Syracuse University

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More than a ramp

August 05, 2010

Elaine Wackerow
(315) 443-6004

East Syracuse resident Deborah Thornton had been facing some challenges. Declining health had left her home-bound and confined to a wheelchair. Going outdoors only took place after one of her daughters would unhinge an interior door and then prop it outside on the concrete steps to create a makeshift ramp.

In fall 2009, Thornton’s landlord, Hugh Lowery, set out to find help for her by placing an ad online seeking help from the community to build an exterior wheelchair ramp for the home. To Lowery’s surprise, the Syracuse University School of Architecture Freedom by Design group contacted him and expressed interest. What evolved from that conversation was a creative, dynamic transformation of the home at 116 East Ellis St. Freedom by Design students designed and built a unique deck/ramp combination that has brought new freedom of mobility to Thornton and allowed her to interact with the outdoors and her neighbors in a way she never could before. “The ramp is absolutely beautiful and I’m so grateful. It’s changed my life,” says Thornton.

The American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) group at Syracuse Architecture had recently established a Freedom by Design chapter at the University; students were actively seeking out a local client they could serve. A nationally based student-run initiative, Freedom by Design utilizes the talents of architecture students and those of related fields to design and build small-scale projects that help individuals at the local level faced with physical, mental and financial challenges.

“The team set out with the idea of considering a number of possible options before settling on our first project,” says Christopher DePalma, third-year architecture student and AIAS president. “After meeting with Deborah at her home, we knew right away that we wanted to help her.”

For the next step, 30 Freedom by Design students divided into seven teams and created a design competition. The student teams proposed solutions to a jury of architecture faculty for a ramp for a motorized wheelchair that would adhere to local building codes and be a direct response to both the site and the client’s needs. “Students were asked to challenge the idea of the conventional ramp and to enhance the client’s safety, dignity and comfort through architecture,” says DePalma. The three winning designs were subsequently presented to Thornton. She chose “Designing Freedom,” the ramp design created by DePalma, Steve Klimek and Elizabeth Mikula.

A team of eight Freedom by Design students, under the mentorship of VIP Structures and Syracuse Architecture faculty, began construction in April and completed the project in July. The ramp not only provides Thornton access to her home, but also includes deck space where she can socialize outdoors with others. The entire ramp is wrapped in plywood panels milled by students. The primary rail system follows the wrapper around the ramp and has an integrated LED lighting system to provide outdoor lighting to the entire area. The project also features a unique water-draining design, integrated steps and a bench.

As a result of this project and other community engagement projects created by AIAS Syracuse, the group has been recognized at a national level for its success and ingenuity, serving as a model for other AIAS chapters across the United States.

“I’m incredibly proud of the students’ initiative and hard work. We are all very excited about the ramp for Deborah and looking forward to future projects in the Syracuse area,” says architecture professor Clare Olsen, design mentor.

“The enthusiastic support we received from the faculty and our partnership with VIP Structures made the project a success,” says Hilary Barlow, third-year architecture student and team captain. “We hope that Deborah’s ramp is only the start of the impact our projects will make within the Syracuse community.”

“This ramp design goes against traditional thinking. It is not singularly about access to homes or buildings. Instead it is about the journey and its possibilities,” says a statement from Klimek, DePalma and Mikula.

Thornton agrees.

For information about the Freedom by Design ramp project, future initiatives, sponsorships and donations, visit

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