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The Built Environment

Cal Poly College of Architecture and Environmental Design Students Design Homes for Fire-Damaged City of Weed

A group of architecture students work with survey equipment
An interdisciplinary group of Cal Poly students survey for a project building housing in the fire-torn town of Weed, California.

Five years after the Boles Fire tore through the Northern California city of Weed, an interdisciplinary team of Cal Poly students have finished an 18-month-long project to design workforce housing.

On Tuesday, July 16, a shipping container with 25 pre-constructed exterior wall panels will leave Cal Poly bound for Weed, where they will be connected together to create a 1,300-square-foot home that will be used as a model for future homes on a nearly 1-acre site destroyed in the 2014 blaze.

“This was about as real of a project as the students could experience,” said Cal Poly architecture faculty member Maggie Kirk, who collaborated with architectural engineering and construction management faculty to lead students in the design project. “They worked with a real site, a real client, building codes, materials, constructability and actually built part of it in the end. This is a quintessential Learn by Doing project and a phenomenal educational opportunity.”

Cal Poly was asked by Great Northern Services, a community-based nonprofit in Weed, to design workforce housing that could be built in panels at Cal Poly, shipped to the city of about 3,000 and erected on-site in collaboration with students from the College of the Siskiyous this fall. “The foundation is set and waiting,” Kirk said.

Thirty-six Cal Poly architectural engineering, architecture and construction management students began the project in 2017. They visited Weed, surveyed the subdivision at 780 S. Davis Ave., marked out parcels, and began sketching ideas. Teams of students each offered a design for a 6,150-square-foot lot. 

Architecture student Tori Hertz, of Los Angeles, worked on the project during fall quarter, designing the floor plan, choosing materials, and drawing elevations and sections for the construction documents. She said the exposure to other disciplines, including construction management, prompted her to explore job possibilities that she might not have considered previously.

“This project was the perfect example of Cal Poly’s motto, Learn by Doing. Simply knowing that we were creating something that would eventually be built and inhabited made it so much more inspiring to do our best work,” Hertz said. “This project helped me grow and prepare for my future profession more so than any other project has in the past.”

The teams presented their proposals to Great Northern Services leaders, who chose a winning proposal but were so impressed by the student work that they combined two plans for the final house design, Kirk said.

A team of Cal Poly construction management students, led by faculty member Greg Starzyk, built the panels this spring. Three of the students — Jeremiah Eseed, Patrick Shami and John Espino — built the panels as a group senior project by creating detailed drawings of the wall panels, sourcing materials and working out planning issues. During spring quarter, they spent every Friday fabricating the 25 panels, each weighing close to 500 pounds, Starzyk said.

About 8 a.m. Monday, July 15, the panels will be moved from their current location and staged in the parking area at South Poly View Drive and Cuesta Avenue (near the Construction Innovations Center, No. 186). The container will depart campus at about 9 a.m. Tuesday. The panels are expected to arrive in Weed on July 17.

“The students connected with the community of Weed and gave them the best of themselves throughout the process,” Kirk said. “In the end, they realized and no matter if their project was chosen or not, they won by helping the community of Weed.”