MSU architecture students

Montana State University architecture students Colin Tippett, left, Jake Ryan, Andrew Wagenblast, Emilee Williams and Shane Caye show a model of their design for the Belgrade Library.

For 41 years, Montana State University architecture students have been helping communities across the state solve problems.

MSU’s Community Design Center, founded in 1976, has done everything from helping Billings plan its new $18 million library, to expanding the housing stock in oil-boom towns, to creating safer trails for rural kids to walk to school, and designing tiny houses for the homeless in Bozeman.

Tom McNab, center director and associate professor in MSU’s School of Architecture, recounted the center’s accomplishments for three-dozen MSU deans and leaders at Wednesday’s University Council meeting.

The mission of the center is to serve the people of Montana, empower them and give fourth-year architecture students practical experience, McNab said. Since he became director in 2005, nearly 300 architecture students and 32 engineering students have worked on 95 projects in 45 communities.

“That is amazing,” President Waded Cruzado said. “I’m speechless.”

The town of Baker in the Bakken oil patch needed to find housing for 500 people, McNab said. Students proposed six steps, including a zoning change to allow the second floor of downtown buildings to be used as housing, which solved 20 percent of the problem.

In Belgrade, the Community Library, which won a national award as the Best Small Library in America, needed to expand its space, so the architecture students worked on design plans to remodel and enlarge the existing building. With the students’ design and renderings, the library launched a fundraising campaign, kicked off with a $400,000 donation from the local Milesnick Ranch.

In St. Regis, students worked on a plan to get kids a safe way to walk to school, which helped win a $3 million grant for a project that’s now being designed.

In Helena, the State Fund building had a high vacancy problem in one department. Students found employees working in the basement had no windows, no fresh air, and the carpet was giving off unhealthy gases. That encouraged the agency to build the state’s first environmentally friendly, LEED gold building.

And on the MSU campus, Community Design Center students pitched in to help student leaders develop scenarios for a new $4.5 million intramural sports field. Last spring students voted 62.5 percent to charge themselves $20 a semester to pay for it.

“Our work is scrutinized,” McNab said. “It has to be good enough to pass on to the next level and be seriously considered.”

Royce Smith, dean of the College of Arts & Architecture, thanked McNab and said it was an honor to have him as a colleague.

“There is no corner of the state of Montana that’s untouched by you and your students,” Smith said. “You make Montana a better place to live.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or

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