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.


‘Park’ to Park

To student Nicholas Geers, “Parking lots are a necessary evil in our world today.”  However, in his research, Nick concluded that large expanses of paved surface lots create issues in a city like Detroit.   He noted that the dedication of land to parking creates voids within cities, invites crime, and drives away pedestrian traffic. He also noted that oils and chemicals from vehicles is washed into the municipal sewers through storm runoff, and that these lots contribute to the urban heat island effect and global warming.  His research showed that 39% of the land in downtown Detroit is paved for the purpose of parking as opposed to 5% devoted to parks and greenspace.

To address this disparity, and the inconsistent use of some lots in Detroit, Nick was inspired to question how parking lots could be converted to public space.  Given the unlikely possibility of a full-scale conversion, Nick experimented with the concept of pop-up parks.  “A pop up park is meant to show people in a city, how nice it is to have public parks space in the city,” he noted. “It also focuses on solving issues in the community, encourages pedestrian activity, neighborhood interaction, and supports local businesses.”

Towards this end, nick created a guide outlining a series of 4 steps one would have to consider in order to create their own pop-up park:

“The first step involves different components that have to be decided on before the park can be built. The first component is the location that you choose to build your park on. The second component is considering the function of the park. This function can be anything from an outdoor seating area, to a community garden, to a music festival. The third component is to consider the people that would use your space.”

“The second step is the design elements of your park. The three main elements are seating, plantings, and activities. There are also general elements that are common to include in a park. These are things like enclosure, flexibility, and use of recycled materials.”

“The third step is a breakdown of the different scales of parks. I broke this down into small scale, medium scale, and large scale. Each of these scales outlines the common components to the size of each park as well as things like benefits and drawbacks, case studies, and a rendering of what each space could look like.”

“The final step is tools and resources. This step lists different resources one can look to when creating a park of their own.”


Pop-up park concept by Nicholas Geers


In creating his guidebook and illustrating examples, Nick chose to focus upon a common recycled material: wooden pallets.  He provided instructions to create simple, functional, and moveable park amenities like seating, planters, and platforms.  Nick’s great frustration was difficulty in securing a community partner in the project, and expressed a desire to continue testing the idea.

At the final presentation in 2015, Nick met Rena Bradley, principal of acutE design, and Community Development Director of Bridge of Grace CMC in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Nick’s work on the ‘Park to Park’ pop-up model was a natural fit for some of the neighborhood engagement initiatives that Bridge of Grace was pursuing.  In the spring and summer of 2016, Nick worked with adjunct Professor Mike Styczynksi, Rena and the Bridge of Grace team to lead community-based pop-up parklet development in some of the 15 vacant lots in Mount Vernon Park.  The park was officially opened in summer of 2017, and the project was featured in the online journal Architecture in Development.

mt vernon park.jpg

Mount Vernon Park in Fort Wayne, Indiana



While the human impact of the Flint, Michigan water crisis is well documented, student Sarah Britain chose to focus on another aspect of the situation in the fall of 2016.  Sarah discovered that a large population of pets within the Flint area are continuously given tap water because of a lack of bottled water, leading to high incidents of illness and fatalities.  By turning her attention to this forgotten constituency, Sarah also found that pets are given to animal shelters when abused, unwanted, or rescued.  “Some people”, she felt, “fail to realize the commitment it takes to own a pet, and fail to see the animal as anything more than an object or commodity.”

Sarah’s investigations led her to PAWS Animal Rescue, which takes any animal, whether it is young or old, likely to be adopted or not, and cares for it to the best of their ability.  Sarah found that the shelter had recently initiated a building campaign called “Raise The Woof”.  With a newly purchased piece of property on the edge of Flint, the rescue was looking to get the campaign moving at a faster rate.

Working with building committee head Roxanne Beckwith, and volunteer and builder Mark Maddock, Sarah and her design partner Gjeorgjia Lilo reviewed previously-generated shelter designs, and proposed a revised version that isolated specific spaces from one another, while allowing for efficient movement throughout the building.  “We mainly focused on disbursing the animals along the perimeter of the building”, they state, and “which will allow them direct access to the outdoors, fresh air and copious natural light. The offices are located in the core of the building, which helps with direct access to the animals. The plan also provides for each of the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare.  Generated from a module, the plan is able to easily extend parallel to the site, or even turn 90 degrees in speculation of purchasing the adjacent lot in the future.”   They also suggested a truss system to accommodate ventilation zoning and maximize natural light into the shelter, as well as an ERU (Energy Recovery Unit), to utilize the energy from the exhausted air by extracting its heat and transferring it to the supplied outside air.


Concept rendering of the PAWS Animal Rescue by Sarah Britain and Gjeorgjia Lilo


Sarah and Gjeorgjia describe the ‘PAWSsibilities’ project as focusing on “launching a capital campaign, and raising awareness of proper animal treatment and welfare.  Both of these occur within the design and building of a new shelter for PAWS.  Knowledge of animal welfare is provided within the design of the spaces within the shelter and surrounding landscape.  Creating spaces for resting, feeding, and exercise enhance mental health.  Generating images of these spaces, and designating them to specific donation statuses, displays where requested funds will be directed.  People are more likely to donate large sums of money to something that they can envision.”  Sarah and Gjeorgjia identified naming and sponsorship opportunities in the new shelter, and produced marketing images for inclusion in grant applications.  Their efforts were highlighted in an article in the Washington Times.  As of summer 2017, these materials have helped PAWS earn $20,000 in grant funding.


Sarah and Gjeorgjia’s design and marketing materials were included in a 2017 PAWS fundraiser


Roxanne Beckworth was enthusiastic about the experience of working with Sarah and Gjeorgjia: “We are very impressed at the detail and time that they both put into this project. I am truly appreciative of their time spent on giving us what we needed and they went over and above my expectations. They were very through in asking questions of just what is was that we needed and gracious to come to Flint to meet with me on three separate occasions to get input and complete their project. We are grateful for their willingness to help us meet our needs and thankful that they chose us.”

The Game of Life


Game of Life mapping by Simon Rucinski and Trevor Garland

Introduced in the fall of 2016 by lab instructor Michael Styczynski, and carried forward by Professor Orlowski, the Game of Life assignment forces students to put themselves in the shoes of those who – on a daily basis – face constraints and limits to things most of the students take for granted.  These constraints applied to access to transportation, mobility, technology, healthcare, even fresh water .  This assignment is particularly impactful when students realize that many people do not experience only one of these constraints, but rather have to face several of them.

There is an element of ‘role-playing’ in this assignment that engages students in a manner beyond detached scholarly research.  Students are required to experience and document the impact of a particular constraint on their daily lives, through a mapping of the experience, and the creation of a ‘video sketchbook’.

Past students were able to connect the revelations arrived at in this exercise to their studio design work.  Stephanie Kortmann noted that her difficulties navigating the local bus system made her conscious of those for whom personal transportation was not available. “This actually kick-started my research into food access and transportation access at the beginning of the semester, allowing me to empathize with the potential people/partners that I would end up meeting throughout the rest of the semester.” Rasha Shoukani, whose studio project focused upon the unique needs of deaf users noted: “Not everyone is able to pull out their smart phone and log into their linked in, or use google maps to get to where they are going. One lesson that I took away from this assignment is that universal design and having amenities for everyone to use is very crucial. We should design for as many different types of groups as possible in mind.”

The example shown was produced by Trevor Garland and Simon Rucinski, who were tasked with using public transportation to travel to a grocery store, buy two bags of groceries, and return home.  At least one item had to be refrigerated or frozen, and brought home fit to eat.  Trevor and Simon compared the time necessary for this travel with the time taken to drive by car, and recorded the process, bus stops, fare required, and mapped the travel route.  You can see Simon and Trevor’s video sketchbook here on YouTube.

Ten Years of Standing in the Gap


Guests at the AAD Studio reception August 25, 2017 (all photos: Ed Serecky)

In the month of August 2017, a ten-year retrospective of the Activist Architecture and Design studio was featured at Lawrence Tech’s Detroit Center for Design and Technology.  The exhibit featured work by students, as well as focused sections outlining the use of the Massive Change Story Formula, engagement tools developed by students, and a ‘legacy’ wall, outlining the lasting impact of the studio.  Guests were invited to help define the next mission of the course by identifying people, places, and issues, they felt were in need of address.


AAD studio alums gather for a group portrait

In conjunction with #CommunityDesignDay, the exhibit was highlighted by a panel discussion on August 25 featuring three former students: The Honorable Shane Hernandez, Michigan House of Representatives; Roan Isaku, SSOE Group; Megan Martin-Campbell, inFORM studio. The panelists reflected upon their studio work, and discussed how it served as a springboard for their continued efforts in public and service design.

Special thanks to our reception sponsor: NORR Detroit.


Studio alumnus Roan Isaku participated in the panel discussion.

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: