AEC Cares – Project Orlando

One of the benefits of having a blog like ‘Life of an Architect’, is that I can turn my site over when warranted to help bring awareness and attention to items that are aligned with my own interests. For the last 4 years, I have been asked to help spread the message of a program called “AEC Cares“ as they tackle a worthy project in the host city of the National American Institute of Architects Convention. To help articulate the purpose, Kendall Jones, the Editor-in-Chief of the ConstructConnect blog prepared this article and I am more than willing to share this platform. If you are attending the convention, get involved and volunteer. If you want to contribute in other ways, you can make a much-needed donation here

AEC Cares is gearing up for its 7th Annual Blitz Build on April 26, 2017. Each year, AEC Cares tackles a charitable project on the day before the American Institute of Architects’ annual Conference on Architecture in the host city, which this year happens to be Orlando.

AECCares Philadelphia
Volunteers hard at work during last year’s AEC Cares | Project Philadelphia

For projectOrlando, AEC Cares is partnering with the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida to renovate their Center for Women and Families. The Coalition, founded in 1987, provides services such as shelter, meals, and training to approximately 500 people a day.

In addition to meeting basic needs, the Coalition also provides help with daycare services, job skills training, education and financial literacy to aid their clients on their path to establishing permanent housing and becoming self-sufficient. The Coalition provides three programs to the community: the Center for Women and Families, the Men’s Service Center and the Women’s Residential and Counseling Center.

During projectOrlando, more than 100 architecture, engineering, and construction industry volunteers will refurbish the lobby, dormitory hallways and family room at the Coalition’s Center for Women and Families. The Center provides housing for 240 individuals and offers services such as mental health counseling, educational opportunities, onsite daycare and support for victims of crime.

I recently had to the opportunity to speak with Ronok Nichols, AIA, DLR Group, who led the design for this year’s blitz build on her experience working on projectOrlando and the impact it will have on the local community.

Ronok Nichols | DLR Group; Project Manager for projectOrlando
Ronok Nichols, AIA | DLR Group; Project Manager for projectOrlando

How long have you been practicing architecture? How long have you been with DLR Group?

I’ve practicing architecture for the past 18 years, specializing in the design and planning of federal and county courthouses. It has been a pleasure to perform this important work while at DLR Group, an industry leader in design.

How did you get involved with AEC Cares’ projectOrlando? Is this your first time working with AEC Cares?

I have been actively involved with AIA for the past sixteen years. Specifically, I have focused on how AIA membership can impact their broader communities. These projects have been underpinned with the goal of using design thinking and service to solve community and social issues.

With Orlando hosting the upcoming, national AIA Conference on Architecture, I was selected to serve as Director for Community Involvement and Awareness. As part of this role, I wanted to continue the tradition of AIA being a strong partner with ConstructConnect and assist in the design and delivery of this year’s AEC Cares project. It’s my first time working with AEC Cares, but community involvement and design leadership have been a common theme in my career, which made this project such a great fit.

What was your primary role on this project? How long have you been working on this project?

Ronok Nichols, AIA, DLR Group – Director of Community Involvement and Awareness for the local host chapter planning committee for AIA Convention on Architecture 2017; Design Leader for projectOrlando. After selecting the project, the design team had about three weeks to complete a design. The design process started with a charrette at DLR Group’s Orlando office.

Who are the other members of the design team for projectOrlando?

Ashley Pollard, AIA, DLR Group – Co-Design Lead for the Center of Women and Families’ Family Room transformation

Kandice Kroger, AIA, DLR Group – Director of Volunteers for the local host committee Convention on Architecture 2017, organizer of the “Fresh Start” initiative to collect soap, shampoo, etc. from convention hotel guests to be given to the Coalition for the Homeless, and projectOrlando design team member. 

Barbara Vallella, IIDA, Heery Design – Design Lead for the Center of Women and Families’ Dorm Hallways

Kristine Hernandez, High Mark Companies – Co-Design Lead for the Center of Women and Families’ Family Room transformation

Glenda Wright, HHCP – Co-Design Lead for the Center of Women and Families’ Reception Area

Diana Chase, AIA, HHCP – Co-Design Lead for the Center of Women and Families’ Reception Area

Joe Lackey, Project Executive, Balfour Beatty – Construction Lead for projectOrlando

How did you go about approaching this project? Did you get input from the staff and residents at the Coalition for the Homeless?

An important first step in any design process is to define and observe the problem. This objective observation must then be paired with empathy for the users… a sensitivity for how they will experience any design solution. To accomplish this, we worked closely with the staff and observed the temporary residents. This informed our understanding, enabling us to develop a path to develop a solution focused on meaningful, long-lasting impact.

As far as design elements go, what were you tasked with accomplishing?

Our focus was on how families experience the facility. This experience begins at the entry.

We wanted the families to be welcomed with a positive environment at the front door. We then sought to carry this through for their journey to their temporary living spaces, and family room space, where they could gather and decompress.

The focus on creating a more hospitable, welcoming environment yielded a new front desk with fresh paint and ceilings. In the family dorm hallways, warm, durable materials were used on the walls and floors… the foundation for creating a more hotel-like transition space. The family room will receive window treatments, new furniture, area rug, and a refresh of paint and ceiling to create a truly comfortable living room environment.

Can you give me a brief synopsis of the work that will be done on the day of the build?

These projects are about providing a facelift to preexisting spaces. Volunteers will cover a range of activities from painting, to carpentry, cleaning, furniture construction, trim work and signage application, ceiling and art installation.

Why was this project important to you?

I believe that design can impact others and help improve the human condition; this project aligns with that belief. Design can be used as a tool to approach social issues. Homelessness is a worldwide concern and architects can play a role in influencing and facilitating better environments four our citizens and communities. Homelessness is a complex problem, but we as individuals can make a difference.

Obviously, the Coalition provides invaluable services to the local community. What kind of impact will the renovations have on the people who utilize this space?

Shelter is the most basic human right. It is a basic human need that has one of the most stabilizing effects on a person. It can dramatically improve conditions for a person in need of assistance in life.

In this case, we are providing a temporary place for families to come home to at night, increasing their level of pride and sense of safety. This provides them the best start in their tough journey ahead.

With the Center for Women and Families being in such close proximity to the DLR Group offices in Orlando, was their added significance on this project?

DLR Group takes a serious approach to any outreach project opportunity; improving the lives of others is the company’s DNA. This year’s AEC Cares project is within walking distance from our office but the homeless issue is all around us. The project is truly an opportunity to directly impact the homeless population. However, it is also an extension of the realities that we see every day in our community and across the planet. As a Justice architect, every day, these human issues bubble up in the courts system. It is a true feeling of accomplishment when we can help to lift people up, providing them an alternate pathway that doesn’t unnecessarily lead them through the judicial system.

What was your experience like working on projectOrlando?

This year was a true scramble. With a shorter time to prepare than in all the previous years of the AEC Cares project, but the team members worked extremely hard to ensure a successful project. This included interior designers, business development persons, architects, and contractors to pull it off. The effort demonstrates AIA Orlando’s commitment but also the commitment of the amazing people in our community who thrive from serving others in their lives.

About AEC Cares

AEC Cares began in 2011 when ConstructConnect, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and Hanley Wood teamed up to rebuild five homes in New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Recent projects have included renovating the Athletic Recreation Center in the Sharswood neighborhood in Philadelphia, renovating a former school annex for use as the Metropolitan Family Service’s Early Learning and Wellness Center in Chicago and renovating Covenant House Georgia in Atlanta which serves homeless and at-risk youth.

To learn more about sponsorship opportunities, donating materials or volunteering for projectOrlando, please visit the AEC Cares website at

AEC Cares Orlando

projectOrlando happens Wednesday, April 26th. AEC Cares is still fundraising for the renovation – click here to help sponsor projectOrlando through financial or material donations. Your donation is 100% tax deductible, up to limits set by the IRS, and you receive a tax deductible receipt immediately through email.


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