Article No: 206
Urban Studio masters replacement project
By: Carole McMichael
Photography courtesy of Robert Charest
Each year, architecture students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro design and rebuild a local home that has fallen into a state of disrepair. The project is part of the University’s design-and-build program, Urban Studio. Once selected, homeowners are temporarily relocated and their belongings stored during the turnkey process. In addition to replacing houses, the program’s mission is to promote responsible design practices. Students participating in Urban Studio are encouraged to pursue individual interests in sustainability, preservation, social sciences, and product design, among other things.
Robert Michel Charest, assistant professor of the Department of Interior Architecture, directs the Urban Studio course. Originally from Montreal, Quebec, Charest has a degree in architecture and interior design. In addition, he is a licensed contractor and a trained carpenter.
Selected by a special Studio course committee, the 20 students who participated in the most recent Urban Studio included juniors, seniors, and one graduate student. The course’s goal is for students to design and build a project home in partnership with the city of Greensboro’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which provides the project’s funding.
For the 2006 Studio project, the city selected the neighborhood (an inner-city low-income neighborhood in need of rebuilding) and the homeowners, the Marshalls, an elderly couple who owned a condemned house. Efforts to improve the area were already in the works, partly because it is in the backyard of the university and partly because it is close to the city’s downtown core, which is also being revitalized.
“Effectively, what our project is offering is a replacement program for the city,” Charest says. “We would demolish the old house, and design and build a new one for the couple who own the property. There is nothing required of them—no sweat equity. We had several sponsors, but mainly I, and my 20 students, designed and built the house from the ground up. The only subs we hired were licensed contractors for heating, cooling, electrical, and plumbing. The students did all the form work, installation, rough carpentry, interior finishes, painting, and roofing—the entire effort.”
Why insulating concrete forms?
One of the reasons Charest came to UNCG was for the potential of beginning a design-and-build studio with innovation as one of its core values. So, he looked for an innovative building system—one that would provide longevity and efficient lifecycle costs to make the end product as sustainable as possible. Consequently, he chose to build the Studio house with concrete using an insulating concrete form (ICF) system.
“We looked at SIPs (structurally insulated panels) and other construction methods,” Charest says. “In our earlier research, one student met Jason Loflin, owner of Loflin Concrete Co. Inc., a ready-mix and Logix distributor located in Kernersville, North Carolina. Loflin introduced us to the Logix ICF system. A year or two later, we revisited and he was interested in helping by supplying the Logix ICF forms for the Studio project.”
Besides innovation, ICFs were a good choice for the project because, as Charest quickly realized, his course is about training architects and designers, but not craftsmen.
“The ICF building system was ideal for this kind of learning experience,” Charest says, “because the students would spend a lot less time with repetitive nailing of pieces of lumber. They could get the shell of the house finished quickly and move on to the interior details. The house is extremely detailed and the system allowed us a lot more time for working on design details, compared to most previous Studio-built projects.”
Perhaps the most valuable lesson learned while working with ICFs, according to Charest, is that team was able to create a model for affordable housing. “The cost may not be on a par upfront with stick framing,” he says, “but for a city endeavor seeking longevity and low maintenance costs for its replacement program, it is fantastic. It will return to their homes people who have not been able to maintain them. With the block connections done right, this house will be heated and cooled for next to nothing. In the climate here, which is very hot, heating costs are astronomical.”
The Logix choice
The standard Logix Styrofoam form is 4 feet by 16 inches. It has core widths of varying sizes—4, 6, 8, and 10 inches. The Styrofoam is 2 3/4 inches thick on both sides. There are a variety of block types—corners, brick-ledge, 45-degree angles, and half-blocks for stepping down or for different height increments. The blocks connect by locking onto each other, much like Lego building bricks.
“It is an appropriately named block,” Loflin says, “It is pre-assembled and ready to stack—very user-friendly and logical technology. Concrete is far superior to any other building system and produces excellent energy savings.”
“Besides affordability,” Charest says, “this model will prove very beneficial because we have huge termite problems, mold, and wood rot to contend with. So, for the homeowners, who have limited means for maintaining these houses, this is a win-win situation.
“I also saw that once you have built with ICFs and taken notice of the details that you have be careful of, such as the way you stagger your courses, re-enforce openings, and do the pours, you are ready to be more effective. For inexperienced people, the students did very well.”
The design process
The Urban Studio is a very fast-paced project. In most colleges, design-build studios are offered at the graduate level only and take up two semesters—the first for design development, the second for construction. In contrast, Urban Studio scheduled an intense design session at the beginning of the fall semester and broke ground shortly after.
“The design development was broken into stages,” Charest says. “In Spring, I knew who was in the class (mostly women). They had research to do over the summer and were to arrive in the fall with a scheme. We reviewed and critiqued and then selected one design. Next, we submitted our drawings for approval, and one week later, amended them. We had reviews every day with the faculty, other designers and architects, the homeowners, and the city. Unlike most studios that meet three times a week for three hours, we met every day from one to six o’clock.
“We thought the city would require from us a more typical house, but the city’s director was extremely progressive and allowed us a lot of freedom. He did ask us specifically to design a house for the Marshalls—knowing what they had before and their expectations.
“The first exchange of the students with the home owners was a fiasco. They had fantastic digital renderings and models, but they were used to presenting concepts to design professionals using an inbred jargon. At the second meeting, different students represented the project and this time, it went very well. It was a huge learning experience.”
The new home
The Studio went with a style described as “gentle modernism,” not the hard-edged, harsh materials and glass of New York modernism. The 1,040-square-foot footprint of the Marshall house provided the owners with a basement for storage and an open floor plan upstairs that included with a mudroom, kitchen, dining room, living room, two bedrooms, and a bath. All public spaces are ADA compliant with doors 36 inches wide. In the kitchen, there is an ADA island under which a wheelchair can fit. In the dining room, a reclaimed mantel serves as a memento of the Marshalls’ old house.
The home’s exterior is finished in Hardiplank lap siding. The main parts of the house are painted brown and blue, colors selected from historical shades. The students also were careful to use some of the architectural language of the neighborhood, such as covered porches and a gable. The 8/12 gable was placed in the center of the front porch—the home also has a back porch. The roof is a standing-seam metal roof. In the private areas, ceilings are 8 feet, but to meet the owners’ request for high ceilings, in the public areas they reach 11 feet, 6 inches, with a clerestory window.
“The budgetary envelope was the greatest challenge,” Charest says. “We were able to get reclaimed oak from a Jim Beam distillery in Kentucky for the flooring. We did acid-edged concrete for the countertops, and were creative with the coffered ceiling system of poplar plywood and MDF batten instead of drywall. There also is a lot of tile work, because one student’s family is in the tile business.
“Without the generosity of the Loflin ICF contribution, and many other sponsors and donations, we couldn’t spend so much on the interior detail. The short amount of time all these things had to come into place added another layer of difficulty to an already short timeline. Frequently, we would have to rethink material choices or design elements.”
The building experience
Initially, according to Charest, the work was difficult. But, as the project advanced, a few students picked up leadership roles. They formed all the footings and screeded all of the concrete to make perfectly level footings. Loflin came to the site with a hot knife, saw, and rasp and helped the team set the first two courses and make sure they were square.
The Studio also got help from Guilford Technical Community College. Its youth-build program carpentry unit prefabricated some of the components: interior partitions, stairs, porches and decks, and helped install the Hardiplank siding. After some training from the roofing company, two students completed the roofing. For most part, it was a live-and-learn experience.
“The main structure went up relatively simply,” Charest says, “but the students got a different taste of what it means to build with ICFs. Halfway through foundation walls, they put in flooring, and learned the necessity of being precise in the spacing of joists.
“We were careful in how we situated the house on the lot,” Charest says. “It is facing due west, so the porch is well covered. We limited the openings on the north side, but were careful to create cross ventilations throughout the house. Even the bathroom window is aligned with a window in the hallway.”
The house is heated with a natural gas system, but the cooling system is electric. The roof is insulated with fiberglass to achieve an R-value of 30. To ensure healthy indoor living conditions and energy efficiency, an environmental company has volunteered to perform a complete battery of tests before the owners move in.
The road ahead
“The Urban Studio plans to build a house every year in cooperation with the University and the city,” Charest says. “I still strongly feel that architecture as a discipline has left behind housing in the popular way. We do a typical urban jewel that we hope will get into Dwell magazine. Interior architecture has a great stake in being able to work from the inside out and come up with innovative, affordable, and sustainable solutions for housing. Once we get over the difficulties of understanding that structural issues in residential are not that overwhelming, concrete should do quite well. We should have a willingness to explore more adventurously.
“I think in the future, I will be doing only ICF houses. In this context, I can’t think of why I would build a wood frame house of any type. I strongly feel that once the industry gets ahold of this [building with concrete] and of how much it can offer a good quality house, there is no reason not to use it.”
As Loflin sees it, “Having a concrete-built house is like putting money in your pocket every month.”
For more information, visit uncg.edu/iar/fider/urbanstudio and logix.com, or write to email@example.com.