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Design with a mission: Students create plan for affordable housing

It doesn’t exist, at least not yet, but it reads like the dream rental listing for anyone seeking affordable housing:

New two- to four-bedroom apartments in mixed-use building located in downtown Vancouver. Abundant natural light, in-unit laundry and onsite parking. Rooftop pool and community areas. Close to library, Fort Vancouver National Site, restaurants and retail. Low-income families encouraged to apply.

The building is the brainchild of a cohort of 10 Clark County middle and high school students who call themselves the Design CoMission. And although the design lives only on blueprints, it gave the students a very real education on the challenges and creative opportunities of working in a busy architectural firm—LSW Architects.

Design CoMission helped fulfill a professional goal for LSW principal Casey Wyckoff, who wanted to provide a more in-depth experience than some of LSW’s other internships and job shadowing opportunities could encompass.

Students submitted resumes and interviewed to participate. And just as in the professional world, those selected were largely expected to self-direct. Most of the students had minimal or no architectural knowledge or experience.

One thing they did know about: A sense of belonging. “They’re focused on the community and thinking about people who are less fortunate,” said LSW principal Ralph Willson.

STEMAccording to Matthew Carr, a junior at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, “We wanted to create a space where [residents] could feel at home and be a part of the community.” As they planned areas such as meeting rooms; technology spaces; and a rooftop pool, gazebo and garden, the possibilities for a vibrant community began to take shape.

Vancouver iTech Preparatory junior Sequoia Pullella-Barca said that the experience “showed me different pieces of the architecture field that I hadn’t considered.” For example, amenities such as subterranean parking, which seemed like a good idea to provide more parking options and minimize the footprint, can drive up project costs.

A visit to the actual site of their proposed building raised questions about best positioning to capture natural light and working in harmony with the surroundings. Learning SketchUp, a 3D modeling software, provided a visual for their ongoing work. And Design CoMission students also got a crash course in building codes and safety.

“Architecture is a lot more interesting than I thought it was,” said Sydney Fox-Middleton, an iTech Prep sophomore.

The project also taught the students about working through disagreements. Said Greta Dubois, a freshman at VSAA, “It taught me to let things go. It can’t always be how you wanted it.”

After 12 weeks of meetings, the students were tested with a final real-world experience: getting evaluated. In this case, feedback for the Design CoMission came from the mayor, City Council and a land developer, who praised the students’ work while offering some cost-driven alternatives.

The cohort also impressed the architectural professionals. Said Wyckoff, “I gained a new respect for what high school students can accomplish. … It was a privilege to work with them.”