by Geoff Larcom, Published May 01, 2013
ANN ARBOR – Hard working Ann Arbor Housing Commission staff members at Miller Manor now have a comfortable employee lounge, thanks in part to the help of furniture design students at Eastern Michigan University.
A nondescript and cluttered store room has been transformed into an inviting space for workers to gather for meals, a work break or other occasions at Miller Manor, a low-income housing development located adjacent to West Park on Miller Road, just west of downtown Ann Arbor.
Six students from EMU art department classes in furniture design made the furniture, which was delivered to the building on April 23. Housing commission staff, the students and their art professor, John DeHoog, marked the occasion with a small celebration, food, cake and a ribbon cutting.
The students, working with reclaimed wood and under a deadline to finish by the end of this past semester, created three stools, two coffee tables, a dining table and three counter tops.
Jared Sternberg, a furniture design senior from Cleveland, said he enjoyed coming into the housing commission space at Miller Manor, getting proper measurements and scoping out the project.
"It was a fun experience, working with other people and building something that would fit in," he said.
EMU senior Brad Ruff, who's also the senior student in the group and already has his own studio, cited the group's satisfaction in "providing a salable, multi-build consumer-related product as opposed to simply producing a work of art."
The impetus for the project came from Jennifer Hall, director of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, who had sought to offer an incentive to her staff to increase the number of occupied units in its public housing units, thus serving more tenants and increasing revenue.
Since the housing commission staff is unionized, Hall could not offer financial incentives or salary increases. She asked staff members what type of reward they would like if they met their goals. A staff lounge, they said.
Thus inspired, the public housing staff increased utilization by 160 billable months in one year by turning the units over faster when they became vacant, translating to about $50,000 in new annual revenue and serving about 14 additional families a year, according to Hall.
The Voucher staff also increased utilization by administering vouchers for more than 100 additional families, which is about $85,000 per year in additional revenue, Hall said.
Hall and DeHoog had met because their partners work together at the Ecology Center.
"We were just talking one day and decided to figure out how to do a project together," Hall said. "I thought this project would be great, because it would help the students and our staff at a fraction of the cost than if we were to pay for it at retail."
DeHoog said he likes to give his students such a project every couple of years, to get the feel of working for an outside client. The group of students make up EMU's first cohort of furniture design majors, which can lead to careers in studio practice or in design for major manufacturers, DeHoog said.
The housing commission also purchased a couch, a chair and kitchen cabinets and sink for the lounge. It is also adding a bathroom with a shower for maintenance people to clean up after performing some of the tough jobs associated with maintaining large rental properties.
The students initially met with housing commission staff to view the site layout and find out what the staff's vision for the space was. They wanted the project to be substantive but simple, DeHoog said.
The reclaimed wood - old spruce, cedar and Douglas Fir - came from a demolition by The Ann Arbor Ecology Center, when the organization rebuilt its office space as LEED certified in the third floor of the former Handicraft Furniture Building at the corner of Liberty and Division Streets.
The students knew that reprocessed wood lends itself to butcher block type strips, which can be appealing to the eye yet durable. They removed nails and screws, glued together the pieces and cut the wood into the shapes desired. They then sanded and finished the wood.
The cost was a little over $300 for the materials. The wood and labor were, of course, free.
Tyler Moll, a furniture design major who plans to apply to EMU's graduate program in historical preservation, liked that the project all came from recycled materials.
"Otherwise, it would just end up in a landfill," he said as he enjoyed the lounge opening party. "What would be the point of that?"