Engineering for Humanity

An NYU Tandon Class Applies Their Know-How to Create Affordable Housing

3D rendering model

3D rendering model of multi-generation, affordable housing developed by students of Adjunct Professor Ron Pennella's construction class.

Adjunct Professor Ron Pennella takes the ethos of placing engineering in service to society — and the concept of hands-on learning — to whole new levels. Last semester his construction project administration class, as it has for at least the last decade, partnered with Habitat for Humanity, a global nonprofit organization whose mission is to create decent, affordable housing for those in need. While the group is known for asking those it helps to earn “sweat equity” by investing hundreds of hours of their own labor in their new homes, there is always a need for trained construction professionals and project managers. That’s where Pennella and his students come in.

Pennella asks each of his students to volunteer on a Habitat project in some capacity over the course of a semester. “If they are going to be spending their careers in this field, they should see beforehand exactly what’s involved and have an appreciation for what each worker is contributing,” he says. Students who have never before hoisted bags of plaster or pushed a loaded wheelbarrow find out just how physically demanding those tasks can be. Even those who have already worked in the industry discovered that they had much to learn from their fellow volunteers and Habitat personnel. Student Daniel Bressler, who last semester helped Habitat renovate a portion of the New Rochelle American Legion, learned how to plaster a wall, among other practical skills, but says: “The professional painter assigned to the project never criticized anyone, even if they were painting wrong. Instead, he gently corrected them, gave them useful tips, and encouraged them to try again. If I ever employ workers, I’ll value each of them and make sure they know that.”

Jim Killoran, the head of Habitat for Humanity’s Westchester group, exhibits that attitude every day. (“Every time I met him, he gave me a warm handshake — unless my hand was covered in paint or plaster,” Bressler quipped.) Killoran came to Tandon at the end of last semester to thank the students and to review what was one of the most exciting outcomes of Pennella’s course: a detailed and comprehensive plan to create an affordable home for a family in need by repurposing shipping containers. Richard Thomas, the mayor of Mount Vernon, New York, (and himself an NYU alum), had expressed interest in seeing the home constructed in his town, and the students hoped that with Killoran’s help that vision could be realized.

When not teaching at NYU Tandon, Pennella, who works at Structure Tone (a highly regarded global construction-management firm), made sure that the plan considered all needed elements, including cost projections, logistics, procurement of supplies, and site safety. They dubbed their creation the Ekko House (a variation on the theme of “eco” for its ecologically sound design).

The Ekko House will rest on a concrete foundation with the shipping containers anchored atop. Meant to house a multigenerational family, the airy, modern structure will have multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, as well as a full kitchen and dining room. 

Students were assigned roles (see team members below), and each step of the process — from obtaining the building permit to being granted a certificate of occupancy — was considered, so that once suitable land is found in Mt. Vernon the Ekko House can move from dream to reality.

The students hope that one day an actual family will be proving just how livable their design is and lending credence to their belief that affordable does not have to mean unattractive or second-rate. (Indeed, the exposed steel ceiling and Bengal tiles they have included would satisfy any interior decorator.)

For his part, Killoran has pledged to see the Ekko House built and thinks it could end up being a national model for his organization. He also expressed an additional goal for the students, “When you are construction managers, you can come volunteer your time or donate any excess materials you might have.” I hope that you will all be involved with Habitat for Humanity for the rest of your lives. I call that catching Habititis.”

The Team

Andrea Castillo, Project Manager
George Jiang, Assistant Project Manager, 3D Modeler
Zachary Serhan, Construction Manager, MEP Coordinator
Mariusz Bryk, Construction Manager, Framing
Yuhan Hu, Civil Engineer, House Layout Design
Kenneth Rosario, Construction Manager, MEP Coordinator
Hardik Agrawal, Construction Manager, Estimator
Nicholas Read, Construction Manager, Interior Finishes
Sean Erazo, Civil Engineer, Foundation Design
Wilmer Vega, Construction Manager, Insulation
Daniel Bressler, Civil Engineer, Safety