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Designing Freedom


Designing Freedom

The Freedom by Design Team of the American Institute of Architecture Students at Syracuse University recently completed a exterior handicap ramp design-build student-run project for a wheelchair-confined client east of our city. Our mission was not just to give our client access to enter and exit her home, but to also give her the freedom to enjoyable outdoor living space through adding deck space and integrated benches into the landings. And by building the ramp, we in turn changed the lives of the residents on her whole street, with many of them coming over to socialize on the ramp, through its architecture. Our chapter strives to promote that architecture can not only affect lives even at a small, do-able scale, but it also proves the untapped potential of design students in realizing architecture of agency. Architects and architecture students need to move beyond representing, and start doing again by taking an active role in their community.

Project Type:
6) architecture

Project Mission/Goal:
1) improve the human spirit
3) respond to our growing need for clean water, power, shelter, healthcare, education
4) address humanitarian crises

Project Description:
East Syracuse resident Deborah Thornton had been facing some challenges. Declining health had left her home-bound and confined to a wheelchair. Going outdoors only took place after one of her daughters would unhinge an interior door and then prop it outside on the concrete steps to create a makeshift ramp. In fall 2009, Deborah’s landlord, Hugh Lowery, set out to find help for Deborah by placing an ad online seeking help from the community to build an exterior wheelchair ramp for the home. To Lowery’s surprise, the Syracuse University School of Architecture Freedom by Design group contacted him and expressed interest. What evolved from that conversation was a creative, dynamic transformation of the home at 116 East Ellis Street. Freedom by Design students designed and built a unique deck/ramp combination that has brought new freedom of mobility to Deborah Thornton and allowed Deborah to interact with the outdoors and her neighbors in a way she never could before. “The ramp is absolutely beautiful and I’m so grateful. It’s changed my life,”says Thornton.

The American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) group at Syracuse Architecture had recently established a Freedom by Design chapter at the University; students were actively seeking out a local client they could serve. A nationally-based student-run initiative, Freedom by Design utilizes the talents of architecture students and those of related fields to design and build small-scale projects that help individuals at the local level faced with physical, mental, and/or financial challenges.

Thirty Freedom by Design students divided into seven teams and created a design competition. The student teams proposed solutions to a jury of architecture faculty for a ramp for a motorized wheelchair that would adhere to local building codes and be a direct response to both the site and the client’s needs. “Students were asked to challenge the idea of the conventional ramp and to enhance the client’s safety, dignity, and comfort through architecture,” says Christopher DePalma, the Founding Team Captain. The three top designs were subsequently presented to Deborah, who selected the winning project.

A team of ten Freedom by Design students, under the mentorship of VIP Structures and Syracuse Architecture faculty, began construction in April and completed the project in July. The ramp not only provides Deborah access to her home but also includes deck space where she can socialize outdoors with others. The entire ramp is wrapped in plywood panels milled by students. The primary rail system follows the wrapper around the ramp and has an integrated LED lighting system to provide outdoor lighting to the entire area. The project also features a unique water-draining design, integrated steps, and bench.

“I'm incredibly proud of the students' initiative and hard work. We are all very excited about the ramp for Deborah and looking forward to future projects in the Syracuse area,” says architecture professor Clare Olsen, design mentor.

“This ramp design goes against traditional thinking. It is not singularly about access to homes or buildings. Instead it is about the journey and its possibilities,” says DePalma.

Deborah Thornton agrees.


Links and Captions:

Ramp_1.jpg - Ramp_10.jpg
© Christopher DePalma
The finished ramp.
CC: License

Project Details:
Project Location: East Syracuse, New York
Date(s): January 17 - July 25, 2010
Project Phase: Completed
Client: Hugh Lowery & Deborah Thornton
User Client: Deborah Thornton
Description and Number of Beneficiaries/Users: 5
Major Funding: School of Architecture, Syracuse University Chancellor's Office, Lowe's, Student Fundraising
Concept/Lead Architect(s)/Designer(s): Christopher DePalma, Elizabeth Mikula, Stephen Klimek
Project Architect(s)/Designer(s): Christopher DePalma, Elizabeth Mikula, Stephen Klimek
Contractor/Manufacturer: VIP Structures
Additional Consultants: Clare Olsen, Sinead MacNamara, Randall Korman
Total Cost/Cost per Unit: $5,000

Nominated by Christopher DePalma


116 East Ellis Street
East Syracuse 13057
United States

Competition Category Entered

Competition Details

The competition entry ID for this project is 8110.

Project Details

NAME: Designing Freedom
LOCATION: 116 East Ellis Street, East Syracuse 13057, United States
START DATE: January 17, 2010
CURRENT PHASE: Construction complete
COST: $5000 USD (Final)
SIZE: 276 sq. ft
BENEFICIARIES: Our wheelchair-confined client, her daughters, her grandchildren, and the greater neighborhood in which they live.


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