Architecture and engineering students show plans to redesign a  living space in Northfield, Vermont’s Veterans Place

Forget being so last year. How about being so two centuries ago?

A coalition of Norwich University architecture and engineering students is reaching into the past — the Veterans’ Place’s core 1850s-era building in Northfield, Vermont — to enable a future — a renovated room meeting veterans’ present and future needs.

The Veterans’ Place, a community-based, nonprofit, 26-bed, substance-free, transitional housing site for armed forces veterans, is in a Vine Street building that’s had turns as a private home, hospital and an assisted living facility.

On Dec. 1 in Chaplin Hall’s gallery, about a dozen students presented plans to renovate the building’s Room 105. Veterans’ Place Managing Director Karen Boyce attended with several of the home’s board members, including former Norwich Record Editor-in-Chief Diana Weggler, who is the Veterans' Place new board chair. 

“(Norwich University’s students) brought their eagerness to learn. I have yet to meet a student that was not … enthusiastic and interested in learning.” Karen Boyce, managing director, The Veterans’ Place

The Room 105 work and future master planning work covers academic year (2021-2022) and constitutes the engineering students’ senior capstone project and two different groups of architecture students work in AP436. Students performed their analyses and developed their plans after meeting with Veterans’ Place residents. 

Dr. Michael Kelley, a Norwich University associate professor of engineering who’s helping lead the project, said the Veterans’ Place will find professional design and construction work through donations and grants. Twelve new students from architecture and the original six engineering students are continuing the work this spring semester. 

Norwich already had Veterans’ Place ties through the annual fall Legacy March, which raises money for the home. Boyce last summer asked Kelley about having students convert a first-floor double-occupancy room into a single-occupancy room with its own bathroom. Kelley then involved Norwich’s other engineering faculty and the Architecture Program. 

Faculty involved in the project include Associate Professor of Architecture Tonya Forcier, and Kelley, Civil Engineering Lecturer Mark Atwood, Associate Professor of Construction Management Jack Patterson and Adjunct Engineering Professor Joe Collins from the David Crawford School of Engineering.

The engineering and architecture schools are both in the College of Professional Schools.

Discussing upgrades

In their presentation, students discussed soundproofing the room (important for veterans with auditory processing disorders), and adding a bathroom, wheelchair access (for Americans With Disabilities Act compliance) and furniture, lighting and soothing shades of paint. 

This spring semester, the students hope to secure bids and permits to start construction. In April, they’ll hand off master-plan documents to professionals so work can continue. (Kelley said the Norwich University group hopes to continue to complete Room 105 and beyond as the project develops the master renovation plan.)  

vets place project 2 min
From left, Norwich University professors Dr. Michael Kelley, Joe Collins and Tonya Forcier participate in the Dec. 1 presentation at Chaplin Hall of plans for a room makeover at The Veterans’ Place. (Photo by Marrk Collier/Norwich University.)

The students hope the room renovation can guide other room remakes until the building is fully renovated. Boyce said residents appreciated the students’ willingness to tackle the project, given the building’s age and piecemeal additions. Although the building’s core is from the 1850s, having been built in 1854, some additions are from the 1930s.

“It’s been renovated and hodgepodged over the years,” she said, adding later that students had visited the building’s cellar and considered its stone foundation and aging wooden beams in their planning. “You had your work cut out for you.”

Boyce said this project has helped Norwich University students understand veterans’ needs, a skill they’ll need as they commission into and lead in the armed forces. She said the project also helps the students think broadly, considering technology to accommodate people with disabilities. 

She said the students are capable partners — punctual, polite and poised. 

“They brought their eagerness to learn,” Boyce said. “I have yet to meet a student that was not … enthusiastic and interested in learning.”

Tonya Forcier, a Norwich associate professor of architecture, said the project illustrates the power of collaboration and continues a long string of successes, following the design of tiny houses, a maple sugarhouse and municipal projects for the towns of Stamford and Northfield, Vermont.

In weekly classes, mostly civilian architecture students would meet the mostly Corps of Cadets engineering students and take tasks, relaying agendas or taking notes, for example. One student group would tell the other what it needed to progress, she said. They all rolled well with the challenges of a building with disparate parts built in separate times.

“The work they’ve done is so extensive, so far beyond what you saw today,” Forcier said. 

Collaborative creation

Bryce Shively, a senior civil engineering major bound for the U.S. Air Force, said the project pushed him toward the unfamiliar.

“I’m doing a lot of classes on structural steel design, with concrete and foundations, so my entire principle, or my understanding, is designing a new structure,” he said. “However, in a renovation, it’s much more taking the pieces that you have and joining them in different ways.”

Carolyn Prack, a senior architecture major, said she was glad to collaborate as she would in a professional firm and practice presenting documents and plans to clients.

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Norwich University architecture students, mostly civilians, are working with engineering students, mostly from the Corps of Cadets, on The Veterans’ Place’s room makeover. (Photo by Marrk Collier/Norwich University.)

Norwich University architecture students, mostly civilians, are working with engineering students, mostly from the Corps of Cadets, on The Veterans’ Place’s room makeover. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University)

“Real-life experience is what’s going to stick the most,” she said. “When I go to apply for an internship over the summer or go out in the real world, I’ll have a little bit of background knowledge; I’m not walking into it not knowing anything and totally blank.”

Daniel Curran and Garrett Nolte, two mechanical engineering majors bound for the U.S. Army, said they marked and measured, examining electrical, sprinkler and utility systems and using rotary saws to get under floors and inside walls (which have proved skeleton-free).

Afterward, they’d meet with residents.

“We got to go hang out with a bunch of great guys every Tuesday and Thursday while we work, and hear their stories, where they’re coming from, where they want to go,” Curran said. “And they get to chime in on our lives, where they think we ought to go. They’ve got a lot of wisdom that we get to learn from.”

Nolte and Curran said they enjoyed working with the vets — who reminded them that all armed forces branches have a common goal — and students he mightn’t otherwise see. He also learned new software (such as Revit, a computer-assisted design program), and broadened his perspective.

“As soon as we’re done with the Army,” he said, “that’s what we’re going to be doing.”

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