Salt Lake City launches contest seeking new designs for tiny homes

Mayor Erin Mendenhall urges “cause-minded” designers and architects to submit ideas for smaller dwellings to help ease an affordable housing shortage.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) An accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, made by Salt Lake City firm Modal Living, as seen on display at City Creek Center on Monday June 24, 2019. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has launched a competition seeking new designs for tiny homes and accessory dwelling units in hopes of easing an ongoing affordable housing shortage in Utah’s capital.

Salt Lake City is seeking fresh ideas for building tiny homes and add-on apartments as a strategy for easing the dire shortage of affordable housing.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Thursday launched what city officials are calling the “Empowered Living Design Competition” to highlight the ongoing crisis and to urge “cause-minded” designers, architects, other professionals and students to contribute new designs for living spaces with smaller footprints.

“We know we don’t have a corner on the market of good ideas,” the mayor said as she declared the contest open to applicants nationwide.

Sometime in December, a five-member jury will award $1,000 grand prizes and $500 for runners-up for the top designs in two categories: tiny homes built stand-alone or in clusters and for accessory dwellings units to be located in backyards of existing residences.

“These type of structures aren’t going to work for everyone at all stages in their lives,” conceded Mendenhall, flanked by architects and city housing experts. “But we know that there are many people who want to make a home in Salt Lake City. They want to feel connected to a community, and they need to be able to have their incomes match those opportunities.

“That’s what we’re here to solve today,” she added.

Contest registration is due by Sept. 10 and qualified submissions are accepted through Oct. 29, via its website, at

While in the middle of a historic boom in apartment and single-family home construction, Salt Lake City and the rest of the Wasatch Front have also seen their inventories of available homes plummet with pandemic-driven demand and prices escalating rapidly.

The city’s late April announcement that it hoped to build a village of tiny homes to serve its swelling homeless population drew a flood of eager calls and emails from would-be design contributors, Mendenhall said, spurring Wednesday’s wider call for input on home plans suitable for a city with undeveloped land in short supply.

Utah’s capital wants creative approaches to smaller housing types that are “affordable, livable, sustainable, durable and accessible,” according to contest rules.

Officials believe there’s a niche for smaller housing units, in particular, among seniors on fixed incomes, new college graduates, folks experiencing homelessness and couples seeking to downsize. Mendenhall said adding smaller units to the city’s housing stock also would “keep Salt Lake City diverse” and make it more welcoming.

Wednesday’s call also is part of a larger strategy, said Blake Thomas, director of the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods, one that aims “to empower residents, increase housing affordability, and build a more equitable city.”

“Too many of our residents are being priced out of our great capital city,” Thomas said, “due to stagnant wages and record high housing costs, which are further fueling inequality.”

The contest is backed by Utah members of the American Institute of Architects and the nonprofit Community Development Corporation of Utah, with funding from the city, the Ivory Foundation and the Utah Community Investment Foundation.

Designs for the contest don’t have to meet existing city codes, noted Thomas. That’s intended to “have the door wide open for creativity.” City officials are open to developing plans further in collaboration with their creators, he said, and adapting zoning rules as they go.

“It is our desire to use this competition to revisit building and zoning regulations that may currently inhibit small-home building,” Thomas said. The ideal, he said, would be to create a library of plans for various kinds of tiny homes that already square with building rules to expedite approval.

Though “no silver bullet,” Mendenhall and others said, creating a varied set of viable and innovative tiny home and ADU designs would help “create new solutions to housing” while also enlisting design professionals in having “a direct impact” on the housing shortage.