The Catholic University of America

March 30, 2012

CUA Students See Urban Hermitage Design Come to Life


Michael Iskandar and Alec Higinbotham, who both graduated from the architecture and planning school in 2010, sign a beam that will be incorporated into a hermitage they helped design. Visit the photo gallery for more photos.

About a dozen current and former members of the School of Architecture and Planning’s design collaborative (CUAdc) visited the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America March 29.

Surrounded by nature in the middle of a city, the up-and-coming architects — from current undergraduates to those who’ve finished their master’s degrees — gathered to watch the construction of a building they have been designing for more than two years. 

Located in the heart of Northeast D.C., the hermitage under construction will serve as a refuge and place for contemplation. It is designed for one person to stay, living in solitude and prayer while seeking a deeper communion with God. The 350-square-foot structure features a kitchenette, sleeping area, restroom, deck, and garden.

Alec Higinbotham returned to the area from Philadelphia (where he is now in graduate school) to witness the building of the design he worked on in 2010.

“It’s one thing to see a design as a digital model on a computer screen, but it’s another thing to see it brought to life,” says Higinbotham, who earned his CUA Bachelor of Science degree in architecture in 2010.

Higinbotham and other participants at the ceremony signed a wooden beam that was then placed above the main entryway to the hermitage. Those who signed the beam included students from CUAdc; the director of CUAdc, William Jelen; Randall Ott, dean of the architecture and planning school; University Provost James Brennan; Rev. Jeremy Harrington, O.F.M., guardian of the monastery; and members of its board.

Designers present the signed beam to Rev. Jeremy Harrington, O.F.M., guardian of the monastery.

In 2009, the Franciscan Friars first approached Jelen, to ask architecture students to design hermitages. The design collaborative provides opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience through work on actual projects with community clients. Partnerships are created with nonprofit and community groups who could not otherwise afford architectural design services.

“We are deeply appreciative to the monastery for giving our students the chance for this experience,” said Ott. “Students know very well how to draw and design, but CUAdc lets our students see the actual building go up.”

Fourteen students were involved in the design of the hermitage, and another 15 have worked more recently on designing furniture and helping to coordinate fabrication.

“What you see here is one of the best teaching tools there is,” Jelen said about the half-finished structure. When the project began, “I had no idea what a 21st-century hermitage would look like. The students’ design focused on the relationship of the sacred with the profane. The idea was that each moment in our lives can be an opportunity for sacred appreciation and meditation.”

The resulting hermitage is environmentally sustainable, featuring natural ventilation and floorboards of reclaimed lumber. The concept won the 2010 Unbuilt Award from the D.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The first hermitage is expected to be completed in July. The monastery aims to eventually have four hermitages built.

The hermitage construction is the second collaborative project between the University and the Franciscan Friars this academic year. In November, students from the School of Engineering installed solar panels in the gardens of the monastery to provide power to a greenhouse.



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