Explained: 3rd Year Competition Entry

Today’s Topics:

  • What is the Prompt?
  • Process
  • Final Results

What is the Prompt?

As the first in-person competition during college, for the third-year architecture competition, we had to design affordable housing for Habitat for Humanities. Previously due to Covid-19 and its impact on my school, our past school-wide competitions were completely online.

In the program requirements, we were required to design a roughly 900 square foot house where we have to make cost considerations with a budget of about $60,000. In addition, the project has received a free donation of concrete and CMU blocks to be used in any way as part of the design.

Site plan.

We also were given other considerations like combining functions, designing an off-grid house, sustainable construction principles among other things. This project needed to be designed with future renovations in mind, and a period of time in which there might be 3 homes.

The entirety of the third-year class, 100+ people all met within the same room to receive this prompt. We were given a week to work on this competition. Presenting our work, we made 24 x 36 landscape orientation boards and created a 3/8″ = 1′-0″ building section model.

Prompt presentation.


Gearing up for this competition I had just come out of a very productive Thanksgiving break where I had the chance to work on architectural representation with my studio project. At the start and end of the break, I had been creating voice memos documenting my thoughts and talking about what needs to happen to perform well in the competition. The biggest mental note was that I needed to innovate in a way that solves a problem, and don’t do something that everyone else is doing. The first thing to do was write a schedule and strictly follow it to ensure I would maintain high productivity levels day and night.

Day 1, Monday: Research + Concept

As soon as the competition brief was announced and we left the room, with the site location being so close to campus, I went with a couple of classmates to take a visit and look around. The site was very eye-opening to the nature of the space. I looked at the way you enter the site, the slope of the site, the beautiful view that is framed, and the way the grass reaches out from the ground. The remainder of the day was spent in the library looking at precedent studies and studying affordable housing.

Day 2, Tuesday: Concept

The most stressful thing for Tuesday was trying to figure out my concept. I had some ideas and gestures that I might include in the project, but no concept to ground it. I was looking at passive living with sustainability like cross-ventilation, a wood-burning stove, SIPS panels. The building elevated off the ground as preservation of nature and view, a central spine for the building, aging in place. It was not until that night when I started feeling more confident. Trying to bring out and understand my idea, I wrote an essay. This really helped me to jot down my thoughts and make a pivot to restructure what I was aiming to achieve.

“The main problem is that it was designed to keep incriminating people instead of providing them the help and resources to come out a better person so they aren’t placed there again”.

An excerpt from my essay relating affordable housing to the american criminal justice system.
Day 3, Wednesday: Concept + Computer Model

In this country, there are millions of people that need affordable housing and don’t have access to it. I believe the problem lies within the way that this process works. You apply for affordable housing, you sit on a waitlist, then when it becomes available, you move in. What happens next? Nothing. This is what I’m aiming to solve with my project. My concept is economic transformations. You can’t just tell people to make more money so that other people can have affordable housing. I am aiming to do the opposite. Through architecture, I want my house to teach families how to lower their cost of living, by using sustainable practices to provide a low-maintenance house.

Day 4, Thursday: Computer Model

With my concept, I decided to separate the interior into 3 spaces: living, service, and bedroom space. The whole house is oriented around the service space as a connection back to society with power, water, and storage. The remainder of the house remains off-grid where the living space is about family and interaction as a warm cozy space. Then the bedroom is the last space where it provides a separation of sound and brings you back to an individual experience. The building is set off of the ground plane providing space for a carport, allowing nature to flow, and as a way to provide a view of Blacksburg in the distance. With aging in place in mind, the building utilizes both stairs and a ramp to get you onto the building platform where you can spend time outside under a roof.

Day 5, Friday: Section Model + Representation

This was the most stressful day of all. After preparing my files and buying materials at Home Depot the night before, this day was easily the biggest time crunch I’ve been under. I had to laser cut an acrylic sheet, alongside cutting plywood in the woodshop. Both of these labs would be closed on weekends so I had very little room for error. I had a lasercamm appointment at Cowgill, but complications with my file made me lose my timeslot. Eventually I went to the building construction lab and they were able to help with both the lasercamm and setting up the woodshop for me to cut where I was there from the moment it opened to the second it closed.

Day 6, Saturday: Section Model

Creating this model I took a section through the long part of my building. There were 8 sustainable practices that I wanted to portray by scoring the acrylic sheet and placing it in front of the glass.

Acrylic lasercam file to be placed in front of model.
  1. The spaces remain as separate functions, but primarily functions as one big open space for air to travel across the building.
  2. The design uses SIPS panels with a STUCCO finish to achieve an R-value of 61. The floor and ceiling uses concrete with 12 inches of styrofoam to create an R value of 72. The house is super insulated to control temperatures and prevent air from leaking out of the building.
  3. With the use of SIPS panels, the house is designed to grow and utilize the patio space to provide another bedroom space.
  4. As a cheap alternative to traditional heating, this house uses a wood Burning Stove as radiant heating that flows throughout the house. There are 1/2 inch PVC pipes running through the floor and ceiling to help radiate this heat through the building.
  5. The service space contains all of the buildings supply of water, power, storage, and building systems in a central location.
  6. Cross ventilation is used for cooling the house creating a breeze across the whole axis.
  7. Bedroom space is separated from the living space as a way to isolate sound and give privacy to the user.
  8. The building envelope creates a continuous box seal. It uses a staggered stud pattern in the sips panels, and double sill plate plate all to prevent thermal bridging.

With a 3/8 scale model I wanted to portray all of the building layers with structure and how it comes together to create an enclosure, the spatial qualities of the building, and how the building connects to nature and the outdoor space.

Day 7, Sunday: Board + Representation

The last full day of working on this project I spent on creating the board and how my work is being represented. Trying to be different than what everyone else is doing, I chose to do my board in black. The main things I wanted to portray was the site strategy, how the building operates, and the layers of the building. I designed the site with the idea of connecting families that are in similar stages of life. All of the buildings are lined along an arc. They all converge towards a tree in the center of the space bringing this place together as a community. As you move outwards into each backyard the building becomes more intimate towards the individual family with a private garden. At the end of the arc, there is a firepit serving the whole community. The elevation of the building shows the alignment of the building heights that provide a view for each of the homes.

Final Results

After a week’s worth of long days and extremely long nights, (and a lot of fighting with the printer) we reached Tuesday. The announcements and discussion of the finalists. Looking around the room I thought there were some very interesting projects and things that people tried to do.

Pin up day!

Speaking honestly, I often find my own bias clouding my head and can never really have an accurate depiction of what good work is. At the discussion, my model was on the podium, but without my board. When they got to my project they commended the model, but the main critique was that the board does not fit with the model, nor does it portray a cozy home feeling by being black. It would have been more accomplished if I used the acrylic sheet only as my board. I received a notable mention award for this competition and I am proud of my work.

Notable Mention and Finalist boards and models.

After a few days, I was able to understand that there was nothing more I could have done with what I was thinking at the time that would have allowed me to place in the top 3. The jury told us they were looking at the boards more than the models. Even though I was disappointed in myself for not placing top 3, I am still very happy with the work that came out of this competition. I feel like I developed my strongest concept to date, built my strongest model to date, and developed a fully detailed idea and model with structure, enclosure, and planning.

Thanks for tuning into this week’s blog post, I hope you had the chance to read all the way through, leave a comment below with anything you might have more questions about and I’ll be happy to answer them.

I’ve also updated my website with new work, so check out the home page and see what else I’ve been up to! As always, Dream Big!

Published by Alonzo Colon

Architecture Student at Virginia Tech

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