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UB Students Raise Their 41st Buffalo Home for Habitat for Humanity

Architecture Course Blends Hands-On Instruction and Community Service

Release Date: June 9, 2008

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UB architecture students Shoshana Levine, Nicole Lamie and Ernest Hoe work on the roofing for one of four new homes constructed by UB students on Buffalo's East Side.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- University at Buffalo undergraduate Mindy Underhill straddles a ceiling beam, checking the joists in a home going up on Buffalo's East Side.

Underhill, a junior speech and hearing science major from Marilla, N.Y., is one of a team of young women working on what they call "the girls' house."

It is one of four new homes being built this year by Habitat for Humanity with major assistance from 36 UB students, and it is the 41st such house since 1990.

The students' efforts are part of a three-credit-hour course in building and construction offered every year by the School of Architecture and Planning under the direction of the school's instructional support technician, Richard Yencer.

This year's team of scholar-builders (some, like Underhill, from outside the School of Architecture and Planning) have just about finished work on the 2008 homes. Their speedy work this spring means that four families will be able to move into new homes in the fall.

"The girls are working together on this one to prove the boys wrong," Underhill laughs as her teammates Kara Wetzel of Ithaca (B.S.Arch. '11), civil engineering student Mimi Yong of Queens (B.S. '09) and Maddy Korony of Saranac Lake (B.S.Arch. '09) show off the layout of the house they're building

-- a three-bedroom one-family at 27 Guilford Ave.

Over the past 18 years, Yencer says hundreds of UB students have worked with Habitat for Humanity to construct new houses on Buffalo's East Side and in Lackawanna. Their work has helped many local families, some of whom have had to overcome tremendous personal obstacles, move into their first homes.

A tour of those built in the Broadway-Fillmore area over the course of the program reveals that virtually all are well-kept neighborhood jewels, freshly painted, welcoming and fronted by gates and gardens.

Yencer has directed the students in this effort since its inception. He says that today, Habitat puts up five new builds a year and UB students are involved in four of them.

Work began this year on May 12. A week later Teresa Schaub, an architecture and environmental design major, confided to her course journal that the flooring on both porches was finished so they could actually enter the house. "We also spent a lot of time putting up the rigid insulation and taping the seams," she wrote, "I feel like it's going to be a problem to attach the scaffolding with the insulation there but I'm sure there is a trick to it, just like there are little tricks to all sort of things."

The course is like a clinical practicum required in other fields of professional study, Yencer explains.

"The students learn about the meaning of a line on a drawing, the weight of a 12-foot-long 2-by-10 and the best way to connect the components of a building. These questions can be difficult to answer in the classroom, but they're vital to an architect and can be effectively understood through this hands-on experience.

"They also receive hands-on instruction in building skills, including the use of construction tools and safety procedures," he says, "and then they put in three full weeks of hard physical labor beginning immediately after graduation."

Teresa Schaub's course diary is rife with the complications, frustrations and exuberance associated with learning a construction trade: "We got our first exterior wall up toe-nail at the base and then raise it up and prop it into place and nail the overhanging plywood" (May 14); "…stuck on sawing duty today…no fun" (May 15); "… helped drag the trusses up the side of the house… pretty heavy…truss locks were a really good invention!" (May 22); "Today we finished up putting the sheathing…and we did the ice shield paper, the drip edge and the fascia" (May 23).

Brian Carter, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, cites the course for the role it plays in helping students develop clearer understandings of the value and importance of community service.

"It demonstrates how good design can improve the quality of life for anyone and everyone," he says, "and is one way for students to learn to give and feel the joy that accompanies that act of service."

Yencer describes the relationship between the neighbors, the students and the eventual residents as very friendly and cooperative.

"A few years ago, one of the neighbors put out lunch for the whole crew," he says, "and this year, we had a street picnic for the workers and the families who will be living in these homes and the neighbors came, too."

On May 20, Schuab noted that because her house was sponsored by the Lions Club, it was required that at least one member of the family to occupy her house have a disability, in this case a nine-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. Knowing this, she wrote, "makes the project feel a little more personal."

The neighbors may not know exactly who the students are when they first show up, but over the course of their work, "they come by and talk with us and learn about the project," Yencer says, "and the effort quickly takes on a community flavor."

"They watch out for us, protect our materials when we're not here, call the police if they see suspicious activity and keep up with construction as it progresses."

Another benefit of the course, Yencer says, is that students learn how to work with those with a range of different skills and to respect their contributions.

Carter agrees.

"Design and construction is a complex operation that involves the coordination of many different materials, components and activities outdoors and in changeable weather," Carter says, "and this course provides students with a greater understanding of the issues they will confront as they move into the profession."

Apparently the program accomplished its goal this year. As Schuab wrote, "I sincerely hope that as I continue on with my career, I will be able to make a difference in people's lives in the same way that Habitat does… maybe following a career path that will help people to have safe healthy living conditions.

"This has definitely made me think about how I can use what I know to do good in the community and I will definitely take that idea away with me for the future. Thanks Habitat and thanks Dick Yencer! This really has been a great experience!"

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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