Architectural education has always been about hands-on learning. This type of learning, however, can no longer be done solely within the confines of the design studio. This is not only due to the rate at which construction technologies and techniques are changing, but also due to the demands of clients for more innovative, cost-effective, and energy-efficient designs. Therefore I have been working with our local chapter of Habitat for Humanity over the past year to develop a research and design-build project for student involvement.
In addition to giving students hands-on experience applying fundamental professional skills-from creative thinking and problem solving to interacting with clients to planning and meeting budgets and deadlines-this project has been designed to provide something more. Students will learn the importance of respecting existing cultural environments so that they can create new buildings that reinforce a sense of place.
Developing a Proposal for a New Housing Prototype
In 1998, I received an Arts and Humanities grant to research residential vernacular architecture in Mississippi and to use that research as a basis for proposing and developing a new dwelling prototype for Habitat for Humanity. Along with meeting Habitat `s universal requirements, this prototype would simultaneously be vernacular and indigenous to the region, climate, and culture of the rural South.
The early stages of this research took place within the framework of a seminar that I taught to second-, third-, and fourth-year architecture students at Mississippi State University entitled "The Architecture of Housing." The course was structured in a lecture, seminar, and community service format that enabled students to learn about the architectural evolution of Mississippi vernacular housing styles, to challenge the role of politics and economics in the design and construction of affordable housing, and to understand current-while possibly impacting future- housing trends by physically visiting and documenting indigenous dwellings.
We began the semester by researching the Habitat organization and meeting with the local Habitat affiliate. Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, Christian-affiliated ecumenical housing group that builds houses in partnership with low-income families. Since the organization relies heavily on volunteerism, the house designs generally evolve from past projects, Habitat staff members, and, most recently, from a book of plans distributed by the international arm of the organization.
While architects are among the volunteers, at both the national and international level, it appears that Habitat most often utilizes their expertise in administrative matters that involve interpretation of building codes and interaction with city building departments. We also found that Habitat`s philosophy of relying on simple, no-frill plans as an avenue for constructing conventional and uncomplicated houses is due to the organization`s reliance on a volunteer labor pool. What has evolved, from an architectural point of view, are generic designs that often have no connection to their place. Therefore, even though we recognized and acknowledged Habitat`s goal to produce low-income houses that become part of the neighbor-hood, we posed the following question: Must the requirement of using low-skill labor be at odds with the need for producing a dwelling type that responds to its place in terms of tradition, style, building materials and methods, and climate control?
In order to learn more about the relationship between construction techniques and volunteer labor, we wanted to work on one of the local houses during the semester of this research. This desired involvement helped us identify our first design challenge. In order for construction to begin, the house foundation had to be laid. Laying the foundation is one aspect of the construction process that does not rely on volunteer labor. The local affiliate hires a contractor to pour the slab foundation, and, since there is currently so much new construction occurring in our area, the contractor was not going to be able to get the work done before the end of the semester.
As a result of this set-back, the students decided to develop a proposal for constructing a foundation that does not rely on skilled labor. At the same time, it forced us to question the appropriate-ness of slab on grade construction since the soil in our area contains a large amount of clay which, over time through expansion and contraction, can cause cracking in the foundation and/or walls.
At this point we also determined that the construction technique of slab on grade was not vernacular to our area. Most houses in this part of the south are built on piers with a crawl space. Raising the house off the ground allows for air movement between the ground and the floor, which contributes to interior cooling during the hot humid summer months. Some winters are more harsh than others, however, so our proposal for a new foundation design also had to address winter heat loss issues. By the end of the semester, we had developed a proposal for an alternative foundation system aimed at eliminating the need for skilled labor, limiting the amount of site work, and ultimately saving on material cost. Since the size and spacing of the piers needs to respond to the house itself, further design and refinement of this foundation system will evolve as the design of the prototype evolves.
Researching Vernacular House Styles
While we worked to develop a proposal for the foundation plan, students also began to research house types that we felt were most representative of vernacular house styles native to our location in Mississippi-the northeastern part of the state.
Working in teams of two, students researched the dogtrot, shotgun, bungalow, planters cottage, L-front, and I-house. In addition to gathering information from books, journals, and the internet, students were asked to find what they believed to be an existing example of the house type they researched. The example had to be found in counties contiguous to our county, to make sure the example was specific to our location.
Finally, in order for us to further determine the qualities that make a house belong to a particular place, we needed to understand the physical factors (which we defined as climate, materials, technology, and site); social factors (defined as economics, safety, family structure, and spatial organization); and architectural factors (defined as style, form, and structure) that impact and influence house design in rural Mississippi.
The next phase of research involved making a comparison between one of the vernacular house styles the students were researching and one of the house plans from the Habitat plan book. To our surprise we found that several of the Habitat styles resembled a few of the house styles we had researched; most notably, the shotgun and the dogtrot. As a group we decided to do a comparative analysis between the Habitat "dogtrot" and a historical dogtrot found in Ackerman, Miss. Students produced measured drawings of these two house styles.
The next phase of research will continue the detailed comparative analysis of these two houses in terms of the following: site characteristics; orientation and placement of each house on its site; the relationship between each house plan, section, and elevation; massing and volumetric characteristics; building foot-print; roof forms and over-hangs; materials and methods of construction; window types and styles; exterior and interior colors and finishes; methods of heating and cooling; strategies for energy efficiency; and indigenous and/or vernacular characteristics. From this analysis, along with recommendations and suggestions from current Habitat home-owners, we hope to see a vernacular prototype evolve that, in addition to providing a roof over one`s head and a requisite amount of square footage, has specific regional and cultural meaning.
As Habitat looks to provide new housing stock and improve property values, it is poised to positively alter public perceptions of afford-able housing. Developing a new prototype will not only prevent these dwellings from being labeled "the Habitat house" but further identification, research, and documentation of dwellings indigenous to the South will enable our local Habitat affiliate to develop design and construction guidelines more sympathetic to the con-text of existing neighbor-hoods. And the continued involvement of my students will enable them to learn to think more critically about the impact their design solutions will have on the built environment-an environment that not only involves the architecture itself, but also involves the inhabitants, the neighborhood, and the community.
The students` work is still in the research phase. It would not be appropriate for us to develop the prototype and then go to Habitat and say, "Here is what you should build." Instead we hope to prove that the prototype does have more of a sense of place, that it fits in better with the community, and that it can be built in a cost-effective fashion.
Research-based projects, such as our work with Habitat, not only introduce students to knowledge already existing in a particular field of study, but it allows and encourages students to discover new knowledge. In the case of the research involving the search for a new housing prototype, students discovered the importance of having a strong and clear relationship between regional, cultural, and architectural context.
Publication Date: Spring 2000