“This is so awesome. It looks nice,” said Lance, 29, a former client of Ozanam Inn as he saw for the first time the transformed area where clients assemble before entering the cafeteria for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “It was kind of prison-style before with a chain link fence. I felt oppressed. … Now, it looks upscale and has a homier feeling. It is more modernized and classy. It gave me a better impression walking up.”
Making the outdoor waiting area more welcoming and functional were the goals of the 13 students from Tulane University’s School of Architecture’s urban outreach arm called the Albert Jr. and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design who took on the project last fall semester.
Students, divided into three teams, learned the changes needed in the space by spending time with Ozanam Inn’s faculty, staff and clients as well as neighboring businesses during the design phase that began in September. Each submitted a proposal, with the selected one incorporating most of what clients wanted. Construction began in October.
Learning that the food line flowed well, Tulane students kept that in mind when designing additional and more functional seating that includes tables and underneath storage cubbies where clients can stow belongings while waiting for meals or at work or looking for a job.
The benches, now taller, act as a line partition, replacing a former chain-link fence.
“(The previous line) was so uninviting and divisive and cold,” said Renee Blanche, director of development at Ozanam Inn, adding that the new design “was really a thoughtful process.”
Providing cover for the new space is a canopy of five sloped gables made of a lightweight polycarbonate called Lexan that’s UV-rated, allows light in and doesn’t turn yellow.
The idea behind the gables was to create the feel of individual rooms, said Doug Harmon, an adjunct professor at the architecture school who oversaw the project with adjunct professor Nick Jenisch.
The widened overhang also accommodates three rows of benches, as opposed to two, and is built atop a raised platform to keep clients and their belongings dry.
“It got people off the ground,” Harmon said. This simple gesture of lifting people off the ground in a comfortable and dry space meant a lot to clients.
Tulane students also built additional shelving under the carport and a wheelchair ramp that afforded clients easier access to restrooms, eliminating a kitchen pass-through to get in line, Blanche said.
The students also enhanced the area by enclosing the dumpster and bicycle areas facing Camp Street – adorning them with decorative elements – and adding a new Ozanam Inn sign.
30 proposals, one chosen
Ozanam Inn’s canopy idea was among approximately 30 other proposals submitted by nonprofits for completion during the fall semester by the Small Center. The center, in existence for 12 years, annually completes two building projects and provides design resources for New Orleans, Harmon said.
In its selection application, Ozanam Inn demonstrated how the new space would benefit the community, how its ministry positively serves people in need and what Tulane architecture students could expect to learn in the design and building process, Blanche said.
“We were looking to partner with someone who has demonstrated a capacity for their work in the community,” Harmon said. “We wanted to help them achieve their mission. Ozanam Inn has been doing a great job for more than 60 years of providing services for homeless men and women in the community and had a need for a design that could have a greater impact on the community.”
The canopy project’s value to Ozanam Inn is $75,000, although it only cost a total of $15,000 to build, considering building materials and student labor were donated.
Harmon said some of the construction – such as the wooden benches, the steel columns and roof panels – were built at the Small Center’s design studio on Baronne Street and fit in place on site.
By project’s end, the world of the homeless was better understood by the architecture students involved, Harmon said. It put a face on local and national statistics on social issues such as homelessness that they had studied in class.
“It challenged them to understand the role design plays in respect to these issues,” Harmon said. “It really was a team effort.”
Ozanam Inn is a ministry of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul – named after its founder Frederic Ozanam. It provides approximately 500 hot meals daily, shelter for 96 men at night (more when temperatures freeze) along with a shower, a bed and clothing for men, women and children in need. It also offers counseling and case management, training in life and job skills, resume preparation, health and dental screenings, legal assistance, state IDs and birth certificates and other needed services to help clients transition to independent living.
“God bless your work and all of your work in the community,” Lance, now employed, told Harmon as he left.