Designing a home for all, for the long haul

Published July 20, 2016

By David J. Hill

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

“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.”
Ginny Gallersdorfer
UB architecture student

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 last 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 the 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,” says Barry Weiss, construction manager for Habitat Buffalo.

“The studio portion of this pilot was hugely successful,” Weiss says. “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.”

Ginny Gallersdorfer created the design that Habitat used for most of the project. Knowing that a large family would be 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,” explains Gallersdorfer, who received her master of architecture degree 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 says.

That, Steinfeld notes, 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 says.

“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 a house.

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