House Designed by UM Architecture Students Would ‘Answer Prayers’

Designed by UM School of Architecture students, a new two-story group home for residents with severe cases of cerebral palsy would be a significant upgrade over their current facility.

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CORAL GABLES, Fla. (July 30, 2014) — The wheelchairs and oxygen tanks are stored in a back room of the one-story dwelling, leaving no space for what the area is intended for: a music hall for the home’s 15 inhabitants.

Nurses, even with the aid of hydraulic lifts, still find it difficult to move residents from their beds to the bathtub because every room and hallway in the house is too small. And while three air-conditioning units are capable of keeping the place cool during South Florida’s hot summer days, they sometimes break down.

Space and reliable equipment are hard to come by at the Golden Glades Baby House, a group home for children and adults with cerebral palsy and other disorders such as Down syndrome and spina bifida. But now, thanks to a team of University of Miami School of Architecture students, Baby House residents could soon be getting a bigger, better, and more efficient home that director Carol Montiel says would “answer all of our prayers.”

The two-story structure would include a therapy room, where visually impaired residents like 15-year-old E. A. could listen to music and touch objects; larger doorways and bathrooms, making it easier for caregivers to move residents about; a recreation area to accommodate the home’s piano, which currently isn’t being used because there’s no room for it; and most important, the critical storage space needed to stow equipment while it’s not in use.

“We focused on trying to make this a home in the true sense of the word rather than an institution, and on giving the residents everything they need to be comfortable,” said graduate student Angelica Tavarez, one of 11 architecture students who designed the dwelling as part of a semester-long project in faculty member David Trautman’s upper-level studio. Because some of the Baby House residents are blind, Tavarez and her team came up with the idea of incorporating distinctive sounds residents would associate with being in certain areas within the structure.

Faculty member David Trautman (standing) and students Angelica Tavarez and Inigo Cazenave look over some of the design specifications for the new Golden Glades Baby House. Students spent the entire spring 2014 semester designing the home, which would give residents of the Baby House more spacious accommodations.

While the home exists only on paper for now, the Baby House Project Design Team led by professional interior designers Maria Elena Holguin and Carolina Rey has been working year-round to make it a reality, assisting the UM architecture students, working closely with Montiel to make sure the design meets her clients’ needs, and leading fundraising efforts to pay for the home’s anticipated $1.2 million price tag. It is a collaborative effort that keeps Holguin busy, but one that she and other team members—including Trautman, psychologist Ken Wilcox, Agustin Costales, and Leda Valenzuela—say is important because the Baby House residents need a better facility to make their lives easier.

Originally designed as a duplex for family occupancy, the Baby House was converted 35 years ago to a facility for young ventilator residents from Miami Children’s Hospital. It eventually transitioned into a site for residents with developmental and medical disorders. But the home’s name was never changed, despite the fact that those who live there now range in ages from 15 to 60 years old. What did change was the home’s usefulness as it took on more and more residents who grew older and older.

“We have no storage space here. Everything is piled up,” said Montiel, who has served as the home’s director for nine years. “We’re constantly moving equipment back and forth—wheelchairs, ventilators, oxygen tanks.”

Solving that problem was the challenge UM architecture students faced when they tackled the design project last spring. Students Inigo Cazenave and Georgia Sofos Meunier wanted to design a structure that not only addressed the problem of storage, but was also sustainable. So they included features like rooftop solar panels and a water collection system that would funnel rainwater to a cistern for irrigation use. Their design topped all others.

But before the project could begin, the students had to figure out how to design for a special-needs clientele they knew little about. To learn more about the Baby House inhabitants, students learned as much as they could about cerebral palsy, reading about the disorder on medical-related websites. They also met with Holguin and other members of the Baby House Design Team and attended a lecture by New York architect Sarah Caples, who is known for her designs that cater to special-needs clients and the underserved.

But what helped the students most was visiting the current home to meet the residents and the workers who care for them. “We realized we were designing incorrectly,” said Cazenave. “The way we perceive things is not the way the residents perceive things.” So he and Meunier scrapped their original design and came up with a dwelling that would be built to the residents’ functionality, adding intricate patterns on the ceiling since many of the Baby House residents spend their day in bed looking up.

During their visits, students met 24-year-old E. J., who has lived at the facility since he was an infant. They met one adult patient who, when she arrived at the home, was severely malnourished but is now at a healthy weight and free of the bedsores she once had. And they experienced the facility’s cramped quarters that make living and working conditions difficult.

About 40 employees assigned to different shifts staff the home. Nurse Mercedes Grullon has cared for residents at the Baby House for 18 years. “We give them two baths a day, but the rooms are too small,” she explained, pointing to a narrow bathroom with a washing table that took up most of the space.

“At the end of the day most of our clients can’t hug or kiss us, but we read their expressions and know that we’re making a difference in their lives,” said Montiel.

The home, when completed, will also make a difference, said Trautman, who proposed the idea of building a new house instead of merely renovating the old one. “Something I hope my students take from this studio is that we, as architects, can make an impact in the world,” he said.

The existing Golden Glades Baby House will be demolished, paving the way for the new home’s construction. Residents will need to be relocated to another site while their new home is being built. "This could be a critical barrier as an alternative location has not been located," said Debbie Terenzio, vice president and chief operating officer of United Cerebral Palsy of South Florida.

Trautman has no doubts it will happen. “It’s going to be state-of-art,” he said, “and hopefully a prototypical facility people can learn from and, if necessary, duplicate in other parts of the country.”

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Carol Montiel, director of the Golden Glades Baby House, shows off a rendering of the two-story home designed by students from the UM’s School of Architecture. Standing in the background are, from left, executive administrator Viola Gibbs, nurse Mercedes Grullon, and child care worker Martha Kelly.

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