Two New York architects are using design to address pressing social challenges - for the homeless, for war refugees, even for Public-school kids. Here's their blueprint.

These days, architects, like so many people, find themselves reassessing their work. But for Deborah Gans and Matthew Jelacic, no reassessment is necessary: They know design can serve as a powerful antidote to displacement.

Currently in their 10th year working together and their fifth year as partners in Gans & Jelacic, the pair is in the midst of several
cutting-edge projects that share the same goal: to deliver prac-tical and pleasant living spaces for people who need them desperately. Those people include the urban homeless, war refugees, even school kids in Staten Island, for whom a desk is a sort of home away from home. "We're looking to make a humane environment for people who don't normally have a voice to ask for it," says Jelacic.

Call it "extreme housing": design that answers Gans' question, "How do you shelter large populations quickly with dignity and quality at a reasonable cost?"

To house the homeless, Gans and Jelacic teamed up with a third architect, Marguerite McGoldrick, to design temporary units for a nonprofit group in New York. The units, which exist within a larger, enclosed space, are built from inexpensive materials and contain little more than a bed, a desk, and a closet. But they are not without respect for design.

The units include front porches for a sense of community, plus name tags and mailboxes for individuality. They also take advantage of natural light. For the roofs, which ensure privacy and meet safety requirements, the architects decided on a diaphanous wire screen. When the units were displayed for an audience of Manhattan sophisticates, Gans recalls, "Everybody said, 'I want one for my loft.'