UB-Habitat partnership builds universal design into an affordable housing standard

Photograph of UB students looking at architecture plans.

The UB-Habitat Buffalo partnership, a core construction technology experience for hundreds of students over the past three decades, now includes a full design-build experience and opportunities to work hands-on with universal design. Photos by Alex Becker 

Over the past 25 years, hundreds of UB students have built hands-on construction skills by raising walls for Habitat for Humanity homes across Buffalo. Now students have the opportunity to design those homes — and bring universal design features into the national organization’s affordable housing model — thanks to a new pilot program between UB and Habitat Buffalo.

Launched in fall 2015 by Habitat Buffalo along with the school’s universal design pioneer Edward Steinfeld and former shop director Peter Russell, the new program has already completed a rehab design-build for a family of eight on Buffalo’s East Side. Another is on its way for a refugee family from Eritrea.

The two yearlong projects began with a fall design studio in which students worked closely with the Habitat team to understand the national nonpro t’s a ordable home-building model, as well as the specific needs of Habitat homeowners. Each student then offered a set of design modifications that would allow the home to adapt over time to the changing needs and abilities of its residents. A spring construction course and onsite building with Habitat’s team of volunteers completes the design-build experience.

Steinfeld, a professor of architecture and director of the school’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, says the universal design integration is a simple but fundamental shi in orientation to the Habitat model that’s particularly appropriate for a place like Buffalo, where the population is influx. 

“In Buffalo, a lot of Habitat's clients come from diverse backgrounds," he said, noting the city's growing number of refugees, many of whom come with large extended families of varying needs. “The houses aren't typically designed to adapt as the family grows or ages."

Indeed, exibility is at the root of universal design’s bene ts to the user and, ultimately, the community, says Russell, who until recently served as manager of the school’s Materials and Methods Shop. 

“If you're rehabbing a house for a family of eight -- the longer they can age in place the more stability you bring to the family, to the house and to the neighborhood."

Barry Weiss, construction manager for Habitat Buffalo, says the organization also benefits from the students’ creative energy. 

“Normally, we have one designer develop a blueprint for our houses. For the Falll 2015 studio, we got 12."

From each studio’s pool of design ideas, a single concept was selected based on Habitat’s budget, building model, and the family occupant. The final designs employed simple, affordable solutions, such as widening hallways and door clearances and supporting first-floor living through the addition of full baths and ‘swing rooms’ (e.g., a living room that can be closed off and converted into a bedroom), and making way for the future addition of wheelchair lifts, if needed.

For the fall 2015 studio — a rehab on Sussex Street on the East Side — Ginny Gallersdorfer (MArch ‘ 16) offered solutions that would meet the needs of a family of eight — for example, removing walls to create an open oor plan and putting all amenities, including laundry, on the rst oor. “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 a ordable.”

Working in the fall 2016 studio on a renovation of 320 Florida Street, in the Hamlin Park neighborhood, Dylan Burns, an MArch/MUP student, said he kept costs low by

minimizing interior layout changes. “Instead of removing walls, I expanded door openings to make the spaces feel larger,” he said. The savings will support the addition of a li -ready deck o the back entrance.

Burns, who had participated in the Habitat construction program three times before enrolling in the studio, said the option to discuss the design with the home’s future owners — a new dimension to the Habitat-UB process — allowed him to tailor built-in furniture pieces to better accommodate wheeled mobility devices. 

With the program moving from pilot to ongoing, Steinfeld says the team is looking to the next step: Integrating universal design into a new build model for Habitat. Student design concepts generated by a Fall 2016 inclusive design graduate studio will be incorporated into a plan book that Steinfeld will disseminate through the IDeA Center.  Russell and Steinfeld also presented their work to the National Conference on the Beginning Design Student.