Interior Architecture Students at RISD Design Innovative Accessory Dwelling Units

the winning ADU model on view in the State House

Supporters of Rhode Island’s Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) Initiative packed into the library of the RI State House in late January to learn about a recent collaboration between AARP Rhode Island and RISD’s Interior Architecture department. Spearheaded by AARP RI’s Catherine Taylor and RISD faculty member Elizabeth Debs, the partnership tapped into Interior Architecture’s annual, department-wide charette last November, which focuses on a different real-world design problem each year.

“We look for opportunities to use design as a way to explore pressing community needs with collaborators who are experts in their fields,” Debs explains. “By working with AARP, students quickly learned important strategies for aging in place as well as universal design approaches they will use throughout their careers.”

“Our goal is to give students the tools they need to make positive change in this world,” adds Department Head Wolfgang Rudorf. “The charette builds community because the students work in teams and also strengthens our relationships with organizations within the larger Rhode Island community.”

“We look for opportunities to use design as a way to explore pressing community needs with collaborators who are experts in their fields.” 

Elizabeth Debs, Interior Architecture
rendering of a backyard ADU with mostly glass walls
visitors check out student ADU designs in the State House library
Above, a backyard ADU design brings in natural light via floor-to-ceiling windows; below, visitors check out student ADU designs at the State House library.

The students were divided into 10 teams, each of which spent an intensive four-day weekend researching the problem and developing small, freestanding dwellings on residential lots with existing single-family homes. They presented their solutions in the form of architectural renderings and cardboard models. Although one of the teams was deemed the winner (see top photo), elements from all of the projects can help to educate and inspire future ADU builders.

One of the key design constraints each team responded to was size, with a 350–900-square-foot limitation on each ADU. But students also focused on affordability, sustainability and the use of innovative construction methods and considered such questions as how the unit would relate to the primary structure it augmented and how it would meet the needs of older adults and disabled people. They also reflected on the concept of universal design spearheaded by late RISD faculty members Jane Langmuir 66 IA and Marc Harrison in the 1990s.

One design taps into the benefits of prefabrication while maintaining flexibility for diverse user groups, including people with accessibility needs. Another focuses on sustainability, light and ventilation, with a “butterfly roof” that collects rainwater and solar shingles that harvest enough energy to run the home. And a third provides wall panels that fit into floor and ceiling tracks and can be used to customize the living space and foster a sense of ownership among residents.

State Representative June Speakman presents a certificate to members of the winning design team.
Provost Touba Ghadessi addresses the crowd inside the RI State House library
Above, State Representative June Speakman presents a citation to members of the winning design team as AARP RI’s Catherine Taylor looks on; below, Provost Touba Ghadessi addresses the crowd.

“These models really bring the solutions to life,” said State Representative June Speakman when she initially saw the designs in November. Speakman is sponsoring the ADU bill and spoke at the State House presentation, along with fellow advocates Senator Victoria Gu, Senator Meghan Kallman and Speaker of the House Joe Shekarchi. All of these legislators also served as VIP guest judges at the charette.

“I marvel at RISD’s unique collaborative educational model,” RISD’s new Provost Touba Ghadessi noted at the State House event. “These cutting-edge student projects serve as paradigms for how art and design can solve complex problems and instigate meaningful action. The collaboration between RISD and AARP RI has been an incredibly powerful opportunity for students to understand, directly, how their work can address critical issues, such as housing for Rhode Island’s aging population. Thank you for bringing RISD into this important conversation.”

Simone Solondz / photos by Jaime Marland
January 31, 2024

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