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Students get hands-on experience while rebuilding neighborhoods

Richard Yencer initiated the school's partnership with Habitat for Humanity Buffalo in 1990 to build students' hands-on skills while giving back to the community. The 2013 build was the last for Yencer, who recently retired after over 30 years of service to the school. Photo: Courtesy of the School of Architecture and Planning


Published December 5, 2013

“They see that a line on paper is different on a piece of wood. They learn 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.”
Richard Yencer, director, Materials and Methods Shop
School of Architecture and Planning

Over the past two decades, hundreds of students participating in the School of Architecture and Planning’s Habitat for Humanity program have raised 56 homes across Buffalo, gaining hands-on experience in building and construction, and rebuilding entire neighborhoods along the way.

This point of reflection is particularly significant for the program’s founder, Richard Yencer, who recently retired as instructional support technician for the school and director of its Materials and Methods Shop. This past spring, he oversaw his last build with the program, leading a crew of 40 students in completing three new homes on Buffalo’s East Side for families in need.

Yencer initiated the partnership with Habitat for Humanity Buffalo in 1990 to give students practical experience and put their skills to work for the community. While the program started small, with about 10 or so students signing up in the first few years, today it’s one of the school’s most sought-after courses. Waiting lists are common, and the program regularly draws teams of 40 to 50 students to help build two to three new homes and rehab several others every year.

The course is a core part of the school’s learn-by-doing approach, Yencer says. “They see that a line on paper is different on a piece of wood. They learn 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.”

The three-credit practicum is open to graduate and undergraduate students of all disciplines, though most participants are from the architecture and planning programs. Students meet several times during the spring semester to study site plans and construction documents, learn how to frame a building and receive training in the proper use of construction tools, from power saws to scaffolding. Then they put in three full weeks onsite, beginning in mid-May.

“We do as much as we can in three weeks, and usually get the side walls up, lay the roof, and fit windows and doors. Sometimes we even complete the siding,” Yencer says, adding that the students work hand-in-hand with other Habitat for Humanity volunteers, from teachers to carpenters. By late fall, the houses are typically ready for families to move in.

The students who put in the eight-hour days of hard, physical labor say the experience is invaluable.

“I now understand the process of design-to-construction much better. For instance, I didn’t realize that the cabinetry needs to be built into the framework of the house. This is stuff you never see or draw in studio,” says Mathew Ryberg, who worked on this year’s new build at 107 Fox St.

Much of these experiences are catalogued in personal journals the students maintain as part of the course. “By writing down these experiences, the students will have a record of it for the future,” says Yencer.

Brijhette Farmer says she is most interested in the community service side of the program. “It’s a chance to give back. We’re increasing the quality of life for the family that will live here, and for the people who live in these neighborhoods.”

Aside from providing new homes to families in need — many of them refugees — UB’s contribution to the Habitat for Humanity program extends far beyond the walls of the houses that have been built.

The 56 houses sit on a handful of blocks — 48 across five blocks on the city’s East Side, four on Ferguson Avenue on the West Side and four in nearby Lackawanna. A tour of these areas reveals swaths of well-kept homes where there were once vacant lots or dilapidated structures.

“These are not one-offs. We’re improving neighborhoods,” Yencer says.

The improvements are more than physical, he adds. In the program’s first years, it wasn’t uncommon for supplies or tools to go missing overnight. Today, neighbors bring doughnuts and lunch for the crews, and are on the watch for suspicious activity at night.

The school formed its partnership with Habitat for Humanity Buffalo just as the non-profit organization was expanding into new builds. Until then, its work was limited to rehabs. Today, the School of Architecture and Planning typically is involved with most, if not all, of Habitat for Humanity’s new builds in the Buffalo area.

“To have the UB students participate has really boosted our capacity. Their energy is fantastic,” says Ron Talboys, who serves as president of Habitat for Humanity Buffalo and formed the partnership with the school 23 years ago. “Our volunteers really enjoy working with the students and often share their tricks in building and construction.”

Talboys says the school’s engagement also has improved Habitat for Humanity’s building model. Thanks to input from Yencer and the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, houses are now built closer to the ground, with fewer stairs, to improve accessibility. An accessibility ramp designed by the school also can be added if needed. Green building practices have been integrated into the construction process, with most new builds qualifying for green certification.

Dean Robert Shibley says the program has been defined by its marriage of craft and community service, all under Yencer’s leadership. “Through Dick’s work, our students come to understand the craft of construction and its importance in home and neighborhood building,” Shibley says. “Over the years, the Habitat for Humanity program has inspired hundreds of our students who have gone on to inspire thousands more with their work in the world.”

Looking back over 23 years, Yencer says his greatest satisfaction is the lasting impact the program has had on his students.

For instance, one of his former students contacted him 10 years after graduation to let him know he made a special stop in Buffalo just to show his family the house he helped build. Another called Yencer for advice, as he was interested in setting up a similar program at another university.

Courtney Creenan, MArch/MUP ’12, now a project coordinator with Flynn Battaglia Architects in Buffalo, says the program’s influence has followed her into the world of practice. “Since entering the professional realm, my experience with Habitat for Humanity has reinforced for me the need for architects to participate in shaping and improving their communities, and to assist in leading those efforts.”

This is what it’s all about, says Yencer. “The program was designed not only to give students practical experience, but to teach them how to get involved and give back to their communities. This says to me that we’ve reached that goal.”

Going forward, the Habitat for Humanity program will continue under the leadership of Peter Russell, the new director of the Materials and Methods Shop.