Professor’s team of students aid Gifford’s post-disaster reconstruction

Last November, the town of Gifford, Ill., and surrounding areas survived a tornado that left trees uprooted, homes destroyed and people helpless. 

Architecture Assistant Professor Mark Taylor said he saw the Gifford Tornado disaster not only as a tragedy but an opportunity for sustainable housing to provide for the future. 

“When a disaster hits a town, there is an opportunity to replace what was lost with buildings that perform better and use less energy,” Taylor said. “I think most people are interested in that; however, it can be difficult to find how to build back better. Our hope is we can provide drawings that help explain what can be done.”

Taylor’s research is focused on two areas: post-disaster reconstruction and energy-efficient building. For instance, Taylor and a group of mostly graduate students entered in a project called Re_home in 2011 for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition on cost-effective and energy-efficient housing, and won seventh in the competition overall.

And so, designing houses for Gifford is right up his alley, being able to draw from his two research areas in a complementary manner for a greater cause. According to Taylor, “it is important for students to understand the construction process to help inform their design decisions.” 

From seminar courses that he teaches at the University, Taylor gathered a team of students eager to apply their coursework to a real-world cause. 

Brian Cruse, a senior majoring in Architecture, was one of the students to join the team. 

“It is different from a design studio; I like being involved with something that is going to come to life,” he said. 

Not only is the project a good opportunity for possible future architectural concepts that the students will use, but it also adds a human side to the field. The work is an independent study in the School of Architecture, and students are able to gain real-world experience in architectural design. 

“I have met a family whose home was destroyed by the tornado, and I really think we are helping these families rebuild their lives,” said Marjorie Souza, applicant to the Architecture Graduate School.

According to Taylor, their designs try to use as much insulation as the budget allows, because it will most effectively reduce long-term energy usage.

Different students are responsible for different aspects of the planning. Anthony Dombrowski, first-year graduate student in Architecture, is working on the documentation process by drawing out designs. However, not all students involved are in the School of Architecture. Xinshi Zheng, first-year graduate student in Engineering, works on energy analysis by calculating the best level between amount of insulation and cost. 

The team will be partnering with Habitat for Humanity in the construction phase of the project hopefully within the next few months, Taylor said. Together, they seek to provide the community with designs suitable for their needs. Habitat is the driving force behind the volunteer recruitment for the physical building process of the homes. 

Beyond just working locally in Gifford, Taylor also said the team plans on designing models so that other tornado-prone regions can adapt the designs. The main difference is in insulation. 

“We feel what we are doing is not only relevant for Illinois but for all those who are forced to rebuild following a tornado,” he said. “The details we are developing can easily be adapted to provide optimum performance through the different climatic regions from here down to the Gulf of Mexico.” 

The community and students at the University can contribute by volunteering in the rebuilding stage of the Re_home project, and donations are also welcome. 

Student organizations or individuals who would like to help with the rebuilding of Gifford may contact Mark Taylor at [email protected]

Victoria can be reached at [email protected]