Innovative course has students rehabbing houses, fighting blight

Topics: College of Architecture and Planning, Immersive Learning

February 15, 2010

 

Ball State students knew they were in for an interesting class based on the materials list: protective glasses, steel-toed boots, ear protection, hardhats and leather gloves.
 
The classroom is equally as interesting — an abandoned historic home near downtown Muncie. Assignments are written on scraps of paper on the walls, ceilings are crumbling, much of the floor is missing and the students' clothes are grimy at day's end. And even though the interior temperature hovers in the mid-20s, no one is complaining.
 
"I'd rather be hauling bucket loads of dirt out of this basement than sitting in a classroom," Alicia Thueme said with a smile. "This house is something I'll be able to drive by and point out to everyone as the one that I worked on."
 
The students are enrolled in Ball State University's EcoRehab course and will spend the entire semester immersed in studying ecologically sound and sustainable rehabilitation of existing housing — all while swinging a hammer in the process.
 
"The students are doing much more than construction and refurbishing," said Jonathan Spodek, associate professor of architecture and EcoRehab's co-founder. "They are driving the process, laying out extensive plans and preparing the entire scope of the project."
 
The unusual class setting is matched by the mix of 12 students involved, including students from architecture, real estate management, interior design and more. In addition to working at the construction site, the students are also keeping journals to document their learning journey, he added.
 
The project actually began last semester with the formation of EcoRehab, the nonprofit organization co-founded by Spodek and Bill Morgan, Muncie's historic preservation officer. The association received an $85,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
 
"Since HUD grants cannot be awarded to universities, we formed EcoRehab to receive the money," Spodek said. "And working with the city, we were able to quickly identify homes from its blight list that needed work — a perfect triangle of education, funding and community."
 
With a growing number of Midwestern cities getting smaller, finding sustainable solutions to maintain the essence of their urban cores is a critical component of economic sustainability. When finished, the house will be offered for sale to a low- to moderate-income family or turned into a model or demonstration home for EcoRehab, Spodek said.
 
"We're not out to save all of the houses that are on the blight list," he said. "Unfortunately, some homes are in such bad shape, it may be better to demolish them. Our approach will be to help the city achieve its goals while giving our students a great learning experience."
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