Designhabitat 2: Affordable Housing for Disaster Victims

Article excerpt

Since 2001, the School of Architecture at Auburn University has collaborated with Habitat for Humanity (HFH) affiliates across Alabama to improve the energy performance and design quality of Habitat homes.

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Building on the success of the first round of this collaboration, I as director of the DESIGNhabitat Program approached the Alabama Association of Habitat Affiliates (AAHA) with a proposal to study ways to integrate factory-based production into the volunteer-builder culture of HFH affiliates (see Figure 1).

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GENESIS OF DESIGNhabitat 2

Initial research pointed toward modular construction as the most promising strategy, and in 2005 the "DESIGNhabitat 2" initiative began. In this initiative, a team of architecture students(1) and faculty (Stacy Norman and I) at Auburn partnered with a modular-housing production company, Palm Harbor Homes, to design and build a modular HFH home.

The DESIGNhabitat 2 initiative was designed with five objectives:

1. Capitalize on the systems-built industry's expertise with production process, resource efficiency/conservation, and quality control;

2. Build on the design-quality advances realized by recent designer-led/academy-based modular-design and construction initiatives;

3. Integrate the energy-performance expertise developed in the prior phases of the DESIGNhabitat program into the DESIGNhabitat 2 home;

4. Explore how this approach might benefit HFH affiliates that struggled to build homes because of limited volunteer resources; and

5. Immerse students in the challenges and opportunities associated with affordable-housing design and cultivate an ethic of service and community engagement as an integral part of their strategy of response.

The students began the project with a semester-long pre-design research effort intended to immerse the team in the specific design opportunities and constraints associated with factory-based construction. The students also sought to identify the cutting edge of modular design and construction (including energy performance, materials and construction systems, and building configuration) both inside the industry and within the professional design community.(2) Perhaps the most important area of pre-design exploration involved a careful study of how this approach could be integrated within HFH's traditional site-built, volunteer-builder culture.

The team began the next semester with a month-long "charrette" (that is, an intensive design effort) intended to generate alternative prototype home proposals incorporating the lessons of the fall research phase. In mid-February, five proposals were presented to a panel of project advisors (HFH leadership, modular-industry representatives, and faculty) who selected one of the schemes to advance to design-development and construction.

The selected scheme was chosen by the advisors because of its energy-conserving design features (shown in Figure 2), because of the clarity of its plan, and because the scheme offered the most clearly identifiable site-built features (the central connecting space and porches)--an important consideration in HFH's volunteer builder-centered culture.

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REFRAMING THE INITIATIVE

As the project moved into design-development, HFH International was working to develop a viable strategy for responding to the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The effect of these two disasters on the Gulf Coast states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama dramatically reframed the DESIGNhabitat 2 initiative. Within the span of a few weeks, the condition envisioned in Goal 4--small, often rural HFH affiliates with money but fewer human resources--became the reality for HFH affiliates throughout the four-state Gulf Coast region. Facing a need for more than 20,000 homes and a human resource capacity of (at best) 1,000 houses a year, HFH International realized that this emergency demanded new ways of approaching the construction of HFH homes. …

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