It was while working in home remodeling with her partner Jodi that Hallie Dumont’s eyes were opened to the unhealthy relationship that some people have with their homes.
“Big houses tend to be a burden, I think, for people,” she says. “They lend themselves to people holding on too too much stuff. My partner came in one day and found a homeowner lying on the floor one day curled up in the fetal position.”
Dumont and Jodi were working on a particularly big remodeling job. “It was a house for two people that was about 22,000 square feet—that’s about the size of a Walmart. It really flipped some sort of switch for me. The project just seemed so unsustainable. They probably had four air conditioning units for this one home for two people, and the material choices were just not intelligent as far as health or environment. I became very interested in the opposite end of the spectrum, which is the tiny house movement, micro-apartments—everything we call alternative housing.”
That brought her to Chatham. Dumont enrolled in the Master of Interior Architecture program, with the goal of concentrating on alternative housing.
‘From the beginning at Chatham I was interested in creating intelligent, smart, efficient residential spaces,” says Dumont. “So my thesis here was on pre-fab interiors, which isn’t really a thing but I made it a thing. I got an internship in Shadyside with an architect named Eric Fisher. I loved working under him; I learned so much. It was like having another studio course. I asked him if I could stay on and if we could design a tiny house (which I called the Nanohouse) over the summer. So I got to do that with him, which was awesome.”
“My goal was to build the Nanohouse, but when I tried to find funding, I realized that it was going to be really expensive. And building tiny houses for rich people wasn’t my goal.”
Eric Fisher had opened his studio space to all sorts of creative people working in Pittsburgh, and fortuitously, that’s where Dumont met her future business partner, Brian Gaudio, an architect recently returned to Pittsburgh from Central and South America. Brian was working to get his start-up, Module, off the ground. In Dumont, he found a kindred spirit and, what’s better, his future Chief Design Officer.
Tiny houses aren’t that new, but Module has some new takes on the idea. For one, they’re designed to be urban. “Normally when you see a tiny house, there’s all this open land around them,” says Dumont. “These are designed to be taken off a trailer and sat on a concrete foundation.” They’re also stackable. Second or third floors can be added, and additions can be added to the side or rear.
“What we’ve found is that the idea of a starter home—a home that you buy when you’re first starting out and then sell once it no longer meets your needs—isn’t really resonating with a lot of millennials. So Module’s solution is to offer alternative housing that can grow with you.”
“Module designs adaptable housing that changes as your needs do. Through a patent-pending wall system and design platform, Module provides first-time homebuyers with just the right amount of space at the right time.” – from Module’s website
What might that look like? There are a couple of prototypes.
One incorporates a built-in Air BnB unit, with a separate entrance and bedroom/bathroom that is totally cut off from the house. “It can help help supplement your mortgage payment at the beginning,” says Dumont, “but over time, the house can absorb that unit, so it can become a half-bedroom, maybe a workspace or a nursery, and the exterior entrance can be removed.”
Another design starts as a co-living space, but over time, as the owner makes more money or the family grows, the house can split. “You insert a party wall, and you get what’s basically a duplex. Each can have their own separate single family unit,” Dumont explains.
“I think the coolest thing is how excited people get about the idea. Everyone from baby boomers to millennials. That’s been really cool to see.”
“We designed and built a demo unit that would be attached to a larger house for a ‘faux client’,” says Dumont. “He likes to entertain and have family members over to stay, and he’s also a workaholic. It’s a space where he can play board games and have movie nights. A local furniture maker called Bones and All made a coffee table that can flip out into a card table, and there’s a Murphy bed that transitions into a desk unit.”
“That unit was the first time I started with a blank piece of paper and a blank space and then made something real,” says Dumont. “In smaller units, every bit of space—down to a sixteenth of an inch—has to be accounted for. In this case, the furniture and the building were being constructed at the same time, so we had to hope all the measurements worked out. It ended up being really close. I had space under a window where we wanted to put in a bench seat, and we had to rip off an edge banding and trim down an outlet. I learned a lot on this project,” she laughs.
The unit will be on display throughout the summer on the North Side, and Dumont is excited to have people walk through it. “We’ve partnered with Comcast for it, and the unit incorporates their smart home technologies—integrated home security, automation, and energy management controls,” she says.
Chatham University’s Master of Interior Architecture is a first professional interior design program that prepares students for practice in an interior design or architecture firm. The program, accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA), is geared toward students with undergraduate degrees in fields other than interior architecture or interior design.