Designing a home for all, for the long haul

UB students working on a Habitat for Humanity home.

University at Buffalo architecture and planning students work on a Habitat for Humanity home on Buffalo's East Side in June 2016. Photo: Douglas Levere

UB-Habitat for Humanity pilot project aims to incorporate universal design principles into agency’s home renovation, construction

Release Date: July 19, 2016 This content is archived.

“I cannot think of a more complete package partnership than this: UB students design and build a house that will actually go to a Habitat family. It’s awesome. ”
Barry Weiss, construction manager
Habitat for Humanity Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Later this summer, a family will move into their new home on Buffalo’s East Side. Thanks to a pilot project between Habitat for Humanity and the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, the family will be comfortable staying in the house for a long time, even as its members reach their elderly years.

Students created designs for the home renovation that feature principles of universal design – a first for Habitat Buffalo.

Universal design seeks to increase usability, health and social participation for a diverse population. The home on Sussex Street, near Erie County Medical Center, will be the first to be completed as part of the UB-Habitat pilot project.

It started in the fall with a one-semester studio taught by Ed Steinfeld and Peter Russell. Steinfeld is a professor of architecture and director of the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center) in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning. He's also an internationally renowned expert on universal design. Russell is the manager of the school’s Materials and Methods Shop.

Steinfeld and Russell challenged their students to develop innovative solutions to difficult problems of affordable housing design and construction that Habitat for Humanity could adopt. Students produced construction documents, research reports and visualizations to communicate their innovative ideas.

In a spring construction course taught by Russell, students then worked on the home, performing demolition and building alongside Habitat’s team of volunteers. The house is close to being ready for occupancy.

“I cannot think of a more complete package partnership than this: UB students design and build a house that will actually go to a Habitat family. It’s awesome,” said Barry Weiss, the construction manager for Habitat Buffalo.

“The studio portion of this pilot was hugely successful,” he said. “Normally, we have one designer develop a blueprint for our houses. For the Sussex Street home, we had 12 students offering different ideas. That allowed us to choose from a variety of options to find a design that would be most appropriate for that particular family and for the way that we build. It was an exciting opportunity for us and we look forward to doing it again in the future.”

Downloadable High-Res Photos (By Douglas levere):

Ginny Gallersdorfer created the design that Habitat used for most of the project. Knowing that it’s a large family moving into the house, Gallersdorfer’s design removed a number of walls in the existing house to create an open floor plan that would support a large amount of traffic through the house.

All amenities — including the laundry facilities — are accessible from the first floor. In addition, the first-floor bathroom will include storage shelving that could be removed years from now, creating space for a roll-in shower. The back of the house was designed to accommodate a lift, again allowing for aging in place to occur.

“I wanted to create a house design that’s accessible for all,” explained Gallersdorfer, an Akron, New York, native who received her master of architecture in May. “The whole idea is that by planning for these things now, you can save on costs down the road as the family ages. I wanted to show that it’s possible to make adaptability affordable.”

Other universal design features include a kitchen open to the dining room, a second living room on the second floor and a “swing room” on the first floor that could serve as a study, home office or an extra bedroom for family members who have difficulty walking stairs.

“These are design concepts we will pay attention to in the future so our families can be better served later in life,” Weiss said.

That, Steinfeld said, was the key point of the fall studio. “In Buffalo, a lot of Habitat’s clients come from diverse backgrounds. The houses often aren’t designed to expand as the family grows or ages,” he said.

“The studio focused on designing for diversity. We wanted to show with this project on Sussex that it can be done. We’ve learned a lot about what Habitat for Humanity does, and hopefully we can add value to their work.”

The UB students benefited as much as Habitat did from the project. While UB architecture and planning students have helped frame Habitat’s new builds for many years, this past academic year marked the first time students had the opportunity to develop designs for the house.

The drawings they created were exactly the kind they’ll be expected to know how to do when they enter practice, Russell said. “The majority of students — from undergraduates to first-year grad students — struggle to read working drawings,” he said. “But by the end of the course, they’re all capable.”

Through their vision and ingenuity, the students identified a few new design concepts Habitat can incorporate into its homes, according to Weiss.

“In particular, there was an emphasis on visitability, accessibility and aging in place, all of which directly connect to our model of building long-term living spaces for our families,” he said.

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