campus news

With 5 homes on Buffalo’s West Side, UB architecture students create hope

Students in the School of Architecture and Planning pose on the porch of one of the houses they toured. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published August 29, 2023

“You are trailblazing in an area that is technically uncharted territory, doing it in an urban footprint that genuinely will give back to a community that has historically been disenfranchised and systemically oppressed. ”
Amun Ra, director of planning and community development
PUSH Buffalo

By the end of the fall 2022 semester, Briana Egan had obtained her Certified Passive House Consultant (CPHC) designation. In the spring, Egan and her UB classmates applied their training to create design plans to retrofit five vacant doubles owned by People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo) on Buffalo’s West Side.

Now, PUSH plans to use the drawings to transform the empty buildings into passive houses — structures that through improved insulation and airtight seals (among other aspects) use significantly less energy — while creating new opportunities for home ownership.

While five homes may not seem like much, the students’ work has the potential to create immense impact for Buffalo and other cities that need to address neighborhoods marred by a history of racial segregation and disinvestment, while preparing for the impacts of a changing climate.

“You are trailblazing in an area that is technically uncharted territory, doing it in an urban footprint that genuinely will give back to a community that has historically been disenfranchised and systemically oppressed,” Amun Ra, PUSH Buffalo’s director of planning and community development, told the students during a course wrap-up session held at PUSH Buffalo’s office on Plymouth Avenue.

“And the things that you just did in that room right there has potential to create a form of generational wealth for some people who literally never even thought that was possible for them,” Ra added.

The studio was a two-semester course — part of the Green Reconstruction on the West Side (GROWS) project — taught by Nicholas Rajkovich, associate professor in the Department of Architecture, that began in fall 2022, when students studied and took the two exams required for the CPHC designation through a partnership with the Passive House Institute of the United States (Phius) and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Once they obtained their certification, students toured each of the houses to learn more about existing conditions.

In the spring, they worked in small groups to explore energy efficiency and clean technology options for the homes, ultimately developing comprehensive designs for each one. In the early part of the summer, each group presented their completed design plans to a panel of guest critics and PUSH Buffalo representatives.

In October 2022 (photo on the left), UB architecture students working with PUSH Buffalo tour one of the housing organization's houses on Buffalo's West Side. Photo: Douglas Levere

In May 2023 (photo on the right), students take part in a final review critique at PUSH Buffalo, located inside School #77. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“It was nice to be able to do the CPHC training to get certified, but then be able to apply that certification to an actual project with a client that is going to help the community afterwards,” says Egan, who is starting her second year of the Master of Architecture program. “It’s really exciting.”

And, Egan says, the CPHC certification will give her an edge when she looks for a job in the field.

“CPHC is still a pretty unique credential among architects and engineers,” Rajkovich told the students. “When you go into firms after you graduate, you can really help these companies take on these projects. You can be real champions for this work.”

But passive house principles can only do so much. “They can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, but they cannot address racial oppression, climate justice or mutual care,” says Rajkovich.

“The challenge for our educational systems are: 1) How can we incorporate these building science principles into a broader curriculum that can be shared among universities and community organizations like PUSH; and 2) How can these curricula relate to places like Buffalo, where extreme racial segregation, decades of disinvestment and environmental stress continue to be the norm?”

“This is history that we’re making, and I hope that it continues to spread,” said PUSH Executive Director Dawn Wells-Clyburn.

“What’s really inspiring about this is the fact that you were able to keep your designs within the way that the neighborhoods look,” Wells-Clyburn continued. “A lot of times we have people come into the neighborhoods who want to change it to whatever design that they have, and they’re beautiful but they don’t fit and it sends a signal to the residents of the neighborhood that they’re not wanted. That care and attention to detail you all have really shows. I can feel the passion in everything that you do and it’s really exciting because these homes will be homes that people will own for the first time.”

Rajkovich’s studio continues a partnership Rajkovich has developed with PUSH Buffalo over the past few years. Last summer, Rajkovich and PUSH unveiled a workforce training program that will create pathways to jobs in the areas of energy efficiency and clean technology for unemployed and underemployed individuals in Buffalo.

This fall, a PUSH workforce training center will break ground in Buffalo.

“As citizen architects, how you carry this work forward, in whatever community you’re a part of when you graduate from UB, is important,” Rajkovich told the students. “Buffalo is our community, and we wouldn’t have this opportunity if it weren’t for this partnership with PUSH that has been incredibly meaningful.”