CUA Architecture Students Create Sustainable Housing Designs to Assist Women in Crisis Pregnancies

With ‘Laudato Si’ in mind, ‘We’re trying to design a space that’s curated to the human person and the dignity they have ...’

Sisters of Life discuss student-designed housing plans at The Catholic University of America.
Sisters of Life discuss student-designed housing plans at The Catholic University of America. (photo: Patricia Andrasik/CUA)

A group of Catholic University of America students spent the past semester applying their pro-life principles to a practical purpose: employing their architectural education to create housing plans for families in need.

Those providing feedback to the students included architecture professionals, Sisters of Life and students who are experiencing a crisis pregnancy or parents themselves. By presenting their final ideas to developers, the students have the potential to influence professional architectural projects to aid the work of the Sisters of Life and others.

The process wasn’t to build a specific project; it was an opportunity for students to potentially influence contractors/architects currently working on projects to see how they could creative child-and-family-friendly spaces.

The plans presented included considerations of social justice and “Net Zero Readiness,” indicating the housing has been designed to minimize energy usage and produce a low carbon footprint.

“Otherwise, we’re not taking the idea of embracing life or really taking it to the full extent — embracing life through sustainable architecture,” said Patricia Andrasik, associate professor of architecture at CUA. The students created final productions that included drawings meant to communicate the feeling of the housing with non-architects.

Architecture students at CUA could choose between four different studios to focus their time during the semester; each studio was assigned a different assignment. Nine students chose and completed Andrasik’s studio, whose assigned project centered on creating a building designed to serve those in crisis pregnancy.

“Even if the developer is not going to incorporate any of the students’ ideas, just by producing this project and completing the design, we hope to raise awareness of the real necessity of providing safe, practical, accessible housing for crisis pregnancies, regardless of the situation,” Andrasik said.

This project is closely related to The Catholic University of America’s Guadalupe Project that serves campus moms and families.

Liam Maxson grew up outside of New York City, and his trips there defined his first experiences of architecture. As a junior at CUA, the idea behind his project focused on how a community could embrace new life.

“It’s just wonderful to me how much of an impact architecture and designing spaces can have on people,” Maxson said. “Subconsciously, the space you’re in affects your mood and how well you do.”

Students grounded their design concepts in various elements of Catholic social teaching. Inspiration from Maxson’s project sprang from Laudato Si, as he approached social justice and environmental issues hand in hand with each other.

“Even beyond the specifics of Catholic background, the way the school and the students approach design here is with a sense of spirituality behind it,” Maxson explained. “We try and focus on what would be important to people living there. You know, we’re not just designing a space to make it look pretty or to be super functional. We’re trying to design a space that’s curated to the human person and the dignity they have.”

For him, that looked like a place drawn from the architecture of Brooklyn, one of his early muses in New York. Maxson mimicked one of the borough’s traditions by leaving space on porches and in entryways for strollers.

His final project also included a vertical garden, surrounded by a U-shaped courtyard, highlighting a biophilic, natural element in the structure. Maxson’s design intended to address sustainability issues while creating a space for residents enduring a difficult time.

“In this whole process, we’re obviously staying up, maybe pulling all-nighters, doing a lot of work, but the community aspect is really what helps. At minimum, you’re having a conversation or bouncing ideas off each other or helping each other with a program or drawing,” Maxson said. “So when you’re designing for a community, you have a better sense of what’s going on because you’re actively participating in one.”

The reviewers of his project offered specific comments and asked questions about the thought behind different decisions. Maxson then used the feedback to consider different opinions and improve on his work. Sister of Life Catherine Marie was one of the guests invited to weigh in on the project, and she offered her unique perspective.

“It’s fascinating to see the nuns sitting next to internationally famous, acclaimed architects, reviewing the student work for such a meaningful impact,” Andrasik said. “And to be designed ‘net zero’ is truly a hallmark of design and faith.”

CUA Pro-Life Architecture 2
CUA students enjoyed presenting their designs.(Photo: Patricia Andrasik/CUA)

One of the sister’s favorite parts of the experience was hearing from two student “jurors” who are also mothers.

“They added a valuable and concrete combination because they were able to offer a professional analysis and then also contribute their own experience — what would be beneficial or what they would want,” Sister Catherine Marie said. “I was so impressed with [these] articulate, beautiful, courageous young women.”

She noticed how the visions incorporated elements meant to support a single parent raising children by including considerations for childcare, prayer and beauty.

“It’s really a gift when you have other people, other families, who want [you and your child] to live and celebrate,” Sister Catherine Marie said. “You’re living up current, against the stream, trying very hard to pursue your dreams, desires as a woman and education — and welcome this little child.”

According to Andrasik, the housing options aim to provide short-term, transitional accommodations, as well as long-term housing.

“The type of building that they’re designing, in my entire teaching history, I don’t remember a program like that,” Andrasik said. “So this is not just a unique opportunity to have their project realized, but this is a unique opportunity to design something that is just simply not in the status quo.”

By producing these designs, Andrasik said she and her students hope to raise awareness of a necessity for safe, practical and accessible housing, regardless of an occupant’s situation, including spaces that could be overseen by the Sisters of Life.

“Let’s say that a student finds out she’s pregnant and needs a couple of days to distance herself, to see what is going to happen [with her housing and other decisions],” Andrasik said. “She can come to this safe haven and feel secure to process, with the support of the sisters, knowing that there are resources available, being able to confidently move forward and bring a new light to the world.”