The What and Why of Minnesota Design Team

Did you know that the Minnesota Design Team (MDT) is nearly 40 years old? In that time, we’ve conducted over 140 community visits with hundreds of architects and other professionals volunteering their expertise, and the MDT community engagement process has been adopted and implemented by three other organizations around the country.

And, since our merger in 2019, we are a committee and program of AIA Minnesota.

Why is this important? As we all resume normal lives after COVID-19, MDT is also returning to activities benefiting the profession and Minnesota communities. In 2022, we conducted two very successful community visits to Silver Bay and Henderson. This year, we are hoping to have at least one visit, with even more in 2024.

So this is our call to get involved—for the first time, or again, if you participated in the past. Join our mailing list and come to our (virtual) monthly meetings on the third Wednesday of the month at 4:30 pm.

A Minnesota Design Team visit is a unique asset to communities and the design professionals who practice in them. MDT visits are collaborative efforts of architects and other professionals to understand the social and economic challenges of a community and propose design suggestions, visions, and solutions to improve the community’s built environment and therefore the vitality and quality of life. Unlike many other programs, MDT is invited by the community, who then spends six to nine months preparing for the three-day visit.

Ask a colleague or friend who has been on an MDT visit what was so special about their experience. They will likely tell you they have seldom worked as hard, had more fun, and learned so much through the collaboration of a weekend visit. The mentorship opportunities abound as does the chance to step back and look at the “bigger picture” of how changes in the built environment lead to and support sustainable communities. Finally, MDT is also a great way to demonstrate to wider Minnesota the importance and value of architecture in the lives of individuals and communities.

Please join us and discover the benefits to Minnesota communities and to participating volunteers.

Katie Kangas, AIA, co-chair
Hans Muessig, Allied AIAMN, co-chair
Beth Evanson Makhoul, AIA, co-chair elect

As we work to transform MDT, we’ve reached out to architects who have been a part of the “team” over the last thirty-five years and asked them to share their stories.

At the October 2019 meeting of the Minnesota Design Team, we had the opportunity to ask four communities we’d visited in the past five years – Cambridge (2016), Crosslake (2016), Eyota (2016), and North Branch (2018) – how their MDT visit had impacted their communities. We heard some wonderful and inspiring stories!

Cambridge invited MDT with the challenge to address a number of community issues including how to transform a 19th-century commercial center (downtown) into a 21st century community center. The visit “brought people from within and outside the city limits to reflect on their thoughts and ideas.” The team presented a series of ideas for reimaging the downtown, including keeping the public library within the downtown area. Since the visit, a re-energized downtown task force has been busy and the results are visible: a revitalized streetscape and nearly two dozen new or expanded businesses. The city reworked its community loan program to include façade improvement grants and loans. To date, 14 projects, representing $167,000 direct grants and loans, have been completed.

Crosslake sits among a series of wonderful northwoods lakes. It is a small community with lots to offer residents and visitors. And with that in mind, they invited MDT to give them an outsider’s view of the community and its potential. Two things struck the team: First, capitalize on the lakes and woods, specifically thinking about creating a “center” for the loon and the waters; Second, continue to expand the charter school in the community that also has a strong focus on the environment. The National Loon Center has been partially funded at the state and federal levels and will happen! And the school has just finished a big expansion. In summarizing their experience, Leah Heggerston of Crosslake said, “The Minnesota Design Team is larger than life!! You have done more for economic and environmental development in our area than any other agency or EDA around! You get the community to care somehow and pull together.”

Eyota is a small community in the shadow of Rochester. Like many outstate communities it faces the many challenges of remaining viable and vibrant in the face of a changing economy and within the influence of Rochester. The team focused on several issues including downtown revitalization, business retention and expansion, and livability. In part using regional funds from Rochester, the community now has an active grant/loan program for businesses to refurbish their storefronts, and to develop new businesses. A number of new businesses now call Eyota home, including a much-needed daycare center.

What do you do with a pretty good community that has faced many changes? That was the major question North Branch asked MDT to address. The MDT visit last year began a conversation in the community about its future and how to shape the built environment that is so critical to community vitality. North Branch leaders have been busy since the visit last fall. We’d suggested the community create some “pocket parks” in the vacant lots downtown and intentionally use them as a way to link the ample parking off main street to the businesses on main street. A year later there are only two vacancies downtown, businesses have invested in their facades, several new businesses have moved in, and there are several pocket parks. The community is nearly finished with a branding and promotion program and has begun to focus on affordable/workforce housing. As Carla Vita, Community Development Director, said, “You showed us what we could be and helped us gather the community. Now it is up to us and we have a plan!”

MDT visits deal with many different issues: downtown revitalization, housing that meets the needs of residents at every stage of life, parks and recreational options, wayfinding, a vision, and economic options. And through all of our work there is one critical goal: helping a community envision a built/designed environment that supports a vibrant place where people want to live and work.

Perhaps Cathy Emerson (of the Economic Development Authority in Eyota) says it best: “MDT, you ROCK! Thank you for your past and present efforts. The combined talent of the group that visits is what brings overall results.”

“I heard about the Minnesota Design Team (originally called the Governor’s Design Team) through colleagues at work. It sounded like a fun way to use my architectural skills to help with some real issues, so I signed up for my first visit, to Embarrass, in spring 1988.

“The community was extremely organized and took care of all of our needs, from teaching us about their sauna customs to providing us with a tour of the community and providing us with a place to work. Following our visit, they pursued some of the options we developed and presented to them. One of the ideas was for them to develop an organized national tour of their unique collection of Finnish-style log homes. Within about two years, a story about the Embarrass Finnish home tours was on national television.

“I have since participated in 10 to 12 additional community visits, as a co-leader for many of them, and served as co-chair of MDT from 2015-2016.

“I continue to be impressed with the dedication of the community and my fellow volunteers on every visit. The collaboration between people of differing disciplines and skill levels coming together for 3 days to help solve real-world problems is an amazing experience to be a part of. I leave each visit feeling invigorated. It is so rewarding to know that there are so many people around the state of Minnesota that care so deeply about their communities and take the initiative to help them improve.” 
— F. John Barbour, FAIA, Shelter Architecture

In September of 2016, the Minnesota Design Team visited Crosslake, MN. MDT team leaders had just guided the community through a six-month preparation process, in which water quality emerged as a major anchor of regional identity. During the Friday morning community presentations, a local priest presented his idea for a loon center, similar to the Wolf Center in Ely. The community weighed in again en masse at the Friday night town hall dinner, affirming that water quality and the environment is central to regional heritage, and Crosslake’s number one natural resource. 

MDT members put it all together over the weekend, knowing that there was money available from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill remediation funds and an untapped local charitable base of residents that might support such an initiative. MDT team members sketched a concept vision for a two-part facility: a Loon Center paired with Freshwater Research Institute, and recommended that it be located on Army Corps of Engineers park land near the lake and campgrounds.

The team created the first conceptual graphics and presented the economic benefits of the idea, and a list of potential partners, to the community at large. Due to early engagement with Army Corps staff and continuing to involved them throughout the process to ensure that their needs were met, the concept was supported by the park supervisor and the Army Corps of Engineers at the agency level. 

We believe that the groundwork laid by MDT that weekend helped create the momentum behind the Loon Center project. Check out their impressive progress as reported by the Star Tribune.

View the Loon Center Boards from the Crosslake visit.

“When I first moved to Minnesota after graduate school I was looking for ways to get involved in the community while also using my newly learned architectural skills, specifically related to historic preservation.  My graduate thesis was rejuvenating a small-town downtown in southeast Wisconsin, and after talking with my mentor Rich McLaughlin, I started to research the Minnesota Design Team. Not long after I started my search, one of my coworkers at Miller Dunwiddie was co-leading a visit to St. Charles, MN! I joined that team right away, excited to be a part of the team but yet nervous and overwhelmed because I had no idea what I was really jumping into. 

“I found it invigorating to meet with the community and engage with like-minded individuals who had a broadband of knowledge spreading across numerous design professions and all coming together to present a cohesive design idea for the community. I found it so invigorating that I joined numerous other teams, became a co-leader, and eventually became a co-chair for the organization in 2013-2014! Not only has participating with MDT helped fine-tune my design and communication skills, I’ve also met some amazing people and made great friendships along the way!”
Melissa Christenson Ekman, AIA

The Minnesota Design Team has visited 138 communities in the past 35 years. This is Rushford‘s story.

In the fall of 2007 significant flooding along the Root River in SE Minnesota caused extensive damage and destruction to properties in and around Rushford. Shortly after the flood the Minnesota Design Team “fielded” an emergency team of architects and planners to visit Rushford and make recommendations for the community’s recovery. 

The public school in townwas not destroyed by the flood, but experienced water damage in the lower levels. Over the next couple of years, the oldest part of school, the 1906 stone building, started to settle, causing gaps between the flooring and the foundation while the and third story experienced falling ceilings. One of the recommendations from the Design Team was to rebuild the school in a new location. Susan Hart, one of the local leaders and hosts for the visit, takes up the story:

“Hello from Rushford!
The ribbon cutting for our new pre K-12 school was on the anniversary date of the flood (10 years). It is BEAUTIFUL! The MN legislature helped a lot in 2013 by allocating some special natural disaster funding for us and Moose Lake school district.
Just in case you forgot, the Minnesota Design Team was the first to present to the public/our communities what a new school could look like, on the site up against the hillside east of the sports field complex.
You were all fantastic and gave us much to ponder in a positive way for the future. Thank you for sharing your time, energy and talents with us! An amazing group.” 

Dean Beeninga, AIA, Principal in Charge for ATS&R architects, continues the story: “Our goal was to provide a functional, adaptable design that efficiently used the available resources and provided additional shared use spaces to serve the needs of the community and the school now and into the future. It was also important that the new school be reflective of the local vernacular of Rushford and the regional character of southern Minnesota. The building incorporates regional stone and wood to reflect the past and local use of materials found in the community and in the previous historic school. The use of these materials in collaboration with the high degree of natural light and views outward to the surrounding environment provides students with a familiar, yet renewed perspective on their daily lives that we hope, as designers, will elevate the educational experience as well as be a resource to enhance the whole community.”

“As an undergraduate architecture student I participated in my first MDT visit. The camaraderie of the team—ranging from architects and landscape architects to engineers and planners—was so exciting as everyone talked, drew, and diagrammed to find solutions for the town we were visiting. The energy was infectious. Everyone there was thrilled to both be of service and to put their design thinking skills into use outside the context of daily practice.

“The spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration in MDT has shaped my view of our profession and the value we, as part of the broader AEC community, bring. Imagining the future of small town Minnesota alongside a team of creative professionals builds enduring relationships and provides professional expertise to the people of greater Minnesota.” 
Amber Sausen, AIA, LEED AP BD + C

“Back in 2005, Peter Musty and I led two Minnesota Design Team (MDT) visits to city of Willmar. The first visit focused on the overall community and a month later a second visit concentrated on the historic downtown.

“The apex of MDT weekend visits is the Friday night community potluck/town meeting. We broke up the 150 or so community members into small groups and had them walk downtown counting/surveying. Items to count included: parking spaces, trees, eating establishments, drinking establishments, 2nd story apartments, loitering teenagers, sidewalk benches and much, much more. An hour or so later, the community members returned from their excursion and they were so pumped up. Walking and counting really opened their eyes to their downtown amenities and weaknesses: “Over 100 open parking spots!,” “Only 2 loitering teenagers,” and the Lutheran pastor exclaiming, “Only one drinking establishment, but when we knocked on the door they would not let us in for a drink!”

“As practicing architects we can sometimes get drained by the repetitive tasks such as reviewing and re-reviewing building/zoning/conservation codes, designing handicap bathrooms, etc. The Minnesota Design Team visit provides, in essence, a professional retreat that allows us to not only refresh, reflect, and renew, but to also learn about outstate Minnesota and try new ideas. It is the reason I have attended over 15 visits in past 18 years.” 
Tom Ososki, Architect