Rehoming student projects - in Buffalo's urban gardens

One student's inclination for public service design inspires class-wide project for the community

Matthew Straub and his fellow team members with their seed hut project.

Senior architecture student Matthew Straub stands atop the thermally-regulated enclosure he designed with classmates in Martha Bohm's Environmental Systems course. Instead of tossing it in the trash, Straub donated it to Grassroots Gardens of WNY, where it will help incubate new plants for a local community garden. Photo by Maryanne Schultz

by Charles Wingfelder

Published January 25, 2019

One architecture student’s efforts to find a community use for his class project has helped establish a class-wide venture that will place 10 student-built works in urban gardens across Buffalo.

It all began last spring in Environmental Systems 2, a core course that explores passive design for heating, cooling and natural ventilation, as well as mechanical and other building systems. In a first-time attempt to integrate full-scale prototyping into the course, faculty member Martha Bohm, an expert on energy-sensitive design, had students design a 4’x4’x4’ foot enclosure that could provide a comfortable space for winter sketching or painting using only the heat of the sun.

The resulting projects were impressive – but without a final use, most were dismantled for reuse or recycling at the end of the semester.

Senior Matthew Straub wasn’t as quick to let go. “Most of my projects have wound up in the trash,” he says. “What made this project different was that the huts could be easily adapted to new uses. I knew I could find somebody who could use it.”

He approached the University Heights Collaborative, where he volunteers, with an offer to use the hut in their community garden. Joe Kurtz, manager of the organization’s Tyler Street Community Garden, suggested broadening the effort through Grassroots Gardens of Western New York, which runs a network of more than 100 community and school gardens.

The building process takes place in the Fabrication Workshop in Parker Hall.

Students in Martha Bohm's fall 2018 course assemble their seed huts in the school's Fabrication Workshop. Photo by Yifan He

Bohm seized the opportunity to tweak the assignment in her next year’s course. An architect who has written about urban agriculture in and on buildings, she worked with Grassroots Gardens to shape the assignment and define a realistic program for the spaces. “We considered chicken coops, bee hives, storage sheds, rainwater collection, and seedling huts,” she says.

Bohm settled on the seed huts. The project would require specific thermal performance – the heart of the project assignment – to sustain the plant growth.  This would fill a clear need in the community gardens, given the short growing season in Buffalo.

“In the first prototype installation in spring 2018, the students loved the project and learned a lot about translating ideas from paper to reality. But I was keen both to figure out a way to give the project a real-world purpose and to fund some of the expense.”

That’s when Bohm and Straub learned about the Pitch 10 grant offered by the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County. The program awards micro grants to 10 nonprofit organizations at the leading edge of innovation. Straub and a member of the Grassroots Gardens team made the pitch – and won – bringing home the top prize of $5,000 to help defray material costs for the fall 2018 student teams.

Bohm says the students have enjoyed designing projects for an actual client, and working on something that will have a life after the assignment itself is completed. Now installed for testing next to the GRoW Home on UB's South Campus (another project led by Bohm), the 10 huts are being offered this winter through Grassroots Gardens to community and school gardens  on a first come, first served basis.

Straub says the project is a valuable lesson in public service for future architects.

“This work outside the classroom, for unconventional clients, has influenced my education and life for the better,” says the community-minded Straub.

“I hope that the destination of the huts will show students how valuable their skills are to communities that cannot afford to hire designers or builders, and inspire them to do more design work for nonprofits and neighborhood organizations."

“This work outside the classroom, for unconventional clients, has influenced my education and life for the better”

- Matthew Straub, Architecture BS '19

Ready for delivery

Students in Martha Bohm's Envionmental Systems II course stand with their completed seed huts after final reviews in December. The nine projects, plus the initial hut designed by Straub last year, will be transported this winter to Grassroots Gardens of WNY, where they will be assigned to community gardens across the region on a first come, first served basis. (Photos by Maryanne Schultz)