URBANbuild Brings Homes Knowledge

Elizabeth Tomlinson, Attaway, Denise  |  4/16/2009 6:56:06 PM

The Tulane City Center URBANbuild program began in 2005 when architect and professor Byron Mouton created a hands-on design/build studio course for fourth-year architecture students. The program covers two semesters. In the first semester, students explore various housing prototypes through design. One of the designs is selected by the class and the second semester is devoted to building the house. The other prototypes are developed to become part of the housing portfolio of the New Orleans National Housing Services Inc. (NHS). The houses built are nicknamed UB1, UB2, UB3 - for each successive year.

URBANbuild 3 (UB3) is located in Central City in New Orleans. While this studio offers valuable knowledge, skills, and experience for the students, it also provides housing for potential homebuyers of lower incomes by working in partnership with NHS. Lauren Anderson, NHS chief executive officer, describes their mission.

"Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans Inc. revitalizes communities by increasing the number of homeowners and transforming vacant or substandard properties into sustainable homeownership," Anderson said. "We improve quality of life through informed community development initiatives, leadership development, education, outreach and collaboration."

The URBANbuild studio gives students hands-on experience building a structure while also making a productive contribution to the recovery of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. By working from their own construction documents, the students learn the value of clarity and importance of detail in plans as they begin to understand the process of applying theory to practice. Through the build, the students become aware that what works on a two-dimensional plan may not transfer to a three-dimensional structure.

"They tell us in the beginning and they tell us after we build - it's going to affect how you design because now you know," states architecture student Casey Roccanova.

Intrigued with the studio, Roccanova signed up for the program. She said, "I liked the idea of working with the user group - the human element." To be able to "design in response" attracted her to the program. Adriana Camacho said she took the studio because she had never designed at the level of detail that would be required in the program and she believed it would be good experience. She knew that she would have to design and prepare construction documents that were clear and detailed enough that anyone could build the house. Amarit Dulyapaibul explained why he chose to enroll in the studio.

"I was attracted by how real this studio would be - not just academic," he said. 

The parameters of the URBANbuild homes are set forth by NHS, including the lot size and construction budget, and given to students in a building program. NHS provides the lot, choosing one in a target neighborhood marked by disinvestment. The students provide the design and the labor. They take part in every aspect of the build except that which must be conducted by a licensed professional or tradesman such as the installation of the electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems. If the students wish to include a material or feature outside of the budget confines, they must raise funds to cover the cost.

"The students have done wonderful work; they are all very talented and very committed to quality design," Anderson said. 

The houses are around 1,200 to 1,300 square feet, must include three bedrooms and two bathrooms, be energy-efficient and affordable. The house, once built, will be sold by NHS at an affordable rate. One energy-efficient system chosen for the UB3 build is the use of Structural Insulated Panels, or SIPs, for the walls. The panels are fabricated off-site according to design specifications and arrive complete with openings for doors and windows. This made installation for the students easy and quick.

"I was most surprised by the speed in which things came together," Dulyapaibul sid.

Roccanova agreed.

"The SIPs panels made it easy," she said.

Additional energy-efficient features include spray foam insulation in the ceiling and beneath the house and Low-E (low emissivity) double-insulated windows. The house is built to withstand 140 mph winds and sits three feet above the base flood elevation. Sustainable materials chosen for the house include bamboo flooring and carpet made from recycled plastic bottles. Cementitious fiber board panels cover the exterior and provide fire, water and termite resistance.

In the 2007-2008 UB3 studio, Camacho's design was chosen as the one to build for that year. According to fellow students Roccanova and Dulyapaibul, Camacho's design had the best concept, the most adaptable plan, and the most thought-out proposal of the 15 proposals presented. As can be seen both in plan and three-dimensional structure, Camacho's proposal was based on an "S" form that lends itself to more flexible living spaces.

The "S" is delineated through the use of materials and architectural form to separate public areas from more private spaces within the home. The structure also emphasizes connection to the outdoors with panels that can be opened or closed. Camacho created a "floating public venue" that includes the living, dining and kitchen areas. The more private spaces are located upstairs.

Roccanova explains the adaptability of the design. "It looks like a section cut," she said, referring to one of the ways in which architects convey details graphically to the builder. "You can cut it at any lengths. It has the potential to extrude and make the rooms bigger."

The ability to easily shrink or grow the house turned out to be critical because the site it was to be built upon changed three times before construction started.

In addition, flexibility is evident in the interchangeability of the living and dining areas downstairs. Roccanova explained.

"When you open all the doors, you can't tell which space is indoor and which outdoors." she said. "It lends itself to the we entertain here - like having crawfish boils."

Because a bar is located across the street from the building site, the upstairs floor is shielded on that side from the street. The opposite side opens toward the neighborhood in a welcoming gesture. The fold of metal on the ground floor can be opened to the outside, further emphasizing the indoor-outdoor connection.

The house is very contemporary and sits among the more traditional shotgun houses of the neighborhood. The students are quick to assure that the house still blends into the fabric of the neighborhood. "This house is just an adaptation of the traditional," Dulyapaibul explained. "This home functions like the other homes on the street. The 'stoop culture' on the street is prevalent. The scale of the house is appropriate - the heights and roofs are very similar. There are a lot of subtle things that are not far from the traditional New Orleans neighborhood." Roccanova added, "besides, the houses being built here are Katrina Cottages and others that don't really belong."

While the students argue their design fits into the neighborhood, the neighborhood may not be so sure. "Our experience is showing there is a disconnect between the design and the neighborhood," says Anderson. "Many prospective buyers love the design, but do not want to live in the neighborhood – they would like to buy the plans to build the house elsewhere. Based upon the sale of the first two houses, we know that the houses are appealing to a market that is different from our traditional market of a parent(s) with children. The first two were sold to young single men."

Regardless of whether the house blends into the neighborhood or not, it still contributes to fulfilling the mission of NHS and meets the goals of the URBANbuild program.

The students spent some time in the neighborhood during the design phase, though discussions with neighbors didn't really occur until during the construction. Camacho would like to see that changed.

"I hope in future years that's something they work on more - more discussions with neighbors," she said. "We can make the houses more applicable to the people who might buy them."

According to the students, speaking more with the neighbors during the build holds value as well. Being able to explain design decisions can help bring about a better understanding of the home for the neighbors.

The experience has proven invaluable to the students. "I look back and I know it's there, but it is all a blur," Dulyapaibul said. "I learned more than three or four years combined, I think."

Roccanova echoed the thought, "During the process it was hard and frustrating. But I learned so much more, I think, then in lecture."

Camacho feels fortunate to have gone through the experience as well. "I didn't process it in the beginning, " she said. "But how many times do you get to experience this as a young architect/student?"

For more information on New Orleans National Housing Services, visit www.nhsnola.org.

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