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CALA students David Vilkama and Mark Leischer with models of their storage shed

CALA students David Vilkama (left) and Mark Lescher hold models of a storage shed designed for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Building humanity through architecture

CALA students help those in need with architecture projects

By Patty Mattern

March 15, 2006

What may appear as simply a new storage shed in Waveland, Mississippi, means the world to Kathy Everad, who lost her home in Hurricane Katrina. The design and construction of the shed is one example of the humanitarian architecture projects undertaken by College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (CALA) students this semester.

The construction of that shed rose from the intense interest of CALA students and from the vision of world-renowned architect Cameron Sinclair, who is the Cass Gilbert visiting professor at CALA this semester. Sinclair, cofounder and executive director of Architecture For Humanity (AFH), has brought his humanitarian activism to CALA by teaching a course on the ways in which design can address the burgeoning needs of growing numbers of the poor. Finding projects to benefit hurricane victims fit well into the class's goals.

At Sinclair's prompting, U of M architecture students Mark Lescher and David Vilkama designed and helped build a structure for Everad that includes a laundry room.

Several students received Sinclair's original assignment, but Vilkama's and Lescher's designs were chosen. "Someone cleared out a 12-by-12-[foot] area near Everad's trailer and the students had 48 hours to design this unit," Sinclair said. "Then, we sat down with Kathy and she picked one."

"Hopefully, our work will help keep this issue alive," said Lescher. "They still have a lot of repairs to be made."

Both students, along with a group of New York City firefighters, built the structure, and the students returned to Mississippi last weekend to put the finishing touches on it. Everad, who is in her 70s, is currently living in a FEMA trailer with her 17-year-old granddaughter. Like many other Hurricane survivors, Everad has been fighting with her insurance company and has yet to begin the process of rebuilding. She and her granddaughter desperately needed somewhere to store their belongings and do laundry until they rebuild. (Everad has been traveling 10 miles to do her laundry.)

The project not only helps the family, it allows students to build on their skills. "We were so excited to get a chance to work on something that is not make-believe," Vilkama said. "Most of our projects as students are fictional, so this rewarding in many ways."

The two definitely felt pressure to do well on this project. "Of course, it's exciting to see what we're designing being built, but it's also scary to know what we're designing has to be built," Lescher said. "We knew what we were doing was really going to help somebody, so that took a lot of the pressure off."

Everad watched as the students and firefighters worked on the project. "She was crying through the whole construction," Sinclair said.

A key component of Sinclair's philosophy aims at making good design and architecture accessible to everyone--not just wealthy individuals--and the students' project does that. The students created an attractive structure on a $600 to $1,000 budget, making sure the roof allowed natural light to come in, Sinclair said.

While Vilkama and Lescher finish work on Everad's structure, 20 to 30 other CALA students are traveling to the region this spring to either duplicate the structure for other families or work on clean-up of devastated areas.

"A lot of people down there expressed interest in living in this structure because of the poor conditions there," Lescher said.

Vilkama is concerned about the pace of rebuilding efforts. "I've seen all the TV and news coverage," he said. "[The area is] still basically as bad as it was two days after the storm."

"Hopefully, our work will help keep this issue alive," added Lescher. "They still have a lot of repairs to be made."