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Classicism for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity turns to Classicists to refine its designs, and its image.
By Marieke Cassia Gartner

Since 1976, Habitat for Humanity (HFH) has been building homes for those who lack adequate shelter. The houses are available to people who are chosen according to their need, and are sold at no profit, with no interest charged on the mortgage. Both the new homeowners and Habitat affiliate volunteers build the houses, which are typically 1,100-1,200-sq.ft. one-story vinyl-sided structures, and while they transform the lives of the families that live in them, they often do little to improve neighborhood character.

This was a concern of Jeff Speck, formerly director of town planning at Miami, FL-based Duany Plater-Zyberk and currently director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). He suggested an inspired and unusual partnership between HFH and New York City-based Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America (ICA&CA). In fall 2004, the NEA gave a grant for the project, which would include three initial prototypes and a pattern book.

For HFH, the project "gives us an opportunity to show people that affordable housing doesn’t have to be unattractive, a misfit in the neighborhood," says Susan Corts, director of partnerships with HFH. "There are ways to build affordable housing that makes it part of a healthy community. The project presents the potential to address the ‘not in my backyard’ issue." For the ICA&CA, the project represents another step in their effort to improve not just single structures, but whole communities.

Initially, HFH had a small competition to determine the three regional offices to be involved with the prototype project, ensuring that those affiliates had access to land that was in historic neighborhoods, says Corts. Then three architects were identified who were "local, at least by region, in the spirit of HFH," explains Paul Gunther, president with ICA&CA. "Mason Andrews in Norfolk, VA, and two ICA&CA members, Richard Cameron in Rochester, NY, and Merrill & Pastor in Savannnah, GA. This ensured that land-use decisions that were made were done knowledgeably."

Each project will be sited in an historic urban neighborhood with mixed-income potential. The challenge for the architects, according to ICA&CA, is "to work within Habitat guidelines and budget constraints and still provide practical – yet beautiful – architectural solutions to the needs of striving families and struggling communities. The ultimate goal of the project is to introduce high-quality design, sensitive to local preservation efforts and architectural vernaculars to HFH affordable-housing projects nationwide." The project began its design phase in January 2005 and construction is slated to conclude by June 2006. Possible future directions include the development of materials by HFH, such as an e-course or instructional design module for the Habitat for Humanity University that uses the three new Habitat homes as case studies.

Mid-Atlantic

The first project to break ground was the collaboration between the South Hampton Roads Habitat for Humanity and a Norfolk, VA, architectural team led by Mason Andrews – the design and construction of a two-family home in Berkley, an historic waterfront neighborhood. "The challenge that the grant is designed to meet is to overcome a problem of which there are regrettably a lot of examples," explains Andrews. "The tiny footprint of HFH houses and their one-story height really are notably out of keeping with traditional neighborhoods, and stigmatize houses because they are clearly HFH houses. The point, instead, is to integrate people into their new neighborhoods."

Berkley was originally built as a middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhood at the end of the 1800s. "At the beginning of the 20th century, fire wiped out much of it and it fell on hard urban times. It never really recovered, but its active community league is dedicated to trying," she says. "The building stock that’s left is very special, but most of the infill housing built up to 1970s is not good, and is glaringly so on blocks with so much good design. In our site’s backyard we have a late-1960s or early-’70s housing infestation that exhibits all that goes wrong when you’re too far back from the street and not taking cues from adjacent buildings."

From the Berkley neighborhood, which has smaller single-family houses and also grand elaborate corner buildings, Andrews took floor and porch height and setbacks from averages of older buildings on the blocks surrounding the site for her design. "We’re using 9-ft. floor-to-ceiling heights, so that the basic heights and window placements are similar to the adjacent buildings," she says. Full brick skirting, typical of the neighborhood, is also being used.

As land prices rise, HFH has to make allowances, which is making their goals more and more difficult to achieve. Andrews came up with a solution in Virginia: designing a duplex that achieved the bulk of existing traditional houses and also addressed land cost. "I found a prototype extant on several corner lots in Berkley," she says. "The narrow face of a hipped roof structure faces the main street and the porch wraps around the length of the side, intersected by a prominent gable. This is a good prototype for a two-family house, because it offers separation between porches and a good presence on two streets." The HFH version is a more minimal version of the prototype. The model’s hip dormers were not used. "One of the exciting things is that it’s easy to see how the design could be used for a market-rate duplex in the same area, making use of third-floor attic space," says Andrews.

The two driveways are on different streets, so even though it’s a duplex, each of the two units is genuinely separate, facing in its own direction, with its own yard. The porches were included on principle. Part of Andrews’ prototype was the porch, which she considered an integral part of the design, considering the neighborhood. "HFH is stretching to do more porch than they normally do, but that was part of our prototype, and they recognized that in order to continue to get land in traditional neighborhoods, they need to invest in porches."

Working within the confines of HFH’s budget and materials was a "good" challenge, says Andrews. Materials with as little waste as possible are meant to be used, so the design was developed with compact floor plans on 8-ft. centers. Although wood siding would have been her choice for a traditional building, it turned out not to be a good choice in terms of the new building’s inhabitants. "The idea of a five-year re-painting schedule would represent a hardship," she explains. Instead, vinyl was used, a novelty material for Andrews. But, she says, "if you look at anything long enough, you can find ways to make it better. Standard vinyl comes in 6-in. boards. But now there are 3-in. exposure siding patterns that look more like traditional siding, the shadows of which are important to the design." The smaller patterns also help with the rigidity of vinyl.

For window trim, wood again was not acceptable, so PVC is being used. "The challenge here is also with getting appropriate shadow lines. Vinyl is made to be thin and clipped on. Other solutions included wood or Hardiplank, which would require paint, or wrapping the wood in coil stock, but that didn’t work with volunteer labor, so solid PVC framing material from a window manufacturer will be donated instead."

The interiors are given less attention, but Andrews is specifying light fixtures "from Lowes, that are quiet, as opposed to ersatz period. The cabinetry, which we will help choose, will be donated." Groundbreaking for this house was in October 2005.

The Northeast

With Flower City Habitat for Humanity, architect Richard Cameron and associate architect Gardner Plus Architects of Rochester, NY, will design and build a home in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood of Rochester, "the city’s only surviving example of an early-19th-century tract development that retains its original public square configuration and the majority of its residential building," according to the proposal.

Cameron’s firm, Ariel - The Art of Building, is comprised of architects, designers and builders, and so brings a different perspective to this project – the firm will also supply volunteers in building the actual structure. "The little square where Susan B. Anthony’s house is located," says Cameron, "overlooks a neighborhood that’s quite lovely. It almost looks like it was planned as a New Urbanist neighborhood, with a central green and houses facing into it. Some of the houses are okay, but some are derelict."

As in other regions, people like to support HFH, but not in their neighborhood. These projects are seeking to change that. "Using the least expensive, least maintenance materials does not always work to good effect," Cameron says. "There’s no design detail, cheap siding and pressure-treated lumber in the front porches. We proposed to bump the price point up slightly, use slightly better materials and create maintenance programs for people who will have a vested interest in looking after their new house – it doesn’t need to be completely maintenance free." The idea is that good design doesn’t have to cost more than bad design, he adds. "We had to design something that HFH could build easily, and didn’t fall outside of the skills of the people involved." In doing so, Cameron was not looking to redesign Flower City’s model, but to improve on it. "We took as our model their prototype, which has a wraparound porch and a basic plan, and we altered it. We added elevation details, and took it more toward Greek Revival from Victorian to match the neighborhood," he says.

Flower City has local volunteers – retired cabinetmakers and others – that run a mill shop for them and make basic moldings (there are talks about this group offering their services to other HFH affiliates). So instead of pressure-treated lumber, stock pieces were milled and half moldings made from the mill shop for this project. "We kept the shapes very simple, which works with the Greek Revival style," explains Cameron. Wood was used for the window and door trim and the cornices. "That was a big change," he adds. "It doesn’t take an awful lot to fix up HFH’s houses. Their basic premise is quite good." Cameron also changed the staircase configuration for a more generous stair and entry, so it could "feel like a proper point of arrival." The position of the front door was shifted off the porch, while rooms were kept fairly minimal because of the tight plans. "The key was to get the arrangement right, to get the feel that this is a home." The groundbreaking will occur in spring 2006.

"I’m looking forward to the building process," says Cameron, "since this is the first one I’ve done. It’s interesting to see what happens to your design as it goes through construction. How do you keep the standard you are trying to set?"

Like the other architects involved in this collaboration, Cameron is used to working at the opposite end of the market. "I think it’s possible to design good buildings based on Classical designs on modest budgets. The main thing you have to do is simplify labor costs and make materials reasonable. Part of our work should be more charitably oriented," he concludes. "That we are doing it is attributable to Paul Gunther."

The Southeast

The Coastal Empire affiliate of HFH will partner with Merrill & Pastor and Barnard and King Architects for a house in the Thomas Square Streetcar historic district of Savannah, GA. "We’re looking forward to working in Savannah," says Scott Merrill, "because the project includes a collaboration with the students of Savannah College of Art and Design, whom we haven’t had an opportunity to interact with as of yet." The site is a corner lot, and the design will be a duplex. The neighborhood is characterized by larger, Turn of the Century houses with lap siding. "The first thing to work on is organization," says Merrill. "The plan and the massings. The efficiency of the massings is the most important thing. Once you have a sufficient envelope, then you can work on an efficient ratio of enclosure to enclosed space."

The budget, again, will be a challenge for the architects, but "others have managed," says Merrill. "We approach it with the idea that we’ll be able to come to terms with what others have done. In our practice, we have a range of budgets, and have different levels of detailing as a result. I think one is obligated to undertake as many problems as one can. We find our practice more interesting the more varied the projects are." This project "represents an initiative under ICA&CA that is incredibly commendable," he concludes, "in terms of trying to think of the environment beyond that typically inhabited by architects."

The Future

The houses themselves do not comprise the full extent of the partnership. The ICA&CA will publish a 70-page pattern book, which will be freely distributed to all Habitat affiliates and chapters. Distribution is also planned beyond HFH. The book will include notable HFH housing successes that were informed by traditional designs, "such as a brownstone row in the Bronx designed by Joseph Alice," says Gunther. Ray Gindroz, of Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, PA, will direct this aspect of the project. "The emphasis of our pattern book work over the years," he says, "has been to connect the architecture profession with the building industry." This book will be a continuation of that goal.

The original proposal included only the three demonstration projects discussed above, but "it became clear," Gindroz explains, "that the project needed a broader application if it were to be effective. This led to the idea of doing a pattern book for HFH." The three projects will be included in the book, and will serve as examples of what the book will enable people to do. The book will be a manual on how to design a neighborhood house, with a section on how the house fits into neighborhood streets and how it contributes to the character of the neighborhood. In addition, a series of architectural style pages will span the five or six national styles that exist in the U.S. "Each city has a choice of style, interpreted in different ways. The first step is to evaluate the city and the neighborhood, identify the most appropriate architectural style and the pattern book will provide the correct pattern for that style," he says. A small section on how to make the standard house types that HFH uses and modify them so that they become appropriate for each neighborhood will also be included.

The planning for the book does come with challenges. "Because HFH is a decentralized organization," Gindroz says, "its affiliates determine policies for their own area. So in creating a pattern book for HFH, we haven’t ensured that everyone will follow it. It has to be user-friendly for all the affiliates and helpful to people with busy lives. We can’t complicate the process; the goal is to make it simpler."

The essence of the book is to enable Habitat affiliates to build houses that are good neighbors – that fit into communities and neighborhoods – like any other house in that neighborhood. "The book also allows the recognition that there are two roles a house fulfills: accommodating the needs of its residents and creating a good neighborhood. The parts of the house that face the public spaces of the neighborhood – streets, parks or squares – are therefore the most important parts to get right when you’re building a new house," Gindroz explains.

Ultimately, two ideas helped shape the project. The HFH representative, Tom Jones, said that while "87% of Americans are comfortable with affordable housing in their neighborhood if it fits in, many HFH houses don’t fit in." The second is the "notion of creating spaces for a neighborhood is fundamental to American society," says Gindroz. "The creation of stable sustainable mixed-income neighborhoods makes it possible – physical form supports this social capital – for them to be the neighborhoods that survive the longest, can cope with the most economic change and offer the most opportunities for people to increase their physical/social mobility. The mission of this project is more than providing houses, but helping people move on to a better life."

This project has taken on special significance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "There was a lot of interest in the ICA&CA to respond meaningfully to the situation," says Gunther. "Even though the Gulf Coast was not included in the initial planning, we will come up with affordable prototypes that fit in the neighborhoods, such as the shotgun, double shotgun and camelback styles of New Orleans. We are gathering local architects to provide affordable prototypical vernacular house plans, and we will try to make direct contact if possible with the Habitat chapters on the front lines, or we will publish and disseminate the plans in the hope that they will be used."  

 

 

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