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Designing students put polish on real-world projects

Fast-paced projects with profound impact.

Designing students put polish on real-world projects by Laura L. Hunt

The owner of a swampy tract of land in a New Berlin, Wis., industrial park didn’t know what to do with the property. The only undeveloped site in the park, the owner’s first inclination was to simply fill it in with dirt.

Ryan Shortridge came up with an alternative: Embrace the wetlands and rebrand the area as a “conservation” industrial park.

“We told them that the tract was an amenity. Instead of more manicured landscaping, we proposed keeping it a little more rustic and including things like habitat restoration and walking paths,” says Shortridge, a UWM graduate student in architecture.

When Wausau city officials wanted to develop 16 acres along the Wisconsin River, CDS work was used to secure three grants from the EPA to remediate two brownfields and make the design a reality.

Shortridge is used to being handed a challenge. He helps lead a student design-support group called Community Design Solutions (CDS), which was created a dozen years ago by Robert Greenstreet, dean of the School of Architecture & Urban Planning

Although CDS clients consist mainly of local organizations that don’t have the resources to hire architectural services, the owner of the New Berlin property just happened to be one of the most well-known businesspeople in the city.

“I saw our student, Ryan, presenting to Shel Lubar and he had Lubar enthralled,” says Greenstreet. “This is a man whose calendar is not so easy to get on.”

CDS has worked with more than 120 clients since its launch and continues to make its mark on Milwaukee and around the state – with about 10 student workers each semester.

“CDS cannot compete with firms for work. But we can work on projects and contribute suggestions that firms could later implement,” says CDS director Carolyn Esswein. “For student-designers, that offers the chance to push the envelope for clients.

“If students propose a big, moving idea that generates excitement, then the clients may do some private fundraising to keep the concept.”

A small percentage of the work gets built exactly as planned, says Shortridge, but CDS’s influence is apparent on many of the projects they take on.

One partner likely to incorporate student designs in its construction is Layton Boulevard West Neighbors, a South Side nonprofit that buys foreclosures in the Layton neighborhood and renovates them for resale in its Turnkey Renovation Program.

Undergraduate Aaron Loomans stayed in Milwaukee last summer to work on a Turnkey project, helping to transform a turn-of-the-century duplex into an energy-efficient, five-bedroom single-family home.

He worked one on one with a volunteer architect from Eppstein Uhen on one of the foreclosed houses, produced renderings used in Turnkey marketing, met with contractors, developed basic construction documents and even went door to door explaining the project to the neighbors.

“You won’t get that kind of variety at a traditional firm internship, which tends to be heavy on computer-aided design work that supports bigger projects,” says Loomans, a senior from Appleton, Wis.

Most CDS projects are fast paced, beginning and ending in one semester. But the effects are profound.

When Wausau city officials wanted to develop 16 acres along the Wisconsin River, CDS work was used to secure three grants from the Environmental Protection Agency to remediate two brownfields and make the design a reality.

And when Milwaukee’s Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers proposed adding a bike trail along the Kinnickinnic River as a way of promoting neighborhood health, CDS students hosted a community-wide charrette – a competition with public input – to generate potential designs. The event helped attract Wisconsin Coastal Management Program funding for the trail, which opened last year.

“Without the buy-in from so many groups, it would have been easier for the city to throw in the towel when problems arose,” says Ben Gramling, the centers’ director of environmental health.