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Twin Peaks (Habitat for Humanity)

Commission / Grant


Twin Peaks, The Living Classroom are two houses on one lot for Habitat for Humanity

Double House is a collaboration between Habitat for Humanities Syracuse Chapter, Aptum Architecture of Syracuse University School of Architecture and the Mason Contractors Association of America (MCAA) for the Upstate New York Chapter. The project establishes a more sustainable and design initiative for the community through the collaboration of local volunteers, trades, and professionals to establish a new Living Classroom for Habitat. Habitat thrives and relies on volunteerism to make the organization successful. The goal of the collaboration was to establish a new program that brings together local designers, volunteers of Habitat, and apprentices of MCAA under one roof. The following description of the houses demonstrates the unique opportunities that Syracuse offers with the combination of its strong sense of community, its rich history of manufacturing, and its higher education that connected Syracuse to a global movement.

The entire team of collaborators, with architects and engineers, industry, and volunteers has forged new territory for community and industry to come together in productive endeavors. The MCAA initiative is to establish an apprentice program for local masons in Syracuse and utilize the Habitat houses as a Living Classroom for them to learn the trade. The goal was to expand local knowledge to Habitat and their volunteers through the MCAA’s apprentice program. The intention of Habitat and MCAA is for masons in training to learn the trade while at the same time, MCAA teaches volunteers how to build the habitat houses in CMU. This could revolutionize and expand the concrete block industry while bringing the local community together, from volunteers to masonry apprentices, to provide good quality houses that everyone is proud to build. This program has the potential to have significant outreach beyond Upstate New York and potentially to become a model for training and volunteer collaborations in MCAA and Habitat chapters across the United States.

Four years ago, Aptum was approached by Habitat to take a more sustainable, long-term thinking approach to designing affordable houses. As the director, Suzanne Williams, made very clear – ‘Poor people can not afford to be cheap.’ We took what Suzanne said to heart and set out to design a house that was higher quality and still affordable. And as architects, we never design houses we wouldn’t want to live in ourselves. And that higher quality starts with a local willpower to bring global knowledge to the community. Julie Larsen’s former Dean, Mark Wigley, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, speaks to the necessity for local communities to bring in global knowledge, “The local is nothing more than a way of defining the outside and negotiating with it. The local is not to be found in a particular place. Rather it is a way of finding things, a way of seeing the world. [The local] is always embedded in a complex, ever-shifting array of networks that ultimately envelope the globe.”

The goals of Syracuse Habitat and APTUM were to bring a global way of thinking to the Habitat community in a productive, sustainable and long-lasting way. Aptum Architecture is comprised of two founders, Julie Larsen, from the Midwest, and Roger Hubeli, a Swiss Architect from Zurich. Both have spent considerable time working and living in Europe and wanted to bring that expertise and knowledge to the design and construction of the Habitat Houses. We aimed to achieve this with our knowledge of Swiss construction techniques, better material choices, and a more forward thinking, Dutch approach to higher density, walkable neighborhoods, all in service of building affordable houses that create a more sustainable city.

As architecture professors at Syracuse, we have been actively engaged with global leaders in engineering and the material industry to help reshape new design approaches. And in recent years, there is a productive shift in architecture schools to teach more technological and materially focused projects, exercises, and seminars. Syracuse architecture students, coming from around the globe, are yearning for ways to merge their conceptual ideas with local, practical knowledge. After four years of developing ideas with Habitat, Aptum serendipitously crossed paths with Rick Roach of Barnes and Cone, a local CMU (concrete masonry unit) manufacturer, when he was invited by Syracuse University School of Architecture (SOA) librarian, Barbara Opar, to give a presentation of his company’s products. When we met, we explained to Rick we were drawn to the prospect of being able to use concrete for the design of an entire house for Habitat. After all, the very first house built for Habitat for Humanity was constructed from concrete block. We are more accustomed to residential homes being built in concrete in Switzerland for their higher quality and longer life-cycle construction. We believed it would be cost effective to wood framing, provide better thermal mass, more durability, and be much lower in maintenance than wood frame houses. As we began to meet and discuss new directions for Habitat, it was apparent that we could find a unique and exciting solution for Habitat, while still maintaining their goals of providing good quality affordable housing and using volunteers to make it happen.

When we initially approached the City of Syracuse with a new design for the property at 603 Hixson, the immediate response was that we needed to fit two houses on what was historically one lot. Heather Lamendola, the zoning administrator of Syracuse, insisted on higher density. This approach, which is more in line with European housing standards, creates taller and more slender houses and in turn, a denser, more walkable neighborhood and more fitting of the historic neighborhoods in the city of Syracuse. But because the property is too narrow to permit two houses and two driveways, it required that the houses share one driveway. Traditionally, the city tries to avoid homeowners sharing property due to potential homeowner disputes. But Lamendola realized the only way to achieve a good quality density, was to permit the singular drive. This was a major breakthrough for the project because without the permission to socially share the middle space between the houses, the density would not be feasible. As a result, the space between the houses creates a more intimate scale between them, with the potential for homeowners to interact more often, share in outdoor spaces, and create a stronger community.

According to the Save the Rain initiative in Syracuse, “by reducing the amount of stormwater traveling to local sewer lines, the Onondaga County aims to reduce the need for future ‘gray’ facilities and minimize the number of combined sewer overflows”. To provide a more sustainable solution for the site, we wanted the project to retain as much rainwater as possible on the property. Even in the case of a 100-year flood, both properties are able to retain all the rainwater on the site with the design and implementation of two drywells located under ground. According to the landscape architect, Jeff Romano, of Appel Osborn Landscape Architects, the stormwater onsite storage requirement for the City of Syracuse is 620 CF and the project provides 800 CF of storage so there is no adverse effect on adjacent properties or the local sewer lines. This strategy also reduces approximately 175 linear feet of pipe and trenching, reduces two street cuts and two sewer taps, which is a big, cost savings for Habitat.

The design aim was to achieve two main objectives of Habitat, provide the highest quality standards for affordable houses and use local knowledge to get them built. To do this, one needs to make a choice in using the right materials and knowhow to get it accomplished. First, the goal was to not use standard, off the shelf materials that don’t have a long life cycle. For houses that need to be low maintenance with low operating costs, it’s best to not use cheap materials, such as vinyl siding, low grade windows, carpeting, or finishes that weather poorly.

Therefore from the beginning, we were advocates for designing a house that would be more durable, provide better thermal mass, be low maintenance, and still be cost effective. The choice to use CMU as the load-bearing structure of the house would accommodate all of Habitat’s needs and still provide comfort in all seasons. We are using durable, highly insulated concrete for the walls, durable polished concrete floors, a façade system that can be easily repaired, windows that can easily be replaced if damaged, and a highly insulated roof with dormers that release warm air in the summer and warm up the houses in the winter. And lastly, we know that typically once an undesirably hot or cold temperature enters the house, it’s more challenging to get rid of it than to keep it out in the first place. Similar to when ants end up in a house, it’s difficult to get them out once they are in! With our expertise in Swiss standard construction, we wanted the design of the houses to avoid this completely. Thermal mass of well insulated, CMU concrete block helps mediate the temperature difference between inside and outside of the house but it doesn’t solve heat gain (summer) or heat loss (winter) through the windows. So, the design of operable shutters gives residents the option to close up the house in the summer or during cold winter nights to help keep the heat out or the heat in, respectively. The shutters, along with the concrete block, create a ‘thick sweater’ around the houses for the winter and become an ‘ice cooler’ in the summer!

Habitat for Humanity, Syracuse Chapter, MCAA, Barnes and Cone, Jamie Davis

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