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Setting Standards

A Habitat for Humanity house showcases the versatility of traditional architecture.

Project: Habitat for Humanity House, Rochester, NY

Architects: Ariel - The Art of Building, LLC; Richard W. Cameron, principal; Gardner Plus Architects, Rochester, NY

Pattern Book: Urban Design Associates, Pittsburgh, PA; Eric Osth, principal in charge

By Will Holloway

Susan B. Anthony Square, a rectangular park with a bronze statue of the civil and women's rights leader seated across from Frederick Douglass, occupies a city block just west of downtown Rochester, NY. It is surrounded by an eclectic mix of freestanding houses built mostly between the 1820s and the early-20th century. Madison Street, which bounds the park to the west, includes two examples of houses that fit the neighborhood context: 17 Madison is the mid-1840s brick house that served as Anthony's residence and headquarters for 40 years (and where she was arrested for illegally casting a ballot in the 1872 presidential election); and, eleven doors north, 43 Madison is a 1,200-sq.ft. Greek Revival-inspired house that was completed in 2007 by Habitat for Humanity (HFH).

Over the past 32 years, Habitat for Humanity International has built and rehabilitated over 250,000 homes for low-income families. In the U.S., there are 1,500 independent, locally run HFH affiliates. The Rochester affiliate, Flower City Habitat for Humanity, has built more than 125 homes since 1984.

Recently, HFH has sought to upgrade its design standards, in part because it has sometimes had difficulty getting HFH projects approved in certain communities. In 2004, working with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Area Office of Habitat for Humanity International joined forces with the New York City-based Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America in a pilot program (see Period Homes, January 2006, p. 12) that produced designs for HFH houses in Norfolk, VA, Savannah, GA, and the house on Madison Street in Rochester. The goal of the program was to prove that the design quality of HFH homes could be improved by traditional architects working within the existing HFH guidelines.

"My career has been mostly in the high-end residential arena, so it's almost the exact diametric opposite," says Richard Cameron, principal of New York City-based Ariel - The Art of Building, LLC, and creator of the concept design for the Rochester HFH house. "I've always asserted that with good design, you should be able to take the same set of elements and products and, in thinking through the design carefully, come up with a much better house. So that was the challenge that we gave ourselves."

On an initial tour of the Rochester site, Cameron was struck by the garden suburb quality of the neighborhood around Susan B. Anthony Square. "One house that really appealed to me was this tiny, simple Greek Revival farmhouse, which was probably built in the 1820s or '30s," he says. Using the farmhouse as a touchstone, Cameron developed the concept design – plans, elevations and perspective views – for the HFH house that would eventually be built at 43 Madison Street. Those documents were handed over to Flower City's local architect, Gardner Plus Architects, which created the construction documents and obtained all of the necessary approvals.

While balancing working within HFH budget constraints and providing aesthetically pleasing housing, Cameron pushed for slightly higher quality materials than those typically used on HFH houses, necessitating a certain level of maintenance on the part of the homeowners. Instead of vinyl siding, plastic trim and pressure-treated lumber, Cameron was able to convince Flower City HFH that composite siding and paint-grade trim and railings were important in creating a sense of responsibility. "My point was that you should be able to use a minimum amount of material that you would use on anyone's house that requires a certain amount of maintenance, because that's part of being house-proud," says Cameron. "These people are investing a great deal of time and energy in bringing themselves up by their bootstraps, and this is a wonderful opportunity for them to have a home worthy of their efforts."

Cameron also focused on giving the house a presence larger than its diminutive 1,200-sq.ft. size. A large porch overlooks the street and wraps around the northern façade, providing an expansive outdoor space. In the interior, rather than a linear stair in the entry hall, the stairway winds around a two-story space to provide a sense of arrival upon entering the house.

As a result of this attention to material quality and to creating a presence, the house fits in well with its neighbors, a fact that is crucial to changing perceptions of HFH houses and thereby removing obstacles to their construction in resistant neighborhoods. "It's been a really fabulous success," says Arthur Woodward, CEO of Flower City Habitat for Humanity, "and part of that is that this house is a beautiful fit in the neighborhood. Richard did a really great job with it, and the family loves it. It's a very sweet low-income family that just had a little girl. They've furnished it beautifully and they are just thrilled with it."

"Most people think that traditional architects only work for billionaires, so we were trying to show that it was possible to work with Habitat and design a traditional building, and that we could design something that could be built by a bunch of volunteers without construction experience," says Cameron. "We demonstrated that it could be done, and now there is the pattern book that Urban Design Associates has put together. That's where the big impact is likely to happen."

Eric Osth, AIA, of Urban Design Associates (UDA) of Pittsburgh, PA, served as principal in charge of A Pattern Book for Neighborly Houses, which was distributed to Habitat affiliates at the organization's national conference in New Orleans last year and has been made available at regional HFH workshops. "The mission of the pattern book," says Osth, "is to raise expectations for what Habitat housing can be, and to help people see affordable housing as an important tool for rebuilding neighborhoods."

With sections on neighborhood, housing, architectural and landscape patterns, the book offers tips that help affiliates understand what makes the architectural fabric of their region and neighborhoods unique. By promoting quality, contextual designs, it aims to raise regulating organizations' expectations of HFH housing. "Often Habitat affiliates are interested in building houses in existing neighborhoods, so it's important for them to have documents that can market to a high level of expectations," says Osth. "There is great momentum toward restoration of our historic cities. We're hoping this document will help take Habitat into neighborhoods that they've never been before."

Having gotten rave reviews for A Pattern Book for Neighborly Houses, UDA is considering publishing a second edition with an increased focus on sustainable and universal design. Ideally, such efforts will help promote the construction of HFH houses of the quality of 43 Madison in Rochester.

"I think it has more than proved the point that it's possible to design good houses at $75/sq.ft., which is about ten times less then I normally do," says Cameron. "One of the wonderful things about traditional architecture is that there is a set of ground rules, so if you understand the basic proportioning and you know something about the history, it's a good place to begin."  

 

 

 
 

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