Chico State Helps Rebuild Communities
Interior architecture students design free floor plans for local wildfire survivors
It’s a simple two-bedroom, two-bathroom cottage. The gabled roof stretches up toward the towering pines, and wooden beams line the welcoming front porch.
To some, it’s an everyday home. To others, it’s a new beginning. And it’s one of more than a dozen homes being rebuilt in the footprint of Northern California’s devastating 2018 Camp Fire using two low-cost floor plans created by some of California State University, Chico’s interior architecture students.
In the weeks after the fire, interior architecture professor Rouben Mohiuddin came up with a vision for how his students could leverage their expertise in partnership with professionals and serve the community at the same time. By 2022, four years after the Camp Fire devastated the towns of Paradise, Concow, Magalia, and other communities, nearly 1,600 homes had been rebuilt — a mere fraction of the 11,000 that were lost, but each one represents recovery for an individual or family.
“People have this idea that architectural design is big, flashy, fancy buildings and interiors,” Mohiuddin said. “Sometimes simple designs like this can impact a community. They are humble homes, but they represent hope.”
The project began with a listening session with survivors.
“The first thing we wanted to do was understand the emotion and the culture. We wanted to see who these people were,” he said. “Living in Paradise is different than living in Chico,” Mohiuddin added, noting that many rely on propane for heat and hot water, and septic tanks for wastewater rather than natural gas and city sewer lines. “We also wanted to know what the lifestyle was. What made Paradise so special? Why do these people want to rebuild?”
Ten students initially volunteered for the project and committed to treat it as a real job, knowing their designs would have lasting consequences for the communities in which they are built.
Under Mohiuddin’s guidance, the students collaborated with the Rebuild Paradise Foundation and industry professionals including architects, engineers, and contractors.
In addition to designing with residents’ needs and desires in mind, they also made considerations for site conditions, sustainable building practices, and affordability. One key factor was designing for fire prevention and safety, such as using insulated concrete forms, concrete fiberboard paneling, and ventless roofs.
“This has definitely prepared us for the world,” said senior and interior architecture major Hira Namit. “It’s not just us sitting at a computer and designing. You have to work with engineers, you have to sell it, you have to make everyone happy with what you created.”
Students asked survivors to identify designs that would be both functional and exciting. Given the chance to identify their wish-list, residents came up with ideas like mudrooms, kitchens that overlook the living room for an open-flow and family-driven concept, and capability to add a wraparound porch to sit outside and admire the regrowth and surviving Ponderosa pines.
“We wanted something spacious. When you sit in a house, you don’t want the ceiling to be just above your head,” Namit said. “And we wanted to embrace a lot of natural light.”
Designs in progress
In October 2019, Mohiuddin’s students were met with applause as they presented their designs to a small group of survivors, who offered praise and some thoughtful suggestions, such as moving a free-standing counter to a wall to free up space for an island. Maybe the living room slider could be French doors, and perhaps a door could be added from the carport to enter the house.
With design concepts finalized, the project halted for a semester at the start of the pandemic. In spring of 2021, Mohiuddin went on sabbatical to take the plans through the plan approval and permitting processes with his company, Design SI, so that they were code-compliant and included details for all interior fixtures and finishes — making the process as streamlined as possible for those looking to rebuild.
The team reunited in fall 2021 with new participants, and the interior architecture students spent every Friday in the campus lab, laboriously laser-cutting wooden forms to create perfect models. For hours, they worked to get the angles just right and ensure their dimensions were realistic, adding details like expertly etched shingles on the roof and sketches for sample furniture, such as barstools or nightstands.
Senior Charvi Grover, an interior architecture major, was homesick as a first-year student in 2019 when Mohiudden invited her to fill her time with his senior students working on this project. An international student from Delhi, India, she didn’t know anything about the Camp Fire, but after she watched a documentary, she felt a strong pull to help. She began spending afternoons and weekends watching the seniors work — and speaking up with her own ideas. She’s since spent the last three years dedicated to the designs.
“People spend their whole lives to get their own home. Anything we could do to make someone feel safe in their space, to put a roof over their head, was worth it. It is not sympathy that people need in times like this but empathy to feel what they are going through, and this project gave us that and the opportunity to do something about it,” she said.
Form and function
The final designs range from 890 to 2,100 square feet, feature one to four bedrooms, and are styled like either a mountain Craftsman or stucco cottage. Some include the option for an attached or detached garage. The homes are not just functional — they’re beautiful.
The students’ designs were included in an exhibition called Fire Transforms at the Palo Alto Art Center as part of an exploration on the devastating and transformative power of fire. The show was curated by Rina Faletti, curator of the Jacki Headley University Art Gallery at Chico State, and she said it was only natural to include the students’ designs alongside photography, painting, sculpture, and textiles to address the devastation of catastrophic wildfires.
Ultimately, two of the students’ designs were approved by the town of Paradise and made available to qualifying builders for free through the town’s preapproved Residential Floor Plan Library, as several others await engineering approval. This enabled homeowners and developers both to access them and begin construction without a lengthy design approval or costly permitting process.
To date, more than 30 Chico State students have been involved, and while a number of individual homeowners have utilized the two available plans, the biggest impact came when Habitat for Humanity optioned the 960-square-foot cottage design known as “The Flumes” for a master-build project, where dozens of homes in a single neighborhood would be produced using the same floorplan.
After the first Habitat homes broke ground in fall 2021, Chico State construction management students volunteered their time to assist with construction of three homes — which are all occupied today.
Such community partnerships have been part of Mohiuddin’s philosophy since he was a master’s student at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where he worked on community outreach projects with his professors in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. As he moved into academia, he carried this concept of design activism into his classrooms, and his students have subsequently worked on projects ranging from hospital spaces to an orphanage complex in Bangladesh.
Legacy of talent
In Mohiuddin’s opinion, the architecture student involvement in Camp Fire recovery efforts was a great project for a program that has long flown under the radar. With artistic vision, creative talent, and technical skills, graduates of Chico State’s interior architecture program are routinely hired at major design firms around the globe — from New York to San Francisco and Shanghai to Beijing — and produce award-winning designs recognized by the American Institute of Architects.
Mohiuddin has no doubt the students involved in this project will continue that legacy, while improving communities around the nation and the world.
“Without the support and dedication of our students, we wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “As future designers of environments, my goal was to instill a sense of responsibility in the building of their communities. This is just purely giving back, and there is a different kind of satisfaction. Good design should be for everybody.”
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