A community center to honor a Renaissance civil rights leader. Affordable housing on a hard-to-build site.
These are just the type of the real-world projects that School of Architecture students love to tackle.
A shared line that runs through these two projects: Listening to community stakeholders and responding with designs concepts and presentations that can move a project forward.
“It’s important for NC State as a land-grant institution to work with nonprofits,” says Professor of Architecture Georgia Bizios, who leads the Home Environment Design Initiative (HEDI) within the College of Design’s Laboratory for the Design of Healthy and Sustainable Communities.
The students earn academic credit. The organizations gain insight and some fund-raising leverage for the projects.
“When the students are finished, the nonprofits can use the designs to fundraise and hire professionals to complete the projects,” Bizios says.
A Woman Before Her Time
Pauli Murray (1910 – 1985) was the first African American woman to graduate from Howard Law School at the top of her class. She wrote States’ Laws on Race and Color for the Women’s Division of Christian Services, which became a resource for the plaintiff attorneys in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case.
A founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Murray served as an advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt and was appointed by President John. F. Kennedy to a commission that dealt with civil rights and women’s issues.
Noting the impact Murray made on the country while she was alive, several in the community wanted to make sure the home site she left behind in Durham, N.C., could continue her tradition of changing lives.
In mid-2010, the Self-Help Community Development Corporation entered into an option to purchase Murray’s home and property on Carroll Street in the West End neighborhood of Durham. Self-Help CDC, which celebrated its 100th Durham home project in late 2010, decided to partner with the College of Design and neighborhood organizations to set up meetings of neighbors to brainstorm the best use for the property.
NC State University School of Architecture students from the Public Interest Architecture (ARC 590) were invited in, too. After hearing the feedback and listening to the priorities of the neighborhood’s residents, the student group had enough data to assemble two fleshed out visions to present to the group at the next meeting. “While they were talking, we actually sketched out what they were describing,” recalls Heidi Chan, a second-year master of architecture student. “It was clear after the visioning workshop that the community wanted the house to remain pretty much the way it looks, with some upgrades, but not drastic changes.”
The two concepts that emerged from the discussion and the teamwork of four graduate students included public space for classes and neighborhood meetings. Both focused on a space that could be a nexus for community activism and education. One of the concepts integrated a scholar- or artist-in-residence aspect, and the other, a large multifunction building.
The cost of purchasing the property and stabilizing it may be around $200,000. The students’ work gives a fundraising effort a greater chance of success.
“When people can see something, they can imagine it being real,” says Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project. “If people can imagine it, they can understand what they are investing in.”
Dan Levine, project manager with Self-Help CDC, believes that the necessary funds can be raised this Spring before the option to buy the home expires. Thanks to the students’ work, he thinks that foundations, church congregations, and individuals will now be able to see the value of the ideas. “What the students came up with are almost like marketing materials,” he says.
In November, 2010, the end of the class was commemorated with a party to honor what would have been Murray’s 100th birthday. One of the guests was Congressman David Price. For Chan, the gathering was also a celebration of the new direction that architecture was taking her.
Prior to enrolling at the College of Design she had worked for a large firm focused on airport design. Though she learned a lot in that role, “I never came close to meeting my client.”
Chan was never able to meet Pauli Murray either. But she met Murray’s neighbors and relatives, and now she feels for the first time she knows for whom she’s designing.
Building in a Tight Space
Just 200 yards from the Pauli Murray home site was a space ready for its own reimagining. Located off of Buchanan Alley, the sites’ lots, owned by Self-Help CDC, could be built with affordable housing if certain challenges could be overcome. Steep slopes, a creek, and lack of city street access all combined for a tricky design problem for the three duplex buildings.
Figuring out how the design could be pulled off seemed the perfect master’s thesis for Craig Bethel (MArch 2010), who had been researching methods of building that reduced cost and increased sustainability when he learned about the project from Professor Bizios.
For his design, Bethel focused on certain strategies to reduce building cost and the harm to the environment without sacrificing quality. Those strategies included:
- Contextual design. Working within the context of the area to maintain a sense of place.
- Pre-fabrication. Off-site building of components allowed for tighter seals and lower utility costs to the owner of the house.
- Adaptability. The floorplan would be able to be modified as the resident’s life needs changed.
- Social and environmental sustainability. A smaller footprint in terms of carbon use and a home that is also healthy and safe.
The site presented several complications. First, the plot is only accessible via the alleyway. Second, the property is quite hilly and slopes down to a creek, which has a 50-foot no-build buffer. Finally, rules set by the City of Durham and guidelines developed by architecture student interns and adopted by the neighborhood some years ago forced Bethel to be extra-creative.
He managed to design three duplexes. Originally, Bethel had been interested in using prefab construction with this project, but the inability of a flatbed truck to approach the site deleted that possibility. He feels he was able to meet very other target.
For example, for the building design he used inline framing, placing everything in the house on a two-foot module (the standard is 16 inches) and lining up the structural members of walls and roofs. “By doing that, you reduce the amount of material you are using: the amount of cut-off waste as well as the number of studs, and you allow more room between studs for insulation, reducing energy costs.” An added bonus: the homes would be sturdier, too.
Such a project would likely be funded by a city grant, muses Self-Help’s Levine. “We were really impressed with his design. He did a great job thinking of ways to make the units visually interesting and the floor plans workable for a range of family types.”
Bethel, who grew up not too far from Durham in Fuquay-Varina, is happy with the results, too.
“I wanted to develop something that is healthy, safe, and affordable, and I’ve replaced a site with three dilapidated and broken down houses with six duplex units.”
The next best thing: Seeing those homes built.
He’s gotten them one step closer.
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