During the fall 2009 semester, a group of 13 architecture students in the New Jersey Institute of Technology's College of Architecture and Design participated in a unique partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Newark that for fourth-year student Alexander Merlucci may yield a built project before he graduates.

Intending to fill a 100-foot-by-105-foot site in the city with five multifamily units, Habitat of Newark took on the role of client for the students and asked for three-bedroom, 1 1/2 – 2 bathroom townhouse designs of 1,500 square feet or less at a cost of less than $100 per square foot. They also had to be energy efficient, reproducible, easily built by a team largely made up of unskilled volunteers, and incorporate cost-effective sustainable systems or strategies to meet LEED gold- or platinum-level guidelines (although no certification will be pursued).

  • A scale model of Alexander Merlucci's townhouse design for Habitat for Humanity of Newark shows several of the concept's unique features, including an exterior planting box that frames the second-level windows and a central solar chimney.

    Credit: Alexander Merlucci

    A scale model of Alexander Merlucci's townhouse design for Habitat for Humanity of Newark shows several of the concept's unique features, including an exterior planting box that frames the second-level windows and a central solar chimney.
Merlucci and his classmates drew up their concepts for the next generation of local Habitat townhouses and then consulted with six Habitat families, who offered feedback about the features and elements they found desirable. Advised by associate professor Darius Sollahub, AIA, and architect/engineer John C. "Jak" Inglese, AIA, LEED AP, PE, students refined their designs over a 14-week period, meeting several times with Habitat of Newark's land acquisition committee. Each student worked to create a design that met Habitat's tight cost restrictions and criteria, using building information modeling software to optimize their designs and keep them within the organization's pricing structure.

"Students had every incentive to think creatively and out of the box," says Sollahub. "They really rose to the occasion, and they really liked the idea that before they graduate, something they've designed might be built."

Finally, the Habitat land acquisition committee, along with project manager Jim Corbett and Inglese, the architect of record, selected Merlucci's design to develop into its next low-income housing project. "Alex's was one of the least expensive [concepts], but with incredible design qualities at the same time," says Sollahub.

Merlucci's design is modern, cost-effective, and offers some flexibility in its interior layout. "One of the things we liked about Alex's design was that it could be made into a four-bedroom home, which gives us more latitude," says Corbett.

It's also an attractive concept—an important aspect for Habitat projects. "We didn't want it to stand out as institutional housing," Corbett adds.

In designing his townhouses, Merlucci wanted to create a positive identity for residents by making the homes indistinguishable from market-rate housing by providing customizable exterior features and interior elements that optimize livability. Homeowners will be able to select siding colors from a palette, and substantial window boxes give them the opportunity to dress up their homes with plantings. The first floor's open plan and solar chimney give a sense of spaciousness, flooding the interiors with light. "It creates a really grand space, and a really nice moment in the home that's cost effective," Merlucci says, since the solar chimney allows passive cooling as well as illumination.

"The design didn't require any substantial variances that might lead to problems with permitting. It fits into the neighborhood spatially, it hits all our criteria, and it just feels right for the site," Corbett says. "It will fulfill the living needs for a family for a long period of time."

  • A view of how Merlucci's design will appear as a block of five townhouses.

    Credit: Alexander Merlucci

    A view of how Merlucci's design will appear as a block of five townhouses.
Merlucci specified a cogeneration system to supply 50 percent of the homes' electrical demand for a year, in addition to providing heat and hot water. This will help the project qualify for the New Jersey Climate Choice Home program, and could earn it an $18,000 credit. Merlucci will continue to work on the plans for the townhouses with Inglese as part of an internship.

The design studio was the first such partnership between NJIT's architecture school and Habitat's Newark chapter, but it likely won't be the last according to Sollahub, who leads his department's community outreach programs. He was pleasantly surprised by the interest students showed in a design studio focusing on low-income housing, Sollahub notes. "I got some of the best students in the school, and the level of commitment was inspiring to me," he says.

Habitat's Newark chapter plans to break ground on the townhouse units based on Merlucci's design before the end of 2010. According to Corbett, some of the clever elements that other students incorporated into their designs may also be worked into the final plans for the development.