Home economics 

Montana Housing Solutions take a shotgun approach

One recent blustery Saturday, Brad Condra, wearing work pants, hiking boots, small glasses and a knit cap, clocks sweat-equity hours on a structure that is becoming his new home. The house, at 707 Stephens Ave., is framed, but the lot is still a construction site. Plastic orange fencing sags around the scaffolding. “Inside” are rolls of construction felt, scraps of wood piled in a corner and stray nails strewn across the floor. Someday—some warmer day—Condra may sit with a sweetheart on the front porch and sip lemonade. Today, though, while it snows, he installs baseboards for the radiant heat system that will eventually warm the two-story home. Condra, an attorney and graduate of the University of Montana School of Law, purchased the narrow lot last October. He had always wanted to build his own home. Designing a home can be an expensive proposition, but Condra found a pocketbook-friendly option. A friend gave him a copy of Montana Housing Solutions, a collection of affordable, energy-efficient home designs.

“The book seemed to be geared toward someone like me, with a modest income,” Condra says.

After poring over the designs, Condra selected the Montana Shotgun. The Shotgun is one of 17 designs included in Montana Housing Solutions, a book sponsored by various private and government agencies: the Montana Department of Environmental Quality; the Montana Department of Commerce’s Board of Housing; the Montana Building Industry Association; the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Montana; and Fannie Mae.

In 2004, five of the designs, including the Montana Shotgun, won the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Design. The book itself won the national 2004 Annual Award for Program Excellence, presented by the National Council of State Housing Agencies. While the book is a top-shelf collection of designs, its price is compatible with its mission: It’s free. On March 23, between 5 and 7 p.m., Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton will give away 24 copies. The designs in the book range from a 980-square-foot two-bedroom plan to a 1,444-square-foot four-bedroom plan. All plans were created with the following home-builders in mind: penny-pinchers living in Montana’s climate. The book, which has so far been distributed in Butte and Helena, also includes information on financing a new home and energy-efficient building. During the Chapter One giveaway, a local realtor, builder and lender will be available to answer questions about financing and building a new home.

A home, and maybe a porch swing on which to sip lemonade, have long been part of the American dream. In Missoula, though, and in many places in Montana, an affordable home has become something of a pipe dream.

“During the last decade, it has become increasingly difficult for the average Montana family to build an affordable home,” reads Montana Housing Solutions’ introduction. Yet a little place to call one’s own has a long and even patriotic tradition. “The strength of a nation lies in the homes of its people,” says Abraham Lincoln, quoted in Solutions.

The Montana Shotgun appears to be the first of the book’s designs to be used in Missoula. In a city that is rapidly—more rapidly than some would like—filling in, the Shotgun fits Missoula like a glove: “Though it can be adapted to almost any site, this house fits the toughest of sites, specifically, the narrow urban infill lot.”

The design combines some of the pragmatic, modern-day concerns of building in Missoula—small lots with high price tags—with the flavors of Missoula’s older neighborhood homes. The result is a new home with an older aesthetic. Missoula architect Steve Adler created the Montana Shotgun with the goal of infusing a sense of history into Missoula’s modern-day construction budgets. Adler’s office, in the historic Higgins Building, resonates with images of Montana, old and new. A state map hangs on one wall. A six-point elk rack adorns the entry. A black-and-white photograph of the old Higgins Building is posted near his desk. Awards line one wall, including a 2003 Historic Preservation Award for a residential addition in the University neighborhood.

Adler wanted to design a home for Missoula’s long, narrow lots that matched the character of some of Missoula’s older neighborhoods, where Craftsman-style homes are common.

“First of all, it has a front porch,” Adler says. Secondly, “it has a steeper pitched roof.”

Adler, though, omitted any custom work or detailing that would add to the cost.

“It’s a whole host of stuff that makes it affordable,” he says. “One is the simplicity: Keep it simple. Two, is keep all the building parts stock and standard.”

The standard pieces, like 8-foot-high ceilings, keep custom trimming to a minimum.

Condra explains: “When the dry-wallers come in, they just slap a [precut] piece of drywall up,” he says. “The project moves more quickly and it’s less expensive.”

Like the design itself, the name has historical significance. The Montana Shotgun, Adler says, “was kind of tongue-in-cheek but kind of serious.” He brought the “shotgun” idea from New Orleans, where he studied architecture: “That’s where they have the true typology of the shotgun house.” The home, usually set on a narrow lot, is composed of a series of single rooms lined up one after another. The long house is one room wide. The doors between rooms were typically lined up so that a person standing at one end of the house could see clear to the other end if all the doors were wide open. A handy setup, in the case of unwanted guests, Adler explains: “So the story goes, if there’s a burglar in the house and you’re in the living room and they’re going out the back door, you can still get ‘em with a shotgun as they go out the back door because you’re firing through all the doors that are lined up.”

Thus, the traditional New Orleans-style shotgun house became the Montana Shotgun, in part for its design, and also “because ‘Montana’ and ‘shotgun’ go hand-in-hand with our firearms heritage.”

Adler and draftsman Sean Ikola were recently anxious to step out of their office and see the Montana Shotgun emerging. At the Stephens Avenue site, they wandered up the stairs and peered out a window at the home next door. Ikola seemed pleased with the incipient compatibility of the two homes.

“Notice the nice, steep roof with the porch out front,” he says of the existing home next door. The Montana Shotgun, too, is designed to have a “nice steep roof with the porch out front.” The homeowner has made minor modifications to the design, adding a few feet to its length and width. For a minute, Adler wonders whether Condra chose to eliminate the porch. He treks to the front of the home and is satisfied to see evidence of a porch’s foundation.

Condra says he isn’t sure how much time he’ll spend on the porch; the traffic on Stephens Avenue may dissuade him.

Next door, the house with the nice, steep roof has a porch full of lawn chairs. A barbeque grill sits just off the deck. Condra sees his neighbors sitting out there frequently.

Condra hopes to move in mid-April. He owns a shotgun, he says—a 12-gauge—but it will not hold a prominent place in his home. Condra, who does not hunt, plans to keep the “old classic side-by-side” in the closet.

Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton will give away 24 copies of Montana Housing Solutions March 23, between 5 and 7 p.m. Interested parties may also peruse a copy of the book at the Missoula Housing Authority, 1235 34th St. Persons who would like a copy but are unable to attend the event, or who arrive after the books have been distributed, should call Chapter One Book Store at (406) 363-5220 no later than Friday, March 25, and ask to have their names added to a waiting list. The Montana Board of Housing may reprint copies this fall.


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