Design project helps homeless, disaster victims

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – A group of third and fourth year architecture students at the College of Design at the University of Kentucky went into the field to learn from practical experience. As part of Bruce Swetnam’s design-build studio, he tasked students not only with designing, but with building full-scale prototypes of their projects.


what you need to know

  • The project started as an idea to shelter the homeless
  • The sawmill allowed the students to see the construction of the project
  • Sustainability is important to designers
  • Building housing tornado victims in western Kentucky

“The idea that you can learn, not just conceptually, but with your hands and with your eyes, and you can smell the project — that’s a holistic way of learning,” said Swetnam, Endowed Professor of the Kentuckiana Masonry Institute at the UK School of architecture. “We were commissioned to develop a pavilion to house a sawmill that the university just acquired.”

The idea behind the sawmill is to take diseased trees or trees felled for construction off campus and use that material for construction.

“A group from the studio worked on this pavilion and it’s finished and it worked really well,” Swetnam said. “The other half of the studio worked on developing housing for people in various stages of homelessness. We did a lot of research and came up with projects of different sizes. Some were very small and portable. Some were much larger and others were modular and could be assembled into a larger unit that had bathrooms, kitchens, a living room, bedrooms and so on.”

An 8 by 8 shelter containing the basics was built and designed by British students Grace Butler, Lauren Davis, Jackie Russell and Chloe Kelley. (University of Kentucky)

As the fall semester of 2021 drew to a close, devastating tornadoes swept through western Kentucky. It was then that Swetnam and his students saw an opportunity to use their idea to support relief efforts.

“It’s honestly a great feeling to know that our hard work is being used in a community that really needs it,” said Jackie Russell, UK architecture student. “We built our project for a purpose and knowing that it’s being used for that is something to be proud of.”

British architecture student Allyson Middleton said her thought process is to design something that can be mass-produced, easily assembled and disassembled, and is multifunctional.

“In the beginning it was always like a homeless shelter,” Middleton said. “Just people coming off the street and trying to help them.”

Swetnam said some of the smaller units are designed to cluster around a communal kitchen and toilet area to provide security and thermal comfort near a library or other resource that would allow people to emerge from homelessness to work out. Another larger design had a toilet, shower, laundry room, kitchen, space for a desk, a sleeping area, and a living area.

“If a family were to expand, they could combine them into more or less duplexes, or they could have two or maybe even three bedrooms,” Swetnam said. “They are expandable.”

Architecture student Chloe Kelly was part of a team that designed an 8ft x 8ft shelter that included the basics — a bed and shelves that could be moved around as needed.

“It’s designed for people coming out of homelessness,” she said. “It was only designed to have sleeping space and a living area with storage. It’s not quite as big as the larger tiny houses, but they should be clustered around homes with bathrooms and kitchens.”

Architecture student Lauren Major said that having an on-site sawmill was beneficial for a number of reasons, such as: B. to offer shelter to the workers who milled the wood from the campus, but also to give students in the UK access to the experience of seeing the process.

“We have had a strong focus on sustainability, which has been a big part of both our design and the future of farming practices,” Major said. “That taught us a lot. Usually we just design and make drawings on our computers, but this time we had to actually build it ourselves to understand the structural techniques involved. It was a great learning experience.”

Other British third and fourth year architecture students who worked on the projects included Alan Hammell, Mohammed Alessa, Chris Marra, Riley Day, Noah Martin, April Morris, Benjamin Rudloff, Morgan Wesley and Kayla Spies.

British architecture students Allyson Middleton, Joe Schulte and Justin Kirk with their project. (University of Kentucky)

“You can only be a good mentor if you have really great mentees,” said Swetnam. “It was such a pleasure to work with them. Even in adverse conditions, everyone was there. Everyone was eager to learn and we were all in it together. Each of these students is committed to this idea of ​​using their talents in architecture to serve the community in one way or another. I think that’s one of the most rewarding things we can do as architects.”

For both projects, they gave the students a fixed budget, clients and deadlines, just like they would experience in their professional field.

“This class was a really great learning experience just because I feel like from now on we’ll never design anything the same again because we know the hiccups we had to work through and how to fix them,” said Grace Butler, a fourth-year architecture major. “We even had to change our design a bit, just because of material issues or time constraints, and it was really a great learning experience to fight those issues in a fast design environment.”

Within the Habitat for the Homeless Projects, different types of shelters were designed based on different stages of homelessness, which the students did in-depth research on. Butler, Lauren Davis, Russell and Kelley built and designed the 8ft x 8ft shelter. The 8 x 24 living space, which included power and plumbing, was built and designed by Middleton, Greg Vergara, Joe Schulte and Justin Kirk.

“We’ve done a few other design-build projects, but up until this project, everything was very conceptual,” Davis said. “To be in that experience, with the frustration and failure, but then to see the rewards of those struggles was amazing.”

The shelter idea attracts attention.

“I’ve actually been approached by a few entrepreneurs who are interested in making these on a larger scale and mass-producing them for use during a disaster,” Swetnam said.

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