How KCAD student collaborations are building community

Since 2016, a group of graduate students at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University's Master of Architecture program have had an opportunity to offer a solution to an architecture issue in Grand Rapids. 

This  year, the KCAD students collaborated with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and with the city of Grand Rapids engineering and water departments to think about ways the Coldbrook Pumping Station along the Grand River could find new use.

“This beautiful Beaux-Arts classical building from the 1910s is in the Monroe North neighborhood. It’s empty and it has these big, beautiful, light-filled halls, and it has all this old pumping equipment in there,” says Michael McCulloch, associate professor and Master of Architecture program chair at KCAD. 
“It’s a difficult building to reuse. So we worked with them to start to develop concepts for different ways that the building could be reused and how it could be integrated into a public park space that would surround the building.”

Last year, KCAD Master of Architecture design students collaborated to bring a greenhouse to senior residents at Reflections: A Senior Housing Community as the residents expanded their community garden. 

Greenhouse project built community spirit

As a collaborative project with KCAD Urban Collaborative Studio, AARP and Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids, the addition of the greenhouse enhanced the 16 raised beds that seniors have been using for more than a decade to grow flowers, herbs, and vegetables. 

“This project holds a special place in my heart for its profound community engagement and collaborative spirit,” says student Imane Hocini. “This project, more than any other, bridged the gap between academia and real-world practice, presenting challenges and opportunities that expanded our horizons as emerging designers.”

The project began with meetings with Dwelling Place staff and residents so students could gather insights into their gardening needs and aspirations for a community space. 

From there, the team of third year master’s students, including Hocini, Stacey Dewitt, Sean Guiry, Esmeralda Diana, and Hayden Prillwitz, under the supervision of McCulloch and professor Megan Zapoli, started design exploration. 

Those conversations were translated into diagrams, sketches, and models which were shared with the residents as the process progressed. 

The team incorporated elements like rainwater storage and optimal orientation for natural light, and it prioritized accessibility. 

“An exciting aspect of our proposal was using reclaimed heat-treated pallets to craft all furniture, including garden beds and work tables,” says Hocini. “This sustainable approach aligned with the ethos of the project.”

Volunteers constructed the greenhouse last summer. It was completed and inaugurated in October.

Community connections

Hocini says the Reflections greenhouse project was an example of user-centered and community-driven design. 

“This project made us understand the importance of flexibility and adaptability in design as we navigated challenges and incorporated feedback to refine our solutions,” says Hocini. “Additionally, the experience deepened our understanding of sustainable design practices, inspiring us to explore ways to repurpose materials and minimize environmental impact. Above all, this project reinforced the potential of design to enhance the quality of life and foster community connections.”

The project began with each student creating their own greenhouse design to propose to the residents. After multiple feedback sessions, they then had to combine all the individual ideas into one cohesive design by taking the most successful elements from each proposal and weaving them together.

Once the team had a cohesive design, they began the process of creating a construction set that could be used by community volunteers to bring the greenhouse to reality. The 10-by-10 greenhouse was built in the summer of 2023.

While drawing up a construction manual, the students also were learning how to build the proposed design for a 1:1 mock-up model. This allowed the students to be designers, architects, and contractors all at the same time, as they began to understand the level of detail needed to take a design from paper to reality, 

Prilwitz says the project allowed the students to see the potential of their own impact on the community and to learn from the community, a two-way street that is often not experienced until after students complete their education. 

“This project was the first time that we as students were able to interact with the community members we were providing architectural services for,” says Prillwitz. “In academia, you're primarily working on projects for yourself, where your main concern is improving yourself as a designer and meeting the deliverable list provided by faculty.

“This project was so much more than just meeting a deliverable,” she says. “It was about fostering trust and connections within our own community to create something beautiful and necessary for improving the daily lives of those in our own backyards.”

Engaging with users

An important part of the project was understanding the residents' needs and desires through multiple engagement sessions.

“We learned about the joys that gardening brought to their lives and how they use their existing open-air garden spaces to bond with family and other residents,” Prillwitz says. “Prior to this project, I don't think I quite understood how something that I found to be so simple like gardening could bring such life to a community or an individual. 

“Through this process of engagement, I learned to intently listen to these residents and their desires and dreams of what joys a greenhouse would bring to their lives. It was truly inspirational and eye-opening to hear their stories and to understand how such a small intervention, such as a 10-by-10 greenhouse, could impact so many.”

The next project hasn’t been selected, but McCulloch is talking with Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation about possibilities.

“They're wonderful partners. We've done projects with them in the past because parks are such an important aspect of public space in the city and people's experience of the city.”

A few years ago, the students worked on a park wayfinding sign with information about the services that are available in the area. It also had a blackboard attached so that people could share their thoughts.

“It became this really interesting experiment in allowing people to share their thoughts in public space. It was supposed to be temporary, but the neighborhood association didn't want to take it down, so it stayed up for much longer than we originally designed for,” says McCulloch.

McCulloch, who started the class for this community collaboration when he joined KCAD in 2016, says he’s always looking for projects that combine student learning and community engagement.

“I'm really looking for the sweet spot where it's kind of a real win-win for both,” says McCulloch. 

From furniture to shoes, from arts to education to even policy creation, design is everywhere you look. Designed in Michigan, a story series coming out of West Michigan, is devoted to sharing the expansive role design plays in Michigan's past, present and future. It is made possible through the support of Kendall College of Art and Design and Landscape Forms.
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