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Sukkahville 2012 -- Architects for Change

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On a recent summer evening, a dozen professionals from a variety of walks gathered in the boardroom of an architectural firm in downtown Toronto. A series of drawings mounted on boards were arranged for viewing. The articulate group strolled around, analyzed and weighed in on the relative merits of each. The discussion was erudite, animated and passionate. Were they considering drawings for new offices, a shopping mall, a condo development?

No. All present were volunteering their time to peruse submissions for Sukkahville 2012, a design competition conceived to draw attention to the issues of affordable housing in Toronto. Organizers have set a goal of $100,000 but are also interested in simply raising awareness. The designs in question are for sukkahs, a symbol of temporary shelter used during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Kehilla Residential Programme is running the design competition, which culminates in a pop-up exhibit to which the public is invited. Submissions have come in from around the world. On the evening in question, the many were culled down to five. Finalists received a stipend with which to erect their structure in a 24-hour period. The process will culminate in the aforementioned family event on September 30.

Kehilla has created something called a rent bank which, simply put, bridges the gap. For every $25,000 raised through Sukkahville 2012, seven families can be helped for a year. They are given $300 per month to help cover their cost of living. The thinking is that once housing expenses are taken care of, people are free to focus on things like educating their kids and creating a better life. "It's the biblical concept of give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime," says Kehilla's Executive Director, Nancy Singer.

The event is free and Kehilla has succeeded in increasing their corporate sponsorship. Martin Blake, Vice President of The Daniels Corporation had this to say: "The Daniels Corporation is proud to be the Lead Sponsor for Sukkahville 2012. As a cornerstone in Daniels' corporate philosophy, a stable and affordable place to live is the primary building block from which all Canadians have a chance to realize their potential, and make a positive contribution to their community. The Kehilla Residential Programme is a model of these values by providing families with access to support and services while providing a hand up in home ownership."

But what motivated some of the individuals meeting in the boardroom and donating their time?

Ed Applebaum, a partner with Montgomery Sisam Architects, the firm hosting the initial judging, has served on the board of Kehilla as well as the various properties they manage for over seven years. He is very enthusiastic about Sukkahville and is co-chairing its Design Committee for the second straight year.

"I joined the board of Kehilla as a way to give something back," he explains. "I wanted to donate my time and my expertise to make a difference. Kehilla does make a difference and I've seen it firsthand. Kehilla operates several ways. They don't just manage properties, they also help develop new special needs housing. They're creative. Sukkahville is a new initiative which is very exciting."

There were shades of a reality show as the people present are being referred to as "celebrity judges." Selecting the finalists: Ken Greenberg, architect, urban designer, teacher, writer, former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the city of Toronto and currently Principal of Greenberg Consultants; Marianne McKenna, founding partner of KPMB Architects, graduate of Swarthmore College with a Masters in Architecture from Yale University; Sarah Milroy, art critic for journals, magazines and newspapers including the National Post and the Globe and Mail and former editor of Canadian Art magazine; Christopher Hume, architectural critic and urban issues columnist with the Toronto Star and 2009 recipient of a National Newspaper Award for his columns about architecture and urban affairs; Anna Simone, founding partner of Cecconi Simone Inc., a multi-disciplinary design firm involved with numerous award-winning projects in retail, hospitality and multi-unit residential design; and Donald Schmitt, principal at Diamond Schmitt Architects, a leading Canadian full-service award winning architectural practice that works throughout North America, Europe, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

The beauty of the evening, of Sukkahville and of Kehilla lay beyond the drawings set out before the star-studded jury. The innovation -- the creativity found within the constraints -- lies not only in the design submissions, but also in terms of individuals coming together to find solutions. Not just bridging the gap financially, but also organizationally. People from so many places interested in one cause. Less concerned about where the credit will go, than that something will be achieved.

Sukkahville will be held on September 30, from noon to four at Mel Lastman Square, 2100 Yonge Street Toronto.