The Barbara Rennie House
Already a seasoned activist in the city of Detroit, student Jason Fligger had previously participated in urban farm initiatives, and supervised a barn-raising by the students of Detroit’s Catherine Ferguson Academy. When he undertook his project, he began by uncovering some disturbing truths about the plight of unwed teenage mothers in the city. Jason’s research revealed that only one Metro Detroit shelter provided emergency services to teen mothers. Typically, a young woman who found themselves temporarily homeless became engaged in a maddening merry-go-round with Social Services, which usually resulted in the separation of mother and child to separate foster facilities. Furthermore, Jason identified the fact that many of these women found themselves in an endless cycle of poverty, as the burdens of motherhood often forced them to abandon their dreams of completing their education and provide better lives for themselves and their children.
Engaging six students from Catherine Ferguson Academy (all teenaged mothers), Jason embarked on a two-pronged project, treating these women as his clients, his partners, and his students. In structured sessions, Jason worked in partnership with these women to develop the program, select the site, and develop design ideas for the Barbara Rennie House. The proposed project would provide emergency shelter for homeless teenage mothers, including space for a resident ‘house mother’ (thereby providing an onsite foster authority for mothers and their children), on site security, children’s activity areas, and study space to promote harmony between mothering and education. The proposed building featured a number of sustainable features, including brownfield redevelopment, SIPS construction, daylighting, natural ventilation, stormwater management, solar hot water, and a hydronic heating system. Jason’s process underscored one of the underlying premises, as noted by J. M. Carroll: ‘the concept that people who ultimately use a designed artifact are entitled to have a voice in determining how that artifact is designed.’
The major effort regarding sustainability, however, was not focused upon the design of the building, but rather upon the growth of the students themselves. Acting in a mentoring role, Jason took the students on tours throughout the city, introducing them to the rich architectural history of Detroit. In addition, through working session developing the Barbara Rennie House proposal, these students were engaged as active participants, identifying needs and co-generating concepts. The end result was to activate an interest in design as a potential career, and to promote self-awareness that their ideas and concerns were indeed formidable. By exercising their ‘voice’ in the design process, Jason’s intent was to encourage them to believe more strongly in their intellectual and creative abilities, and to shift their focus from consumptive to productive activities. In this project, Jason embodied true sustainability through one of Alastair Fuad-Luke’s tenants of participatory design: ‘building capacity, not dependency – by not only shaping a solution but leaving behind the tools, skills and capacity for ongoing change’.
Artist and entrepreneur Douglas MacLeod asks readers in his book ‘Evil Plans’ to define the gift that they bring to the world. Jason’s gift is a true belief in the ability to help others reach their full potential