Design project helps homeless and disaster victims

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LEXINGTON, Kentucky. — A group of third- and fourth-year architecture students from the University of Kentucky College of Design took to the field to learn from hands-on experience. As part of Bruce Swetnam’s design-build studio, he tasked students with not only designing, but also building full-size prototypes of their projects.


What do you want to know

  • The project started as an idea to shelter the homeless
  • The sawmill allowed the students to see the project built
  • Durability is important to designers
  • Building used to house tornado victims in western Kentucky

“The idea that you can learn, not just conceptually, but learn with your hands and with your eyes and you can feel the project — that’s a holistic way of learning,” said Kentuckiana Masonry Institute endowed professor Swetnam. in British school. of Architecture. “We were commissioned to develop a pavilion to house a sawmill that the university has just acquired.”

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

“A group from the studio worked on this pavilion, and it’s thorough and worked really well,” Swetnam said. “The other half of the studio was working on housing development for people at different stages of homelessness. We did a lot of research and came up with different scales of projects. Some were very small and portable. Some were much larger and some were modular and could be assembled into a larger unit that would have bathrooms, kitchens, living room, bedrooms and that sort of thing.

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

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

“It really is a great feeling to know that our hard work is being put to good use in a community that really needs it,” said Jackie Russell, an architecture student in the UK. “We built our project for a purpose and to know it is being used for that is something we can be proud of.”

Allyson Middleton, an architecture student in the UK, said her thought process was to design something that could be mass-produced, easily built and dismantled, and be multi-functional.

“At first it was always, like, a homeless shelter,” Middleton said. “Just people coming off the streets and trying to help them.”

Swetnam said some of the smaller units were designed to be clustered around a community kitchen and toilets to provide safety and thermal comfort near a library or other resource that would allow people to get out of homelessness. Another larger design included a toilet, shower, utility room, kitchen, space for an office, sleeping area, and sitting area.

“As a family gets bigger, they could group them together to form more or less a duplex, or they could have two bedrooms, or even three,” Swetnam said. “They can be enlarged.”

Architecture student Chloe Kelly was part of a team that designed an 8-by-8-foot 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 designed just to have a sleeping area and a living area with storage. It’s not quite to the scale of the larger little houses, but they were meant to be clustered around those that had bathrooms and kitchens.

Architecture student Lauren Major said having a sawmill on site was beneficial for a number of reasons, such as providing shelter for workers sawing campus timber, but also giving students across the UK l access to the experience of seeing the process.

“We focused a lot on sustainability, which was a big part of our design and the future of farming practices,” Major said. “It taught us a lot. Typically, we just design on our computers and make drawings, but this time we actually have to build it ourselves to understand the structural techniques required. It was a great learning experience.

Alan Hammell, Mohammed Aliessa, Chris Marra, Riley Day, Noah Martin, April Morris, Benjamin Rudloff, Morgan Wesley and Kayla Spies were other third- and fourth-year British architecture students working on the projects.

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

“The only way to be a good mentor is to have really good mentees,” Swetnam said. “They have all been such a joy to work with. Everyone showed up even under unfavorable conditions. Everyone was eager to learn and we were all in this together. Each of these students embraced this idea of ​​using their talents in architecture to serve the community in some way. I think it’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 as they would in their career field.

“This course was a very good learning experience, just because I feel like from now on we will never design anything the same again because we know the problems we had to overcome and how to solve them,” said Grace Butler, a fourth. major year in architecture. “We even had to modify our design a little bit just because of hardware issues or because of the weather, and it was really a great learning experience to combat those issues in a rapid design framework.”

As part of the housing projects for the homeless, several types of shelters have been designed, based on the different stages of homelessness that the students have extensively researched. Butler, Lauren Davis, Russell and Kelley built and designed the 8ft by 8ft shelter. The 8 by 24 habitat, which included electrical and plumbing, was built and designed by Middleton, Greg Vergara, Joe Schulte and Justin Kirk.

“We’ve done other design-build projects, but until this project, everything was very conceptual,” Davis said. “To be in this experience, with the frustration and the failure, but then seeing the reward of those struggles has been incredible.”

The idea of ​​a shelter attracts attention.

“I’ve actually been approached by entrepreneurs who want to scale them up and mass produce them for use in a disaster,” Swetnam said.

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