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Interior Architecture Students at RISD Design Innovative Accessory Dwelling Units

CEO Khai Intela
Supporters of Rhode Island's Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) Initiative recently gathered at the RI State House, where they learned about a groundbreaking collaboration between AARP Rhode Island and RISD's Interior Architecture department. Spearheaded by AARP...

Supporters of Rhode Island's Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) Initiative recently gathered at the RI State House, where they learned about a groundbreaking collaboration between AARP Rhode Island and RISD's Interior Architecture department. Spearheaded by AARP RI's Catherine Taylor and RISD faculty member Elizabeth Debs, this partnership tapped into the expertise of RISD's interior architecture students to address pressing community needs and explore innovative solutions for aging in place.

A Transformative Design Experience

RISD's annual department-wide charette, which focuses on real-world design problems, provided the perfect platform for this collaboration. The students were divided into ten teams, each tasked with researching and developing small, freestanding dwellings on residential lots with existing single-family homes. Over an intensive four-day weekend, they worked tirelessly to come up with architectural renderings and cardboard models that showcased their creative solutions.

rendering of a backyard ADU with mostly glass walls Picture: A rendering of a backyard ADU with mostly glass walls.

Embracing Design Constraints and Prioritizing Sustainability

The teams faced several design constraints, including size limitations of 350-900 square feet for each ADU. However, they also focused on affordability, sustainability, and innovative construction methods. They considered the unit's relationship to the primary structure, its functionality for older adults and disabled individuals, and the concept of universal design. The latter was championed by late RISD faculty members Jane Langmuir and Marc Harrison in the 1990s.

One design explored the benefits of prefabrication, offering flexibility for diverse user groups. Another focused on sustainability, incorporating a "butterfly roof" for rainwater collection and solar shingles for energy harvesting. Additionally, a third design provided customizable wall panels that fostered a sense of ownership among residents.

Showcasing Student Solutions

visitors check out student ADU designs in the State House library Picture: Visitors check out student ADU designs in the State House library.

The students brought their solutions to life through architectural renderings and physical models. State Representative June Speakman, who initially saw the designs in November, was impressed by their creativity. Speakman is sponsoring the ADU bill and spoke at the State House presentation, along with other advocates such as Senator Victoria Gu, Senator Meghan Kallman, and Speaker of the House Joe Shekarchi. These legislators also served as VIP guest judges at the charette.

A Powerful Collaboration for Change

RISD's new Provost Touba Ghadessi emphasized the significance of this collaboration, stating, "These cutting-edge student projects serve as paradigms for how art and design can solve complex problems and instigate meaningful action." The partnership between RISD and AARP RI not only provided students with valuable insights, but it also created a platform for addressing critical issues, such as housing for Rhode Island's aging population.

State Representative June Speakman presents a certificate to members of the winning design team. Picture: State Representative June Speakman presents a certificate to members of the winning design team.

RISD's Interior Architecture department continues to empower students to make positive changes in the world. By collaborating with organizations like AARP Rhode Island, they are equipping the next generation of designers with the tools they need to shape a better future.

Conclusion

The collaboration between AARP Rhode Island and RISD's Interior Architecture department has sparked a remarkable exploration of innovative solutions for Accessory Dwelling Units. Through their passion, creativity, and commitment to addressing community needs, RISD students have proven that art and design can transform lives and create spaces that promote inclusivity and aging in place.

Simone Solondz / photos by Jaime Marland January 31, 2024

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