Norwich University, community partners celebrate completion of first LIFT house to serve vulnerable Vermonters

Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes, good, life-transforming things are tiny, but mighty. Last week, Norwich University and its Design+Build Collaborative celebrated a shining example — the LIFT house.

A Jan. 14 press conference at the Downstreet Housing and Community Development headquarters in Barre highlighted the completion of LIFT, the first of two new, custom-designed energy-efficient small homes (approximately 360 square feet), promoting contemporary and authentic architectural values.

Leaders from the Design+Build Collaborative and Norwich’s School of Architecture + Art joined officials from TD Bank, Downstreet, Washington County Mental Health Services and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board at the press conference, which drew about 100 people.

“The power and the importance of the collaborative cannot be overstated.”Richard W. Schneider, Norwich University president

Vermont’s congressional delegation was present, with representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. Norwich also sent a large contingent — President Richard W. Schneider, College of Professional Schools Dean Aron Temkin, Design+Build Collaborative Director Cara Armstrong, Nursing School Director Paulette Thabault and professors Danny Sagan (architecture), David Feinauer (engineering) and Tolya Stonorov (architecture).

Housing vouchers will be paired with the dwellings to serve people who have mental illness, are homeless or are at high risk of homelessness. This initiative will couple with a Washington County Mental Health Services clinic less than a mile away to serve a growing community need and mitigate homelessness.

Norwich architecture professor Tolya Stonorov describes features of the new LIFT house at a Jan. 14, 2020, press conference at the Downstreet Housing & Community Development headquarters in Barre, Vermont. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

Schneider called the Design+Build Collaborative a great melding of community power and called the LIFT house a fruitful illustration of resources supporting vision of students and faculty. A $200,000 2019 grant from the TD Charitable Foundation, TD Bank’s charitable giving arm, helped establish the Design+Build Collaborative in February 2019. LIFT not only shows community cooperation but interdisciplinary effort — the Design+Build Collaborative draws wisdom from across all five disciplines in the College of Professional Schools — architecture, business, cybersecurity, engineering and nursing.

“When you think about creating something like this, it takes all those different talents to make the project a success,” Schneider said. “The power and the importance of the collaborative cannot be overstated, unifying our students, unifying our faculty and unifying our community partners in diverse fields to help address the affordable-housing crisis in Vermont.”

The tiny house, designed by Norwich’s Design+Build Collaborative with guidance from Downstreet and Washington County Mental Health Services is called LIFT for what it does — lift vulnerable Vermonters out of challenging straits. Sixteen undergraduate architecture students, led by Stonorov and fellow architecture professor Danny Sagan, built the LIFT house in 2019, spending 20 to 40 hours a week on top of their classes 

The project was a practical expression of a compassionate intent, Stonorov said.

“We strove to make this home work both emotionally and spiritually, to create an environment that is helpful and safe,” she said. “The LIFT house is about human spirit, it’s about basic necessities, it’s about giving back to society and it’s about how architecture can aid in community development.”

The house includes locally sourced materials and is built for energy efficiency. A single-sloped roof means the house can achieve net-zero energy efficiency. (Net-zero means the amount of energy the house uses annually is equal to the amount of renewable energy the house creates.) The house also uses highly efficient cellulose insulation, applied all at once, and advanced framing, Stonorov said.

Résumé-ready experience

Richard Pearce, a 2019 Norwich graduate now pursuing an architecture master’s degree at Norwich, said the LIFT project trained him broadly — he worked on the home’s interior and exterior — and was satisfying and useful — providing a résumé-ready experience attractive to employers.

“It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had this year,” said Pearce, of Easton, Massachusetts. “I have a construction background, so being able to use that and going forward with that … pushed me to where I am now. I’d never designed anything before and built it. Being able to do that was different, it was cool.”

Norwich President Richard W. Schneider called the Design+Build Collaborative a great melding of community power and called the LIFT house a fruitful illustration of resources supporting vision of students and faculty. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

TD Bank Market President Phil Daniels said LIFT exemplifies the TD Charitable Foundation citizenship platform’s four goals — financial security, connected communities, vibrant planning and better health.

“By staying close to our local communities, I think we’ve made an investment that will have a long-lasting impact and … will bear more fruit as we go forward,” Daniels said.

Downstreet Executive Director Eileen Peltier said the LIFT houses reflect not only cooperation, but innovation — a home that is less costly but still modern, durable, energy-efficient and beautiful. The house also offers choice.

“At Downstreet, we believe in person-centered housing and programs … responding to the often unique needs of our residents … whether that means a single-family home or a home in an apartment building living closely with others or a tiny house that provides independence but close proximity to neighbors with shared experience,” Peltier said. “Choice is important to the individual fabric of resiliency.

“Today we can be proud to say we have created four new homes for our most vulnerable neighbors,” she added. “This project can and will be a catalyst for addressing homelessness in our communities. … We look forward to seeing many more of these LIFT homes very soon.” 

The first LIFT house, nicknamed LIFT 1.0, stands at 86 Brook St. The second house, LIFT 2.0, is under construction. Eventually, both LIFT houses will occupy part of a vacant lot once inhabited by blighted, deteriorating downtown Barre City housing.

Civil engineering professor Mark Atwood is leading the student team building LIFT 2.0, supported by an additional $20,000 grant from the TD Bank Foundation.

(Slideshow photos by Mark Collier.)

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