Students design affordable Habitat for Humanity homes.
Thanks to an innovative partnership with Habitat Tucson and Pima Community College, students have the opportunity to learn about the affordable housing crisis and design real-world home solutions that will actually be built alongside families in our local community. The hands-on experience is a win-win for both the students and the community.
When Mark Thorsrud and Melissa Oliver signed up for their Residential Architecture course at Pima Community College, they didn’t know they’d be designing a home for Habitat for Humanity. But that’s exactly what happened.
“People from Habitat Tucson would come in and talk about what was needed in terms of the bathrooms, and square footages, and trusses, what we can and can’t have in the home,” Mark explained.
“I loved that – to get to meet the construction team and JJ and hear this is what they want,” Melissa said. “It was a really good experience.”
In their coursework at Pima, all the students in the Residential Architecture course had a chance to design a two-bedroom, three-bedroom, or four-bedroom for Habitat’s consideration. Habitat would then choose one ‘winner’ in each category – houses that would actually be built in a future Habitat Tucson neighborhood!
“I was thinking about families growing, and larger families, because I have five kids,” Melissa said. “And being part of a community – with Habitat’s whole idea of it’s not just a house, but we’re building a community.”
There was a great deal of sharing back and forth between classmates throughout the semester, and the group grew really tight-knit. “We learned to work together really well as a collaborative team,” said Melissa. “Even though we were all sort of competing against each other, it actually made it so we were all pulling for one another.”
She noticed how everyone’s experience was really brought to bear in their designs. “One of my friends really focused on aging in place, so his house reflects that concept, whereas mine was more on families growing, and larger families, because I have five kids,” Melissa said. “And being part of a community – with Habitat’s whole idea of it’s not just a house, but we’re building a community – that was my focus.”
“I just wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to get the little things done so they could spend more time with their family.”
Mark designed his 2-bedroom house to give privacy to the residents but to create open enough spaces for entertaining.
“I wanted it simple and I wanted it easy to clean,” he explained, “so they could spend more time with their family. That’s why I put the backyard by the kitchen. I was thinking about how I had barbecues when I was a kid – going into the kitchen, grabbing a drink from the fridge, going out back. I just wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to get the little things done so they could spend more time with their family.”
When designing her four-bedroom house, Melissa considered the layout from both a parent’s perspective and the perspective of the residents.
“I wanted the master bedroom to be off the front of the house,” she explains. “That’s where kids are coming in and out, and knowing who’s accessing your home is really important. And I wanted the other three bedrooms to be a pod, a neighborhood, a gathering space – for whoever was in those three bedrooms off the main living room.”
Melissa was shocked when her designs were chosen as the winner of the four-bedroom house by Habitat Tucson. “I just did it for the experience, and to design for a client was really fun. So I was totally shocked.”
Mark felt similar when his designs were selected for the 2-bedroom Habitat house. To know his designs will be built in Flowing Wells in the years to come feels incredibly validating. He knows that having a house – having a safe, stable place to live is the precursor to everything.
“You feel safe, you feel secure, so you can go about your days better,” he said. “And a lot of times it’s a place that you can pass on to your kids, so they don’t have to worry about a home loan or a mortgage. They can concentrate on other things.”
The biggest thing Mark learned along the way was actually about Habitat homebuyers. “I thought people just applied and were given a home. But the process of doing sweat equity, taking classes, the concept of building a community – that was cool for me to learn. I didn’t know anything about that.”
Melissa feels so inspired by this experience that she wants to join volunteer build days, and learn more how to incorporate residential architecture with social justice. “I know there’s doctors without borders – and I would love to do that with architecture,” Melissa said. “Carmen told us, ‘You’re here because you had a roof over your head last night.’ I just loved that idea of giving back. Habitat kind of sparked it for me.”