Designing dreams

By Ret Boney

SALISBURY, N.C. — Over the past six years, architect Karen Alexander’s affordable housing designs have helped make the American dream a reality for seven working poor families, and another six will have a chance soon.

In May, her pro-bono efforts were recognized by the North Carolina Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that seeks to expand housing options for the poor.

The group presented her with the Sister Barbara Sullivan Award, given annually to someone who has worked on a personal level to improve housing conditions for poor people.

“She clearly had gone to that degree as an architect that you hope people do, really trying to develop new housing that fits with the current community with a commitment to cultural as well as architectural style,” says Chris Estes, the coalition’s executive director.

Alexander designs affordable housing in partnership with the Salisbury Community Development Corp., a nonprofit developer she helped create.

“I am a long-time proponent of the connection between quality of housing and society,” says Alexander. “I’ve always believed that providing affordable housing is important to the community.”

She has served on the development corporation’s board in various capacities since its inception in 1998, helping to secure funding for projects and designing homes that fit the character of the city’s existing neighborhoods.

Karen Alexander

Job: Founder and owner, KKA Architecture

Born: 1950, Eden, N.C.

Education: M.A., Architecture, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Family: Husband, Henry Alexander; one son, two grandchildren

Hobbies:  Watercolor and acrylic painting

Currently reading:  “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow

Favorite architect: Samuel Mockbee for his work in affordable architecture in rural communities

Favorite buildings:  Csesky Krumlov, 1,100-year old village in Czech Republic, renovated for modern living while retaining qualities of the past

The group’s first project involved building three houses on a street in an established but deteriorating community, Alexander says, with the hope of serving as a catalyst for change and investment in the area.

“We believe that in designing quality homes that are affordable, you can make an impact not only on the architecture of the neighborhood, but on the quality of life in the neighborhood,” Alexander says. “People love to see us come in because it means the quality is improving.”

To qualify for a development corporation home, potential homeowners must have saved money, attended homeownership classes for almost a year and worked out any credit problems, and must agree to serve as mentors to others just entering the program.

The homes are designed to be accessible to the internet, with proper wiring, a built-in computer nook, office furniture donated by Alexander and computers donated by banking partners.

To buy another eight computers, the development corporation recently received a grant from Salisbury’s Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation, which provided seed money to start the development corporation.

“It’s a comprehensive package we deliver,” says Alexander.
”That way we can be assured of success.”

Alexander, an architect specializing in sustainable, environmentally friendly design, started her firm in Salisbury 10 years ago and has received design awards for her decade of work in historic preservation, the design of medical offices and the design of Center for the Environment at Catawba College.

Revitalizing communities is just one way Alexander supports the community she loves.

She has also served on the board, which she chaired for six years, of Salisbury’s Historic Preservation Commission, produces plays for the local theater group and served as the president of the Waterworks Visual Arts Center.

In 2001, she and her husband purchased the Pauline Knitting Mill that had fallen victim to North Carolina’s declining textile industry.

Now, they are upfitting it and leasing space at below-market prices to start-up businesses and nonprofits, including one named Earthen Vessels that collects and refurbishes used wheelchairs to distribute to needy people throughout the world.

“With all of us giving small amounts, it adds up to big numbers,” says Alexander of her philosophy of philanthropy. “I believe we could do more in that area as a profession.”

Alexander is working pro bono to design six houses for the development corporation that will be targeted to young teachers moving into the community.

“That’s my big payoff,” says Alexander, “the smiles and the tears on ribbon-cutting day.”

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