Architecture that makes a difference

Change is that which occurs when circumstances force you to get different

The Activist Architecture and Design Studio was founded in the fall of 2007, and is part of the sustainable architecture concentration of Lawrence Technological University’s Master of Architecture program. The class attempts to engage students in a dialogue regarding the social, political, and cultural obligations of the design professional. The primary lesson of this studio, both for students and practitioners is simple: You don’t need permission, you need to act.


Home Garden ‘How to’ Manuals

Courtesy of students Chris Clanton and Stephanie Kortman, instruction manuals are available here for do it yourself water catchment, raised planting beds, and compost bins.#2016 rain catchment Instruction Booklet#2012 urban garden Manual

The Ten Friends Diner

(post co-authored with Julia Jovanovic)

Through her research, student Julia Jovanovic discovered that in Canada one in five individuals has, is or will suffer a mental health problem. It equates to 15% of the healthcare burden but has only 6 % of the health care budget. Of particular concern to Julia was the fact that eleven Canadians per day commit suicide and 90% of them have a diagnosable mental health problem.

For her project, Julia chose to work with a small, mental health organization – Mental Health Consumer/Survivors Employment Association of Essex County, also known as Ten Friends Diner. Ten Friends diner describes themselves as: “a not for profi¬t organization working in the Mental Health Sector; helping those who experience Mental Health setbacks. The people who work at Ten Friends Diner are Mental Health Survivors who can cope with their setbacks and gain the ability to work an average job within the community.”

The renovated Ten Friends Diner by Julia Jovanovic

The renovated Ten Friends Diner by Julia Jovanovic

Two years ago Ten Friends Diner moved to a new location in Windsor, Ontario, as per request of their ministry representative. The new diner was larger and was in a more favorable location, however the interior design of the dining space and the significant lack of office and storage space proved difficult. Staff began to feel the effects of the poor interior environment, feeling down, missing days of work and being physically tired on the job. Testimonials from the Consumer Survivors spoke to this point:

“Our old diner was cozy and warm. I was uplifted to come to work in a bright and friendly atmosphere. The current diner lacks the home feeling and casts off the sensation of being in an institution. The colour is dark and has no welcoming feel.”

“Our old location was small but gave off the feel of openness and welcome. The décor was bright and customers would tell us how cozy it was to just sit and chat with other customers and even the staff.”

“My mood in relation to the old diner was more work effective, brought on happier thoughts and a sense of freedom. I really love the added room in the new diner but as for motivation the décor lacks that inspiration.”

In addition there were health and safety issues with the interior space, including peeling sprayed on fire insulation on the open ceiling and high indoor humidity, which affected the air quality in the diner. These concerns were first thought to be landlord’s responsibility and were later resolved to be Ten Friends’ responsibility.

The challenges of the dining space were described and listed in two categories – functional and environmental. The functional challenges included lack of storage, lack of organization, lack of office and work space, disconnection of employee areas, impeded visibility and work flow, and congestion at reception. The environmental challenges included poor air and light quality, dark interior décor, lack of user control over the environment, high indoor humidity, blocked views to exterior, and high contrast to patio, causing blinding feel.

A set of goals were established to resolve the challenges of the space. These goals were separated in two categories, functional goals and environmental goals. The functional goals of the redesign included an increase in storage space, creation of a consolidated work / office space, creation of a display are from product and raffle sale, and enhancement of workflow through organization. The environmental goals of the redesign included spreading mental health awareness, creating an uplifting, friendly, inspiring interior environment, motivating Consumer Survivors to take pride in their environment and enhancing the emotional experience of the space for all occupants. The programmatic components of the interior renovation included the following:
1. Ceiling Upgrade – Sandblasting the fire insulation and painting the open ceiling white
2. Lighting Redesign – Adding pendants for ambient light – utilizing high efficiency light bulbs with an enhanced CRI; Adding sparkle lighting – LED lights on existing track system for emotional effect
3. Accenting furniture with light tones to reflect light around the space – Painting chair frames; Replacing table tops
4. Color Redesign – Repainting wall surfaces with a color palette that promotes well-being and also communicated the mental health nature of the organization.
5. Corner Unit / Consolidated Work Area – Creating free-standing furniture for the corner unit that accommodates seating, storage and work surfaces; Relocating the cash register, relocating the coffee station (minor plumbing adjustment); Several drawers needed for cutlery; Lazy Suzan type arrangement for coffee mugs
6. Marketing Display Area / Office Area / Takeout Waiting Area – Seating needed; Shelving for Display; Shades suspended from above structure; Lighting upgrade; Coat closet or rack
7. Information Station – Glass shelving needed; Lighting upgrade (using existing track lighting to focus on information displayed)
8. Art and Décor – Table centerpiece to accommodate for sugar, cutlery, jam, salt, pepper, napkins; Wall décor (photography piece depicting all the members of Ten Friends that have contributed to its long lasting success); Live (shade tolerant) plants – therapeutic
9. Specials Display Area – Originally blackboard wanted but also considering digital board that would be used for presentations or to rotate information about Ten Friends Diner and other organizations or to even rotate nature imagery which has a therapeutic effect.

Julia (seventh from left) and the Ten Friends staff at the TFD Open House, 2014.

Julia (seventh from left) and the Ten Friends staff at the TFD Open House, 2014.

In partnership with Julia, Ten Friends secured donations of funds, construction services, and in-kind donations to help with the costs of the interior renovations. Substantial work was completed in time for the Ten Friends Open House in September of 2014, and the Ten Friends staff are excited to come to work in their new, more uplifting space. Julia continues her connection with Ten Friends, and points to the experience as significant in her professional development:

“The activist architecture studio provided me with a unique perspective to design and business. In a highly competitive global market, this studio went beyond the traditionally accepted strategies of attaining work. It gave me a set of skills and a strong entrepreneurial sense that I feel distinguishes me from other young professionals. Its approach detailed a process of seeking out an issue of my interest and discovering a project that has not yet been initiated. I was encouraged to find not only a project but also a client and funding. Proposing a project to a client with already secured funding and a clear action path, became a win-win scenario for both myself and my client. This method demonstrated a proactive approach to business that allowed me to see opportunities where others may see scarcity. This studio encouraged using the same creativity I employ in the design process and apply it to the business aspect of a project. It has and continues to impact my development as a designer and a professional.”

To learn more about the Ten Friends Diner, visit their website: or, better yet, stop in for lunch and support their work.

Feedom Freedom Growers

Food accessibility, quality, and quantity in Detroit is often a topic of student interest in this studio.  They are frequently concerned about alarming reports of obesity and poor public health in the city, as well as the preponderance of fringe food retailers (gas stations, liquor stores, convenience shops, dollar stores, and other small mart type shops) frequently acting as a primary source of food for the citizens of the city.  The team of John Galwaa and Justine Pritchard also identified a lack of regulation on EBT purchases, which currently can be used within the city limits at fast food vendors, as onther primary cause of poor food access. They state: “These along with the high crime, poverty, and vacancy of the city create a broken infrastructure that does not cater for members of the community to eat healthy, understand nutrition, and increase physical activity.”  Fortunately, there are many grass-roots efforts in the city to address this inequity, one of which is Feedom Freedom Growers, led by Wayne Curtis, Myrtle Thompson Curtis, and Kezia Curtis. The published mission of FFG is to “collectively foster food sovereignty by creating a new culture of work and cooperative economics. Through the art of education and growing food we are cultivating self-reliance that sustains the life of our developing communities.”

Manistique Community Garden master plan

Working with Wayne, Myrtle, and Kezia, John and Justine developed a comprehensive master plan for the Manistique Community Garden. “We developed objectives for each problem area identified.  These included an overall master plan, shed, hoop house, produce cart, and raised planters. We further finessed our scope of work to encompass an overall master plan, storage shed, and produce cart.  The research done on hoop houses and raised planters helped inform planning decisions and placement of them on the master plan.  The master plan addressed the previously stated issues of poor planning and underutilization.  The first part of the master plan addresses the underutilized land by clearing all the trees along the alley way and creating a blank canvas.  We relocated the compost area to the north eastern corner.  This allowed for access from both sides of the alleyway for deliveries of organic material and the placement is furthest away from the growing area.  An educational area is created with raised planter beds adjacent from the gather place.  The gathering area incorporates picnic tables and reclaims stumps and rocks to create an outdoor fire pit area.  With a shed by the alley in the back and a large community flower garden upfront, the gathering area becomes framed by the planters and home creating a place of refuge.  The rest of the garden becomes the production focus, with mass planting rows and hoop houses to create mass production of produce for market and local residents.”  While projected completion of the master plan is slated for 2015, Wayne, Myrtle, and FFG volunteers have already made significant process in the implementation of design recommendations.

“Looking more closely at the shed, we devised utilizing pallets to create a large pallet shed.  The shed provides the adequate storage space that can house the tools which are currently located indoors and in the hoop house.  A pallet design handbook is created to aid in construction of the shed, with identified members and components that can be found or purchased.  The overall dimension of the pallet shed is 12×16 but may be reduced in size through prototyping studies.  More info regarding the pallet is located within the pallet how-to manual.”  Preliminary construction of the shed began in the summer of 2013, with completion projected in spring of 2014.

Shed (Context)

Pallet-based garden shed.

Another component of the project is the design of a bicycle-drawn cart to assist with neighborhood produce deliveries.  “The cart became an important introduction to the project through Kezia’s passion of biking.  The cart design focused on creating a detachable unit that can be easily customized per delivery requirements.  Its dimensions conveniently fit within an SUV and are substantial in design construction to provide maximum load capacity of produce relocation.  More in-depth information regarding cart size is found in the cart manual, which showcases step by step construction method.”  Studio alumnus Ryan Grabow offered consultation on design of the cart.

John and Justine have developed a strong connection with FFG.  “All in all”, they state, “working with Feedom Freedom Growers has become one of the most fruitful design relationships we have created.  In doing so, we’ve learned a lot about community, becoming part of a community that once seemed so distant to us.  Feedom Freedom Growers has greatly appreciated our design contributions in making their mission succeed. However, we are further appreciative of their willingness and eagerness to collaborate in order to foster design decisions that progress their goals. Their appreciation is evident in the obvious implementation of the design on the property.  They have already constructed many raised planters and began the archway path that framed the community garden.  Feedom Freedom Growers will definitely be an organization that we will continue to work because we have become part of their family.”

For more information about Feedom Freedom Growers, or to volunteer, go to:

GO EAST Welcome Center

Each year the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood holds their ‘Jazzin’ on Jefferson’ Festival, a two-day celebration of music and community.  This year, with the support of the Jefferson East Business Association and the AIA-Detroit Urban Priorities Committee, a new element was added to the festival: pop-up businesses and galleries in currently-unused storefronts on a one-block section of Jefferson Avenue.  Two students, Lillian Kusmierz and Caitlin White, designed the GO EAST Welcome Center, and led the construction project, along with friends, family, and fellow LTU graduate student Andy Ondersma.  For more about the team, go to

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100The selected space for the welcome center was a recently-renovated ‘white box’ – the walls were primed drywall with OSB sub-flooring and the ceiling was drywall with exposed ductwork.  This provided a clear canvas for Lillian and Caitlin’s design investigations.  A particular challenge was the need to accommodate four diverse tenants during the event, as well as four subsequent weekends during the ‘June on Jefferson’ promotion.  This group of tenants included the Jefferson East Business Association, D:hive, The Village of Fairview Historical Society, and a rotating schedule of vendors selling shelf-stable baked goods and treats.  Working with such a diverse client group required the resulting design to be highly flexible, to meet a variety of user needs.

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100Lillian and Caitlin describe their design process, which “pushed our creativity and made us truly look at the cost in both time and labor of material.  We knew we could easily obtain pallets for free from a local moving company, and worked with them to get 70 pallets delivered to Lawrence Technological University to experiment with the constraints and limitations of pallets.  Until the near end of our process, aspects of program were unclear.  This forced us to think intently on the aspects of flexibility of designing a space shared by 4 tenants. Would one need more space than the other?  Would they have very separate needs or need a more defined separation from each other?  By working with moveable partial height partitions designed out of pallets, we are able to build in flexibility for one program to take on more or less space.  By using pallets framed in an upright manner, density or transparency can be metered by filling the pallets in with other pallet wood.  By splitting a pallet in half, two ‘shelves’ can be made and framed into upright pallets to create units to hold goods for sale.  The density of material that the shelves can hold can be adjusted through the spacing of the shelves.

Carrying on the cohesive language of pallets, we worked to create a gateway to define and announce the space when patrons enter.  By enveloping the space with pallets, we worked to allow patrons to both touch, use and move under and through a pallet gateway.  Illuminated with light, the gateway acts as a beacon and gives character to the space.”

photo 4In addition to the displays and spatial dividers, the design team utilized palettes to create furniture in the welcome center sitting area, as well as sidewalk furniture and planters.  Color was introduced through distinct branding of logos painted on to the upright pallet walls, with the focus directed at the tenants and their missions.  The primary rationale for the use of palettes was economic: As each design team was given a small budget for their pop-ups, Caitlin and Lillian elected to build as much of the space as possible for free.  This allowed them to utilize the majority their budget to create carts, which acted a counters for the tenants to interact with patrons, as well as mobile promotional and storage stations. The carts are made out of Fastube, a durable and strong material often used in the automotive industry for carts and shelving.  At the end of the event, the primary tenants were able to keep the carts as a ‘take away’, thereby reinvesting the budget funding back into the work and mission of the recipients.

“The process was challenging and extremely rewarding”, reflects Caitlin, “probably one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.”

End of another semester…..for some.

Student John Galwaa meets with Wayne Curtis of Feedom Freedom Growers

Student John Galwaa meets with Wayne Curtis of Feedom Freedom Growers

Last month brought the end of the semester, and another evening of sharing between the students and several guests, including LTU President Virinder Moudgil, numerous studio alums, and some of the local agents partaking in the student projects.  Kudos to the students: Scott Barnes, Matthew Brown, Michal Burshtein, Peggy DeVos, John Galwaa, Lillian Kusmierz, Matt McClellan, Andy Neevel, Katie Piasecki, Justine Pritchard, Zachary Rusu, Dan Stakhiv, and Caitlin White.  In future postings, you’ll learn more about some of their projects (and a few more from last year that we’ve been lax in posting). 


The big news is that a few of the projects are continuing into construction over the summer.  Updates will be provided as they progress.

Designing for Autism

Awareness of various forms of autism has increased in recent years, but the impacts of the built environment on those with this affliction – particularly children – is not frequently addressed in design studios.  In his project for the Autism Collaborative Center, student Mike Neuhalfen investigated specific activities that people with autism struggle with.  Through this research he identified four categories of response: Stimulation, Retreat, Generalization and Socialization. This allowed him to focus on design strategies for two problematic spaces at the ACC: the family lounge and playground.

“The family lounge was a wreck when I first saw it”, Mike states.  “Here books and toys were spread out throughout the space.  The furniture itself was did not look clean enough to sit on, especially the couch.  Amy (from the ACC) told me that this room can get very loud, so much so that some parents would rather wait in the hallway.”   Mike’s solution was to create two spaces, one short term and the other long term.

Short term family lounge and child's play area.

Short term family lounge and child’s play area.

“The overall design focus of the short term waiting area is to have a space that is easy to clean, fun and reduces the noise level for the rest of the room.  This area is closest to the entrance for a few reasons; ease of access for children and so children do not run through the room disturbing the rest of the people in the space.  On one wall I propose repurposing the old chalkboard, and making it friendlier for children to play with by locating it near the floor.  The other wall has donated pvc pipe with different textures.  The different textures, along with the variations in shape of the pvc, offer a lot of different types of stimulation input.  The trellis system above helps designate where the play area starts and stops, reduces the noise, and creates a smaller space scaled for children.  The colored cubes are durable seats that double as a toy.  This allows these seats to move around freely, and to be played with freely without making the space look like a mess.  The bench is also made from pvc, and acts as a seating space for parents to watch their kids while creating a physical barrier to control where the kids can roam to.  The children’s books are now located above the countertop, making access to them limited to parents.  This would drastically decrease the amount of stuff that is normally found on the floor.  Finally, I have also provided a traditional waiting area, which can help promote generalization skills.  This area allows parent to observe their children’s treatment sessions.”

“The long term waiting area has a different function entirely, intended to be a relaxing area for parents”, Mike notes, addressing the stresses commonly endured by parents with autistic children.  “The relaxing area itself is strait forward with the introduction of 2 new couches.  This would allow for more than one parent to lie down.  I am also introducing a lot more plants to family lounge to reduce noise.  The plant type selected is areca palm which has been proven by NASA to increase the air quality of the space by as much as 30%.  A set of table and chairs also share this space, which allows family members to surf the internet, socialize with other parents, and eat in the space if desired.”

Mike found the existing playground to be highly underutilized, and conversations with ACC staff highlighted a desire to make the outdoor space available for families, as well as for therapy sessions.  “Currently they are in the process of building planter boxes on the western most side of the field.  This will help define a large open area taking up more than 50% of the site.  This would allow for kids to roam freely while still being observed from one specific spot near the east entrance to the building.”  Along the bounding path are three retreat spots along the fence line that would allow a child some privacy if overstimulated, while still under discrete observation.  Mike has proposed locating ‘forts’ in these three locations constructed from the abundance of picnic tables donated to the ACC.  “Currently the playground is only truly used during two summer months with SPLASH Camp”, says Mike.  “This is why I propose an apple orchard in the south most part of the playground, giving the ACC something they can use in the fall months.”

Modified picnic table as privacy 'fort'

Modified picnic table as privacy ‘fort’

While it remains to be seen as to how many of Mike’s recommendations will be fully implemented, his work with the ACC has highlighted a set of possibilities which are achievable on a limited budget.

Recreate to Re-Create Lives: A Recreation Link

Student Erica Muldoon sought to work with a local nonprofit who strives to help “heal Michigan’s victimized girls and women with best-practice treatment programs designed to meet their unique needs while serving other vulnerable children and families within Southeast Michigan.” Erica was inspired by their mission is to build a community that “enables vulnerable girls, as well as at-risk children and families, to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty by providing them with the education, daily living assistance and supportive social connections critical to their sustained success.”  (Note: I have chosen not to name this organization until receiving explicit permission to do so.)

Erica’s project centers on creating a link between two secured dormitories that will house a recreation space for year round activity and expansion of treatment programs as well as provide space for expanding services which includes office spaces and flex space.  The resulting design work is best described in Erica’s own words:


Outdoor communal space for reading and socializing.

“The design response for a recreational link includes the main recreation space, conference space, small offices, small meeting spaces, multipurpose space, and storage. The response is to create cohesiveness between the new and existing space while creating an individual identity for the link. It is also important for this space to have an atmosphere different from the existing dorms. For this group’s work to be the most effective that it can be it is important that the spaces reflect this attitude, that they are there to help and have a desire to help the residents to recover. This space should be an open encouraging area, a lively space that can inspire the residents to make a change for their futures.

Extending the new space beyond to existing spaces begins to distinguish it from the existing. The form carries that further. Trusses designed for day lighting create the unique identity, while similar and complimentary materials were carried through to link to tie the two together. Additional material types were added to the link for further definition of the space.

Day lighting was a major motivating factor throughout the design. The trusses were designed to maximize day light will also providing structure for light to “play on.” Day light filters though the structure creating a unique play of light and shadow within the space that is constantly changing with the day and seasons. The new entry was also designed with the use of this truss. The entry atrium allows light to flood the first and second floor spaces so that all spaces (open and closed) have natural light throughout the day. This is also a defining factor in the atmosphere of the link. The use of the trusses, atrium, and open space create a light, community oriented, and unoppressive atmosphere. Bright colors (orange and green) and warm materials (wood, brown brick, light cast panels) are more inviting than the concrete block and brink and dark cold colors of the existing building. These make this a space the residents will want to go and will want to engage with. The more engaged the residents are with their surroundings (in a positive way) the more invested they are in their progress in treatment, the more invested they are in changing their futures.

The patio extension of the recreation space can be a very integral part in the programs offered here. This space creates a buffer between one wing of the dormitories and the recreation space. The “dead space” between these posed a very difficult problem. On one hand, the new link was very close to the dorms which were not the ideal backdrop to their windows, but on the other abutting up to the dorm is not an option for egress means as well as day light. In studying day lighting patterns for this space in reference to the rec space and dorms there was sufficient lighting through any given day that could support a landscaped space. Located between the two buildings, the patio is private and enclosed enough for use nearly year round but also large enough for small groups to occupy it. In connection to programs the residents are involved in this can become another activity in their treatment. If the residents are responsible for the planting and upkeep of this space not only do they then have ownership of the space so to speak they also have the opportunity to she result of their efforts rather quickly, reinforcing and encouraging their efforts in other areas in treatment.”


Entry facade for the proposed recreational link.

While serving as a juror for this year’s session of the studio, Erica encouraged the current group of students to be willing to challenge the limited expectations of their local agents, and be willing to push against the boundaries of their vision, with the goal of showing them a greater range of possibilities.  As of this writing, the project (or one like it) has yet to move forward, but Erica’s work has inspired enthusiasm and dedication for advancement among her agents.