Building Better Architects: Auburn University partnership with Habitat for Humanity gives architecture students experiential learning opportunities

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The scene in Opelika wasn’t that of a typical architecture classroom. Instead of sketching building designs, students were using power tools to build a house.

Auburn University juniors in Professor David Hinson’s architecture class teamed up with Professor Mike Hosey’s students from the McWhorter School of Building Science on a Habitat for Humanity house, the second of two local homes built from the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture’s Rural Studio 20K Portfolio. The 20K Initiative originated at Auburn’s Rural Studio, where students are dedicated to finding ways to develop innovative models for affordable housing. Both Habitat for Humanity homes, located on Stevens Street in Opelika, utilize a 20K prototype named “Buster’s House,” which was originally designed and built by a team of architecture students at the Rural Studio in 2017.

“The team of Auburn faculty and students working on the Opelika home has taken the basic configuration of the ‘Buster’s House’ prototype and focused on the improvements needed to elevate the energy performance of the homes. The first of the two Habitat/20K homes, built in 2018, was constructed to meet the requirements of the Passive House Institute US, or PHIUS, while the second has been built to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home, or ZERH standard,” Hinson said.

Hinson explained that these programs promote the ultra-high energy efficiency standards in residential and commercial buildings across the U.S.

“Both homes have also been built to meet the FORTIFIED Gold standard, a program developed by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety focused on lowering insurance costs by building homes with improved resilience to damage from high wind events,” he said.

Now that both homes are complete and occupied, Hinson and his colleagues will work with homeowners to collect detailed information on energy use in each home over a 12-month period. This data will allow the research team to evaluate how the differences in construction of each home translate to differences in energy costs. Insights gained from this study, and those gained by building to the FORTIFIED Gold standard, will be folded back into the university’s ongoing work on affordable housing.

For students, the advantage is the ability to see a design go from a sketch on paper to reality.

“Building something they’ve designed transforms the way students think about their work. When these students put a line down on paper, they understand what that means in the field,” Hinson said of his student team. “They won’t necessarily build things the rest of their careers, but if they have the experience of doing that as a student, it makes them better architects for a lifetime.”

He said the work the students are doing, and the learning that is taking place as part of the process, will be particularly important if they go to work in an underserved community.

“This teaching method not only adds depth and richness to what the students understand about architecture, but it helps them translate their skills as designers into outcomes that really impact their clients and their communities,” he said.

The hands-on experience is what draws many students to the program.

Osvaldo Delatorre, a senior from Birmingham, Alabama, said working on the Habitat for Humanity house taught him about building a house from the foundation up.

“On a computer, you draw two lines and that’s a wall. Here, you learn it’s much more than that,” he said. “You have to make sure everything works together so you start thinking differently once you spend a semester out here working.”

Delatorre was part of a three-student team that studied the bracing portion of the project—that is, what needed to be constructed differently to ensure the house could withstand strong winds.

“There’s more attention to the safety that this house kind of encompasses for the people that are going to be living in it,” he said. “There was a lot of bracing that we had to have for the roof because wind levels get really high during storms.”

The students were challenged to use bracing materials and methods that would keep the roof and walls of the house attached to the foundation during a high-wind situation, such as the winds that our area experiences at the edges of tornado paths, straight-line windstorms and during tropical storm events.

“We've got materials that tie the walls down to the foundation and then we've got more straps that hold the roof down to the walls,” said student Jonathan Grace. “Everything just holds onto each other. The house is designed to protect from the higher wind speeds that a tornado would bring. It's not tornado proof but it is much more resistant than a typical home.”

Hinson said the combination of learning-by-doing and community service has been part of the DNA of the architecture program for many years.

“Auburn is really looked to around the world as a gold standard for how you do this inside and architectural education,” he said. “We believe that this teaching method not only adds depth and richness to what the students understand about architecture, but it helps them translate their skills as designers into outcomes that really impact their clients and their community.”

Hinson emphasized that students can have a particularly strong impact in underserved communities. Projects like the Habitat for Humanity house challenge students to think within the context of home affordability.

“If money is no object, you can achieve anything in terms of performance,” he said. “The key challenge for us is to try to find that balance point between investments in the way we build the house—how much insulation we put in, where we put it, and how much emphasis we put on high-performance equipment. We need to optimize that in terms of affordability, but we do that by defining affordability not just as the mortgage covering the cost to build the home, but the mortgage and the utility bill.”

Hinson further explained that if they can build the house in a way that shifts some dollars from the utility bill to the mortgage, and do so at an advantageous ratio, then they reach a good balance in terms of affordability.

This project falls under the College of Architecture, Design and Construction’s Rural Housing Affordability Initiative, a recipient of Auburn University’s Presidential Award for Interdisciplinary Research. This program aims to make Auburn’s expertise in the design and construction of affordable housing available for other communities to use, and especially communities where housing affordability is an issue.

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The College of Architecture, Design and Construction embraces the land grant mission of Auburn University by actively seeking ways to address and anticipate the critical issues of the region, the nation, and the world. The College's highly regarded programs in architecture, industrial design, landscape architecture, construction management and real estate development as well as unique off-campus programs such as Rural Studio, Urban Studio, futures studio and the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Program expand the boundaries of the classroom and offer an unmatched educational experience.