On a cold March afternoon, architect and Assistant Professor Travis Hicks walks through an empty building with interior architecture students. They’re doing what comes naturally for them – imagining the many possibilities of the space.

In the coming months, the unoccupied building on the corner of Tate and Lee Streets will become incubator space for UNCG’s Center for Community-Engaged Design. On Jan. 1, Hicks was named director.

“We’re not the first to do community-engaged design, but we are on the cutting edge,” Hicks says. “Our department has been going out in the community for 50 or 60 years now. We teach students how to apply what they learn in the classroom. As a result, our faculty and students have conducted many noteworthy projects in the community.”

Several examples come to mind, both in Greensboro and abroad. Assistant Professor Robert Charest helped create “My Sister Susan’s House,” a 4,500-square-foot home downtown for single teenage mothers and their children. As a senior, Anna Will rallied her classmates and her professor Hannah Rose Mendoza to design a school for the Kyekyewere village in Ghana, Africa.

One of the neighborhoods where faculty and students have committed most of their collaborative energy is Glenwood. Through the “Sustainable Glenwood” project, they are working to serve one of Greensboro’s oldest neighborhoods by offering affordable, innovative and sustainable preservation.

The research team is comprised of undergraduate Joy Troyer, graduate student Catherine French and Hicks, their mentor. Hicks is an expert on sustainable design. Catherine brings an emphasis on preservation. And Joy is positioned as the community liaison, involving Glenwood residents in the design process to discover their vision. The project serves as a model that could impact the future of design because it brings together all three components – preservation, sustainability and the community’s voice.

“We have to recognize as designers that we don’t have the best ideas, people out there do,” Joy says. “Ultimately the future of design, architecture and public planning is talking to the community and asking, ‘What do you think?’”

Preservation Greensboro is a key partner in “Sustainable Glenwood.” Benjamin Briggs, executive director, says the organization looks to UNCG as an important partner in developing new initiatives in “green” practices.

Inviting ideas from the community

Even with the department’s strong history, these community-engaged projects are just the beginning. Having an official incubator space for the center will allow for even greater collaboration across the community, starting with the dedication on April 4. “We want individuals and communities across the Piedmont to share their needs so that we can make a positive impact through community-engaged design,” Hicks says. Soon, the center will begin accepting requests for proposals, particularly for renovations.

As Hicks points out, the greenest house is the one that is already built. “Renovating current structures can be one of the best solutions to energy consumption. I think these projects are the best model for our students because we’re showing them this is a valid way of working.”

Before coming to UNCG, Hicks practiced architecture and interior design for 13 years, primarily the design of massive structures up to 500,000 square feet. He came to UNCG to pursue something different.

“My background may be around big buildings,” he says. “But my passion is around reducing people’s impact on the earth.” And having greater impact on his students.

“My inspiration is to teach a new generation of designers in a way that is completely different from the way that I was taught. The smaller projects that we pursue convey a message to the students that smaller is potentially better.”

Empty homes, full of potential

Back in Glenwood, another community-engaged design project is taking shape in Hicks’ mind. How can we take “Sustainable Glenwood” a step further? He got to thinking. What if he and his students could renovate the homes in such a way that made them extremely energy efficient? What if the homes were also redesigned so that the future owners could stay in the houses for the rest of their lives – the “Aging in Place” concept?

People do not become homeless because of the rent or the mortgage alone, Hicks notes. It’s the addition of the utilities that often makes it difficult for ends to meet. Take away the high electricity bill, and you begin changing the scenario. Because it’s off the grid, the home becomes affordable – for the long term.

“If we design and renovate unoccupied homes to make them net-zero energy, what was once an empty structure can become a home for a low-income family, a home that requires no electric bill, because we designed it that way.”

Hicks – and his Center for Community-Engaged Design – has support for ideas like these. The City of Greensboro, Community Housing Solutions and Partners Ending Homelessness are all interested in helping. “People in Greensboro really have a heart for Glenwood,” Hicks says. “They have a heart for strong, historic neighborhoods that have a strong sense of community. My goal is always to work with the community and find out what the community envisions as the proper use and future for the houses.”

There is another advantage in this “win-win” scenario: Students are given the opportunity to design and renovate the homes. Many other university programs don’t emphasize community engagement the way UNCG does.

“Here, students learn to think about their neighbors, about the users of their designs,” he says. “We want to lead a movement that will change the face of design professionally in ways that inspire designers and builders to be more engaged.”

Hicks values the opportunity to focus on community-engaged design. “The refreshing thing about coming here to teach is that there is a lot of academic freedom for professors to carve out their niche. The high aspiration of going out and serving others has not been clearly defined as a path for design professionals until very recently,” he says. “I’ve found that path here.”

By Andrea Spencer

Contributors: Jenny Southard, Aaron Pendleton, Kimberly Broadhurst, Rachel Payne and Porsha Snowten

Photography by David Wilson