The Division of Care

Cassandra Howard 
Bachelor of Architecture

Advised by:
Stefan Gruber
Jonathan Kline

Studio Coordinated By Stefan Gruber and Jonathan Kline

Themes: Care | Identity | Culture


Throughout history, women have been seen as housewives, servants, and caretakers, left to be the primary performers of all domestic labor. This position has come with little-to-no support despite the known expansion of women’s rights and economic productivity in the workforce. In addition, the notorious nuclear family unit, largely conceptual, has been replaced by multigenerational, queer, racially diverse, and single parent households. With issues of race and housing segregation, neoliberalism and the expansion of late capitalism, and now, a deadly pandemic, these households often intersect with economic and time poverty.

Exploring a cooperative housing structure designed around spaces of care, this thesis aims to support the single mothers of Wilkinsburg through a system of shared responsibility for domestic tasks that will increase their ability to achieve greater economic, social, and political agency. By alleviating the time and financial pressures of childcare, cooking, and cleaning, the women and children could have more opportunities to advance their education, build new skills, seek mental and physical health support, and create foundations for better futures. This project seeks to articulate strategies which make new futures reality.

Women have always been seen as housewives, servants, and caretakers, left to be the primary performers of all domestic labor. This is rooted in separate spheres ideology which promoted the idea that women must remain in the domestic sphere while men should be in the public and social spheres. Women’s bodies were believed to be fragile and suit ed for light work which protected their uteruses, despite the fact that most housework is quite physical and laborious work and that many women were out in the public spheres everyday because staying in the home was a luxury, often for upper class white women. Feminists, as early as Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1898, called attention to the discrepancy between the value of household labor and productive labor in the economy.

These ideas have since developed into the Material Feminist movement which advocates for women to be paid for their domestic and reproductive labor. The movement largely encourages us to consider how capitalist modes of production have shaped our society, including ideals of the nuclear family or the division of labor in the household.

Alongside these ideas were questions about how our society was physically set-up to reinforce these gender-roles and stereotypes. Urban historians like Dolores Hayden call attention to the isolation of suburban housing developments and the development of cities for automobiles which put substantial distance between the home, work, school, and childcare.

In over a hundred years, despite the expansion of women’s rights and greater access to the workforce, women have not seen a socialization of childcare or housework. In addition, the notorious nuclear family unit, has been replaced by multigenerational, queer, racially diverse, and single parent households. With issues of race and housing segregation, neoliberalism and the expansion of late capitalism, and now, a deadly pandemic, these households often intersect with economic and time poverty.

Although not producers of wealth, women serve in the final processes of preparation and distribution. Their labor in the household has a genuine economic value. 

- Women and Economics, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1898

“If there should be built and opened in any of our large cities to-day a commodious and well-served house for professional women with families, it would be filled at once. The apartments would be without kitchens; but there would be a kitchen belonging to the house from which meals could be served to the families in their rooms or in a common dining-room, as preferred. It would be a home where the cleaning would be done by efficient workers… but engaged by the manager of the establishment; and a roof-garden, day nursery, and kindergarten, under well-trained professional nurses and teachers, would ensure proper care of the children.”

- Women and Economics, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1898

In Wilkinsburg, PA, almost a quarter of all families are single mothers living in poverty. Wilkinsburg was once a neighborhood full of life, fed by a railroad carrying 6,000 - 8,000 passengers a day into the City of Pittsburgh and a vibrant shopping district. Wilkinsburg, though, was seen as a transitional neighborhood, where white collar workers would stay for a few years before moving to wealthier neighborhoods further outside city limits. When the Steel industry crashed, the populations of Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh declined rapidly. This diminished population and a depleted tax base have created difficult circumstances for those still living in the community. High property taxes, poor housing conditions, lack of mobility, and a perception of violence have created a cycle of poverty for most residents, including the high number of single mothers and their children. For a neighborhood that is 55% Black, structural racism continues to harm this community and add additional limitations upon its improvement.

Wilkinsburg Demographics

The reality of being a single parent in America is depicted best by these diagrams by Gibson-Graham. A typical working man’s day consists of 8 hours of paid work, one hour of commuting, 7 hours of recreation, and 8 hours of rest. He has a relatively stable well-being. Opposite of him, might be his wife, who stays at home to care for the house and the children. Society tends to believe that she doesn’t do much. While, in fact, her day is full of unpaid work including cooking, cleaning, childcare, elder care, shopping, school volunteering, and the, often unseen, emotional labor of caring for all of those around her. She could be at any extreme of the well-being scorecard, perhaps materially satisfied but socially drained and underappreciated or a champion in her community, but occupationally disappointed because she is not is not able to pursue her personal hobbies. Last, but not least, is the single mother. Who spends her day working, only to return home to continue working, caring for her home and child, isolated from her community, with little to no-time for herself, mentally, emotionally, or physically. This is the double-day lifestyle of single mothers.

Daily Time Clock Diagrams (Gibson-Graham, Take Back the Economy)

As a child of a single mother myself, I knew this reality well. As we spent the first half of this year, exploring commoning practices, I felt that commoning was a strategy that would benefit single mothers especially because it would alleviate the pressures of time and take them from time-poor to time-rich. This led me to my research question, “Can single mothers in Wilkinsburg establish a space that supports a system of shared responsibility for critical domestic tasks that will increase their ability to achieve greater economic, social, and political agency?”

To explore these ideas, I wanted to work with a community organization in Wilkinsburg to learn more about the history of the neighborhood and the present community. I reached out to Hosanna House, an organization that has been working in wilkinsburg for over 30 years, and sees over 25,000 people through their doors every year. In addition to their main programs of early-to-middle childhood education and caregiving, they also provide health and dental services, drug and alcohol counseling, family support services, and transitional and permanent housing. I was fortunate enough to be able to meet with Hosanna House’s COO, Steve Hellner Burris, who gave me a tour of their main building and spoke to me about their vision for the future. Their vision is a rather aggressive one as they have acquired a large amount of property relative to their main building and they stand ready to address the housing crisis in Wilkinsburg. I spoke to them about the sites located near them and what they are currently proposing for them. One of the sites, located at Center Street and Penn Avenue stood out to me because they were hoping to develop affordable multi-family rental housing. Steve told me that they were early into their visioning process and didn’t have a strong image just yet. I felt this was an opportunity for me to explore this site and how I could articulate strategies that would address multiple issues at once. Steve asked me to think about (1) how can we create a design that reinforces community relationships and encourages the residents to connect with each other, (2) how can this design tie back into Hosanna House’s programming and future development, (3) how can we prioritize single mothers in home ownership and access?

Proposed Site Plan

The scenario that I have developed, based on conversations with Hosanna House, places them as the initial developer for an affordable housing project. To fund this project, Hosanna House would likely seek philanthropic contributions as well as a variety of government subsidies. At this point, Hosanna House could identify a specific demographic to address through their project. I have chosen to explore a scenario in which single mothers and their children are the target residents. With this in mind, two goals of the project would be (1) maintain affordability for present and future users and (2) provide multiple paths of accessibility through ownership or renting. These goals lend themselves to a Limited Equity Cooperative.

Commoning Proposal

This cooperative could have three tiers of entry: own, rent, or a rent-to-own contract. This allows for residents of different financial backgrounds to have access to the project. It might also allow for rent to be cross-subsidized where the higher income residents can partially subsidize the rent for lower income residents. In Wilkinsburg, 16.5% of families are below the poverty line.

Knowing that we will have at least three tiers of accessibility to the project, the design of the units supports a variety of users. The first unit type is the one bedroom at 380 sq. ft. This unit is best for single mothers with one child, especially new mothers who prefer to be in closer proximity to their child. The second unit type is the two bedroom at 800 sq. ft. This two floor unit is best for a mother and two children. The master bedroom is situated next to the children’s bedroom upstairs. The children’s rooms are fitted with built-in, space-saving bunk beds allowing more space for play or learning. The third unit type is the three bedroom at 950 sq. ft, which could allow for one parent and three to four children. This unit also takes advantage of built-in bunk beds which could be applied to additional bedrooms for additional children. The last unit type is the efficiency at 300 sq. ft. This unit is best for a single user. I felt this was one of the most important units to add. It could support a mother whose children are no longer living with her as she transitions to a new phase of her life, a childcare provider who works in the building, or even additional family members or grandparents who want to live close to their families and provide care labor.

Unit Types

These units were intentionally designed to be space-efficient as the intention was always to provide additional shared spaces. In between these stacked units is a three-level shared space, with a communal kitchen taking the middle position. Kitchens have always been seen as the center of the home, and that is no different here where sharing the task of cooking not only brings the families together daily, but allows the daily tasks of cooking and providing food to be shared amongst a close knit group. It is more efficient for one mother to cook once or twice a week for 15 people than to cook a meal every day for 3 people. The bottom floor takes on a lounge or living room identity where additional tasks could be shared such as laundry, noise mitigation pending. The top floor is meant to develop more organically with the residents. If there are more pre-school aged children perhaps it is full of toys and becomes a playroom and as they age, the room becomes a quieter study space for after-school homework.

The units all have direct access to these shared spaces and have agency to make them their own, collectively. Increased circulation in, up, through, and out of these spaces will hopefully encourage a greater sense of community.

Module Plans

Section Perspective into Module

At the building scale, these units come together to form an even larger community. 9 of these modules are arranged on the site, housing at least 90 residents in individual units. To further support the goals of the project, additional shared spaces replaced some of the modules to create lounge space on each floor and access to building-wide resources including a daycare center, gym, computer lab, and meeting spaces.

The meeting spaces allow for greater community interaction throughout the project. For example, Hosanna House, can provide support programs specific to the single mothers such as domestic violence and trauma support services, financial literacy and credit repair courses, or educational courses to help them finish their high school educations or attain higher degree programs. Hosanna House would likely own shares as well in the project to maintain these programs and help with the overall maintenance of the building. Additionally, other community organizations could provide services as well that don’t own stake in the cooperative such as a local Girl Scouts chapter, a music teacher who provides piano lessons after school, or a local artisan who provides mindful woodworking lessons.

Section Perspective through Building-Wide Shared Spaces

Additionally, the programs are meant to help the residents build new skills that will ultimately provide new professional and entrepreneurial opportunities to supplement their economic activity. Part of the program on the ground floor of the building is a store and gallery space that will provide public access to products or services that the women and children make and sell. Informal businesses are often community underpinnings and providing space to formalize parts of those businesses could provide additional streams of revenue for the residents individually or the community as a whole.

This is one path to generating future household and generational wealth that doesn’t rely on the value of property held and market forces. The main path to future wealth is by collectivizing domestic work and time-sharing or banking which is the central driver of the project.

The power in this project, and the Limited Equity Cooperative, is that the residents and Hosanna House can come together as the decision making cooperative board. Together they make decisions about building maintenance, who can join the co-op, and resources or programs to invest in.

At these three scales, neighborhood community organization, building scale, and module scale, the design of this project promotes a network of support services, from top-down programs to bottom-up childcare and cooking system organization. It provides realistic paths to achieving agency.

Commoning Structure Diagram

Having accessible childcare on the fly, access to new resources, or at the very least, the feeling of just having someone next to you while you fold clothes late at night, are all ways that this project supports a new, brighter future for single mothers and their families.

Commoning Strategies
Ground Floor Plan
Building Plans