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Walls and beams, hopes and dreams.

by Amy Kingsley

There are houses and there are homes. And sometimes acres of meaning separate the two. A house can be a home, of course, if it’s rooted in context. Anchor it to an address – on a street, in a neighborhood, on a certain side of town – and it becomes more than just a floor plan. Factor in its residents’ gardens, oak trees and jungle gyms – any evidence of life – and add them to the sum of the place.

Or start with a different figure. A home doesn’t have to be a house. Sometimes it’s a room, an apartment, a tent, a boxcar or an RV skimming over the highway. It’s any space where life catches up to you.

Usually a home is a physical thing. It’s made from material, with a structure and a footprint – a presence on the earth where grass once grew. And if your home is a house, it probably began life as a scale model, like the one in front of students in UNCG’s Urban Studio class.

It’s in the middle of a broad conference table with students arranged around the perimeter. They take and turn it, this dollhouse made of cardboard, remove its roof and experiment with miniature architectural features.

Jessica Shupe, a student, has two staircases before her.

“There’s an interior staircase and we’re looking at the best way to incorporate storage into that,” Shupe says. “One idea we had was to divide the area underneath it into cubbyholes and shelves. Or we might not enclose the stairs and incorporate shelves behind them.”

Thirty-five students enrolled in Urban Studio this semester. That’s every third-year student in the department of interior architecture.

Each student belongs to one of four teams: architectural detailing, interior architecture, product design and landscape. Shupe and Janel Graupensperger represent interior architecture, the group charged with designing the house’s interior fixtures.

“We want easy access for both mothers and children,” Shupe says. “We want it to be easily accessible.”

They’re talking about My Sisters’ House, a home for pregnant teenagers and teen mothers. It’s the second design-build project undertaken by students in the department of interior architecture. And right now, it’s just a model and a series of drawings.

The project began with a need: a place in Greensboro where young mothers and mothers-to-be could live with their children. Susan Cupito steers the YWCA of Greensboro’s teen parent mentor programs and began working on the Minor Parent Housing Coalition in 2001.

“If you are fifteen and a mom and you’re homeless, there aren’t very many options open to you,” Cupito says. “You can go into foster care, but you might have your baby taken from you. You can’t go to a shelter with a baby.”

For years the effort to build My Sisters’ House spun its wheels. Committees formed and dissolved, and funding evaporated almost as quickly as it appeared.

Then Cupito met Robert Charest, a professor in UNCG’s department of interior architecture. Cupito had heard about what Charest and his students were doing on Dillard Street in Glenwood, where they built a brand new, 1,000 square-foot house for an elderly couple who had lost their home of four decades.

“I said, ‘Let me know when you’re ready for a new project,'” Cupito says.

Charest is a Montreal-bred architect and master carpenter who moved to the United States in 2003. His office is so crammed with power tools, papers and drafting tables, it’s easy to miss the three diplomas lined up on the edge of his desk.

“It’s fair to say we bit off a huge bite,” Charest says. “It really is a huge project.”

More than 4,000 square feet, to be exact. Current plans call for a 4,500 square foot facility that will house five mothers, their children and counseling staff. The total construction budget is $500,000.

“I would dare say that we are the only university in the country that is tackling a design-build project of this nature.” said Novem Mason, class co-instructor.

Although the YWCA initially signed on as Urban Studio’s community partner, they recently transferred that responsibility over to Youth Focus. Cupito will remain heavily involved in the project.

Youth Focus already operates a home for two teen mothers in High Point. It’s in a renovated house and it’s always full.

Many homes for teen mothers are – like the one in High Point – run out of renovated houses. By designing and building a space tailored to the needs of teen mothers, Charest and his students hope to advance the goals of the house with design.

“Basically it’s going to be a transitional living program for pregnant and parenting teens,” says Chuck Hodierne, executive director of Youth Focus. “It’s a place for them to learn to live independently; they will learn about nutrition, cooking, and things like that. We will be helping them finish their education and/or get a job.”

Each of the five suites will include a full bathroom so the mothers can care for their babies like any other parent instead of dealing with the inconvenience of shared facilities.

Students in the product design group open sketchbooks crowded with drawings. There are beds with sofas attached, desks and lots and lots of storage space.

Adrian Boggs, a graduate student, is studying product design. Last year he was one of 20 students who built the house on Dillard Street. As an undertaking, My Sisters’ House is on a completely different scale, he says.

“It’s a Leviathan compared to the other project,” Boggs says.

Not only is it bigger and more expensive than Dillard Street, its residents are also more enigmatic. The infants and teenagers who will call My Sisters’ House home will all be in various stages of development themselves.

“We’re looking at how the architectural detailing changes the general flow,” Boggs says. “Then it gets down to the micro flow of the products in this space. We’re looking at ways to combine functions. When considering the presence of infants, that makes it very different from a regular home.”

The students wrestle with plans for a kitchen that encourages healthy eating. They want to facilitate the shift from junk food to whole food.

“There will not be a deep fat fryer in this place,” Boggs says.

But there will be a garden and a play area for the babies. Both fall under the auspices of the landscape and play area group. They’re planning to incorporate native plants to save water, and they are also trying to work some storage into the fence.

Sometimes a house is more than just a home. Like the house on Dillard Street, which is also a monument to collaboration between public agencies and universities – an idea that often gets more lip service than serious consideration.

Dyan Arkin, a community planner in Greensboro’s Housing and Community Development Department, helped secure the land for My Sisters’ House in the Eastside Park neighborhood.

“I think [Dillard Street] was a tremendous success,” Arkin says. “The owners of the house are ecstatic. I hope this continues to be a partnership with the students at UNCG.”

In this case a home is also a curriculum. Architects and designers are responsible for about two-thirds of a finished product, Charest says. The rest happens when the contractor turns plans into reality.

“Our students at various levels are always being encouraged to do things in real space,” Charest says, “and not just to work with scale models.”

Design-build courses like this one are about teaching students what happens when you bolt gypsum to two-by-fours, as one student says. It’s also about the hard work of creating actual spaces.

The 20 students enrolled in the first urban studio spent 13,000 hours designing and building the house on Dillard Street. Students in this semester’s class meet for nine hours each week and are required to put in 27 hours of work outside of class.

As the semester has progressed, the students have become less shy about expressing their opinions. During a week when Charest was out of town, one of his students – Jimmy Leonard – proposed some changes to Charest’s blueprints.

“They staged a mutiny,” Charest says. “They took the time that I was away to look at the plan.”

Like the house on Dillard Street, My Sisters’ House is also a conversation.

“It’s like the whole gentle modernism we used on the Dillard Street project,” Charest says. “It’s a more conservative approach to modernism, because this is a more conservative area. Of course we are part of a university, so we want to join the current discourse. That’s why we are not proposing a bloated foursquare house. We are being very careful with this idea of modernism.”

A house must jibe with its neighborhood. The urban studio students have met with neighbors in Eastside Park, and received their enthusiastic stamp of approval.

“This building is not going to be in a bubble,” one student says.

No, it’s going to be something altogether different, if everything works out the way it’s supposed to.

“It’s intended to be a beacon of light,” Charest says.

Eastside Park is a neighborhood in transition. It’s already seen the demolition of the old Morningside Homes housing project and the construction of Willow Oaks, a mixed-income development.

The neighbors see My Sisters’ House as another project that will add value to their community with its progressive design and transformative purpose.

“The neighbors have been very helpful,” one student says. “They want to help us.”

All houses begin with ideas. Born in the back of the brain, they gestate in computers before their birth in three dimensions as a scale model.

Some houses never make it off the page. At the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in 2001, curator David Brown had an idea.

“We had a series called ‘Art and the Community,'” he says. “We sort of envisioned it as a response to the culture wars.”

SECCA did not emerge unscathed from the culture wars. Former Sen. Jesse Helms criticized the museum for supporting the work of Andres Serrano, the artist responsible for “Piss Christ.”

But Serrano, “Piss Christ” and Helms were all ancient history by the time Brown had his idea.

“Back then you couldn’t pick up a newspaper without reading about affordable housing and what a problem it was,” Brown says. “I figured SECCA doesn’t have a collection. We’re not really bound by anything. So what’s keeping us from working on this problem?”

Brown called the local Habitat for Humanity office, but they never responded. So he called the national headquarters. With their blessing, a project was born. The HOME House Project: The Future of Affordable Housing would solicit plans from architects and designers from across the country charged with rethinking affordable housing within the parameters set by Habitat.

More than 400 designs inundated Brown and his judges, a panel of well-known architects, educators and critics. From the pool of applicants, they selected 25 winners and 75 honorable mentions; all the designs were bound in a book published by MIT Press.

An exhibition of all the designs toured the country. But the project didn’t stop there.

“It was always our intention to build some of these houses,” Brown says.

The range of submissions honored by SECCA guarantees that some of the houses will not be built – at least not in our lifetime. Some of the houses use materials that haven’t been invented. One requires the builder to graft a sapling onto the body of the house, which isn’t built until the tree matures.

Not all of the plans are as experimental. Two houses based on more conventional floor plans have been built in Cincinnati. A builder in Winston-Salem is offering plans at cost, but the lot on which they are to be built remains empty.

“When I left SECCA the thing kind of died with me,” Brown said.

Now he works at the Art Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke. But the ideas he left behind at SECCA haven’t died, especially the notion, articulated by Ben Nicholson, that affordable housing represents a standard below which our society is unwilling to go, “the equivalent of a minimum wage,” he writes.

What we need is a new calculation of that minimum, one that figures in the environmental toll of energy waste and the social costs of shoddy design that stigmatizes affordable housing.

“Usually affordable housing looks exactly like what it is,” Brown says.

Not the designs in the HOME House Project book, which are sleek and airy and informed by notions of sustainability and community.

“My definition of what is art is very wide,” Brown says, “and that place where art intersects with society is where some of the most interesting stuff happens.”

The students in the architectural detailing group are responsible for the building’s envelope, and one of their concerns is natural light – which can replace some artificial lighting and heating. They’re working with the tilt of the ceiling, the joints and the eaves.

One of the most ambitious features of My Sisters’ House is the students’ intention to seek platinum LEED certification. Because a house is a lot of things you can’t see, like insulation, foundation and carbon footprint.

When the first Urban Studio built the house on Dillard Street, they used insulated concrete forms – a type of interlocking building material that’s nearly impervious to the elements. For the floors, they reclaimed hardwood from a distillery.

Right now the architectural detailing group and a subgroup devoted to LEED guidelines are working on strategies to make My Sisters’ House efficient – like calculating the ideal amount of insulation.

Proposals honored in the HOME House Project use clerestories, reclaimed materials and solar panels. Some of that will probably be built into My Sisters’ House, a place that promises to be more than a project.

“The primary focus is on providing a house that is homelike,” Cupito says. “It’s not like the teens will be entering a clinical facility, they will be entering a home.”

It will be a state-of-the-art home with programming planned in part by faculty from UNCG’s social work department. There will be other collaborators on this project, including, potentially, students from Guilford Tech’s carpentry program and A&T’s architectural engineering department.

“This is when the university steps down from its ivory tower,” Charest says. “It’s when they come down into neighborhoods like Glenwood or Willow Oaks.”

The step is easier for them to make when they have community partners, like the 30-odd companies who donated or discounted materials for the Dillard Street house. My Sisters’ House benefits from funding from NC Housing Finance Agency that will cover most of the costs of construction.

“The donations are not about making the house less expensive,” Charest says. “It’s about increasing the quality of what we’re able to do with it.”

UNCG isn’t the first school to add a design-build class to its curriculum. UNC-Charlotte has had a design-build class for 15 years, and the School of Architecture at the University of Texas, where Charest taught before coming to UNCG, does design-builds.

UNCG’s is based in a department of interior architecture, which is unusual. Its students have already shown they can turn a house into a home, but they can’t do it without breaking some new ground.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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