizable to a broader context and only valuable or applicable to special cases.
The true human condition of displaced people is often misrepresented in the minds of those who are unaffected. Designers are uniquely qualified to help solve seemingly unsolvable problems but must do so with caution.
For those taking on the challenge of designing for disadvantaged communities, this paper reveals that design research is more than just a problem to solve through habitable boxes. This study brings to light several social, economic and design complications that may arise in this vein of research.
This research methodology was unexpectedly altered when unforeseen events necessitated a shift in the research plan. This process revealed that sensitive social issues can be difficult to navigate and must be treated with utmost respect and flexibility. Issues such as affordable housing, homelessness and sustainability are all examples of wicked problems, which designers are uniquely qualified to help solve but must do so with caution and a true understanding of context. Many lessons were learned through this process.
The author would like to thank the research team (Ellen Urton and Brandon Irwin), the City of Portland, the organizers of the charrette, the designers and the community members she met along the way. Most of all, the author would like to thank the residents of the village and the homes she visited for giving her a glimpse of their world. Also, the author would like to thank her research assistant, Shelby Ruiz, for helping pull this content together so that it could be shared with the world. The travel costs for the research were funded by Kansas State University Dean Stowe Award.
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