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The significance of space

by Catalina Myers  |   

aethomelessproject1
Director and Associate Professor of construction, Joel Condon's Architectural and Engineering Technology (AET) Design Project 2 class, developed 3D models for potential homeless shelters. (Rendering and design by Edward Pico, AET student)

Across the city, there are more than 2,000 residents over the age of 25 classified as homeless by the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA). Homelessness has long been a contentious issue between the city, its unhoused population and city residents. With the long winter ahead, the conversations of solving the complicated problem of housing Anchorage’s most vulnerable population continues.

Joel Condon, director and associate professor of construction, recognized the opportunity to provide valuable, hands-on instruction to his Architectural and Engineering Technology (AET) Design Project 2 class and potentially offer some real-world solutions for the city’s homelessness issue. 

aethomelessproject2
The multi-unit housing complex could provide unhoused Anchorage residents shelter from weather, animals and other possible disturbances while allowing individuals a sense of community. (Rendering and design by Edward Pico, AET student)

Initially, Condon had presented the idea and intended the project to be a collaboration between the College of Health (COH), with the help of David Moxley, director of the School of Social Work, to include COH practicum students to address the psychological and social needs when designing the structures for homeless residents. He said often, when building homes for the unhoused, the mental health aspects of creating a warm, inviting and safe space are not considered. He’s hoping this project will help flip a negative narrative associated with homeless structures. By collaborating and including unhoused “clients” in the design process, there will be more positive outcomes for the city’s residents who find themselves without a home.

But like many projects within the last two years, the pandemic shifted plans and forced Condon to pivot and continue the project without the COH this fall, although he believes they will come aboard sometime in the future.

“I think it’s a project that’s really important to a lot of people in the community and the university,” said Condon. 

The semester-long project included his students identifying the preferred types of housing structures for the homeless community in Anchorage. Students treated their assignments and coursework as if they were designing for a client. They took ideas, notes and feedback from the homeless community and incorporated them into the architectural design of their structures.

Condon even held a roundtable discussion at Brother Francis Shelter earlier in the semester, receiving feedback from a group of seven residents there. He said the experience was enlightening, and he learned a lot, particularly addressing housing-challenged individuals.

“I was told that they prefer to be referred to as ‘residentially challenged,’” Condon said. “I was corrected by one of the residents who said they didn’t like being called homeless. I think the word has morphed into a more negative connotation over the years.”

The AET class took the feedback gathered at the roundtable, such as material preferences, size, interior amenities, social density and accommodations for pets. The class project culminated in the design of three structures: a fabric structure, a compact hard-shell, single occupancy and a multi-unit housing complex. Each structure was developed into a 3D digital model. Condon invited a senior planner with MOA to visit the class, review the structures the class had made and provide feedback on their designs while discussing pertinent city zoning issues.

Condon said the project generated interest from across the city, from the MOA’s Housing, Homeless and Neighborhood Development Commission and Brother Francis Shelter to the Alaska Home Builders Association and Catholic Social Services. He’s looking forward to continuing the project with his students.

“The space where you live is important — it’s not just the place where you eat dinner and go to sleep,” said Condon. “It’s the place where you’re productive, creative, innovative and so much more. We need to have these spaces that we inhabit and call home to be conducive to our productivity and development.”

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