Putting out the welcome mat

(Edmonton) Stucco or vinyl siding? Not what most students would be thinking about during the last precious days of summer vacation, but the burning question was top of mind for Kari Bazian.

The fledgling designer, who has just completed her final semester for a degree in human ecology at the University of Alberta, minoring in design, has poured her time and talent into creating a welcoming look for a social housing project in central Edmonton.

Her unpaid work, which began last August, went toward credits to earn her degree, but was rewarding in other ways, too.

"The people living in these places will have come from other housing units or apartments that have that white wall look. This will be less institutionalized and it will feel a bit more like home for them, hopefully."

Bazian, 23, has spent the last six months researching exterior and interior finishes for the project, a triplex in the Prince Charles community of Edmonton which will house Aboriginal families. She joined the project under the guidance of John Whittaker, a retired engineer and professor emeritus of the U of A.

Her first attempt at a real-life project and brought its own challenges, especially working on a shoestring budget.

"There's not really a market for designers to do social housing. No one wants to pay for it, when you are budgeting off of government grants. It's easy to make a house look nice when you have an unlimited budget. But to make it look nice with no budget is more of a challenge."

Bazian not only had to weigh the merits of acrylic versus stucco siding, but also had to find decorating options that were pleasant but budget-friendly. That meant no luxurious granite countertops, no hardwood flooring.

Instead, she spent hours researching comfortable but cost-conscious alternatives, and also met with staff from Native Counselling Services of Alberta to discuss what design preferences, if any, there might be for Aboriginal families.

Bazian incorporated earthy tones into her colour scheme to reflect an Aboriginal cultural connection to nature, and made sure to take into account the needs of young families for durable walls and doors, easy maintenance, allergy-free materials, even barrier-free access for visiting grandparents. She also added individuality to each unit by making the front doors dark blue or mustard yellow.

In her search for the best options, Bazian found herself on the Internet, then visiting suppliers, carefully weighing price and warranty. She wanted to do justice to the project, which was designed to be above the ordinary.

"There are many social housing projects around the city, and you can tell they are done cheaply and basically they're just boxes with doors. John had an architect to design buildings with character, and I was excited by that. And he wanted a designer, not just the builder, to choose colours."

Whittaker, who taught in the U of A's Faculty of Engineering for 30 years, wanted to create a housing project with heart, and Bazian's talent made it happen.

"Kari quickly grasped the dimensions of the project and took off by herself," Whittaker said. "There hasn't been a lot of designer input into low-income housing, so she put a lot of original thought and methods into this project."

Besides having an impressive project on her resume, Bazian now has an idea of a small but untapped market in social housing, and precious practical knowledge that rounds out her classroom learning.

"This project gave me great insight into what everything is about in interior design."