Penn Students Design Energy Efficient Affordable Houses For Homeless Teen Mothers

PHILADELPHIA, PA – “ The Bernice Elza Homes project is taking affordable housing to a new level by incorporating sustainable design techniques. Richard Wesley and Ali Malkawi, faculty in the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, in collaboration with John Fox Hayes, Principal at Blackney Hayes Architects (BHA), led a team of Penn undergraduate students in pioneering this new concept in conjunction with the HUD Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC) and the Peoples Emergency Center Community Development Corporation (PECCDC).
Bernice Elza Homes, located in West Philadelphia, will provide low-cost housing for formerly homeless teen mothers and their children. The PECCDC, the developer of the project, also envisions an on-site case management office to coordinate services for the families as they move toward independence.

The project began several years ago as a part of COPC Grant for University of Pennsylvania School of Design, aimed to encourage collaboration between the university and the community it serves. As a part of this initiative, students not only mastered theories and practices of affordable housing in the classroom, they also received an opportunity to work directly with the community leaders and practices of affordable housing in the classroom, they also received an opportunity to work directly with the community leaders and development sponsors to better understand the depth of the issue.

For the duration of one academic semester, within a “design studio” class led by Richard Wesley, Ali Malkawi and John Hayes, a group of 18 Penn students took on a real project to develop Bernice Elza Homes. The students started with the groundwork of reexamining all aspects and assumptions for the project. They tested and explored different ideas, which ultimately led to a greater vision and a broader perspective on the issues surrounding affordable housing. Throughout the semester, they compiled research on affordable housing and explored six different design approaches, eventually selecting only three viable options to be presented to the community for review.

The selected scheme then headed to the offices of BHA, where three of the students, Juila Cox, Jason Niebish and Feifei Cao, under the mentorship of John Hayes, developed it into a final construction drawing and prepared for construction during the summer.

“It was a real pleasure working on this project. The students were incredibly responsive to new ideas and seemed to really enjoy working with the community to help them solve their problems,” said John Hayes, Principal at Blackney Hayes Architects.

The final Bernice Elza Homes design presented an affordable solution through the use of sustainable design features, such as natural day lighting, ventilation, storm water management techniques, incorporation of low VOC paints and materials for interior finishes. The students incorporated these design features keeping in mind the rigid cost limitations associated with the project.

Sustainable affordable housing is a largely untapped area often due to the sizable costs to install the systems and reluctance to explore new ideas on modest budgets. However, most developers don’t realize that the savings in energy costs far outweigh the initial investment. The project group hopes to receive Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority funding to support the use of photovoltaic panels to harness solar power. The incorporation of this technology could help reduce the energy bills by as much as 50% in summer and 25% in the winter months.
Blackney Hayes Architects has been involved with many of the new affordable housing projects in Philadelphia, including the reconstruction of the Schuylkill Falls, Tasker Homes, Germantown House and Mill Creek Housing. BHA is excited to have a role in creation of energy efficient affordable housing as well as hands-on student learning.

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