Take a drive out to Riverton and you can catch a glimpse of what the Salt Lake Valley looked like before fast food and franchises made nearly every neighborhood a photocopy of the one next door.

Acres and acres of farmland give the illusion, at least, that Riverton is still a rural kind of place.But two years ago, Riverton's city planners began to worry that inevitable population growth in the south end of the valley could rob the town of its charm and turn it into just one more suburb.

So they contacted Assist, the Wasatch Front community design center that for 20 years has been living up to its name.

Assist provides design help to both communities and individuals who otherwise would not be able to afford it - from a municipality in need of new vision, to a handicapped mother in need of a ramp on her front porch. The center's emergency home repair program has also brought literal nuts-and-bolts help to low-income residents.

This week Assist celebrates its 20th anniversary with an open house and exhibit on Friday, Nov. 9, at Another Language Studio in Artspace, 345 W. Pierpont.

A small group of Utah architects formed Assist in 1970, motivated by the same kind of social consciousness that spurred doctors and lawyers to provide free legal and medical care to the disadvantaged.

"Actually, it started out of the of trunk of (University of Utah Graduate School of Architecture dean) Carl Inoway's car in 1969," says Roger Borgenicht, Assist's current director. "We were one of the first (community) design centers in the country."

"In the past three years we've been branching out to the suburbs," he notes. "The growth issues of the suburbs have finally come home to roost."

In Riverton, for example, city officials began worrying that the town, with its pastures and bucolic canals, might turn into another Murray or West Valley City. What would Riverton look like in 15 or 20 years, they wondered, if growth continued at its present pace and style?

They could guess, of course, but Assist could do better than that. Using an aerial photo that includes every house and field in Riverton, Assist staff, volunteers and student interns superimposed strip commercial development along major arteries and "built" housing developments on current agricultural land.

Under the direction of Tony Serrato, special projects coordinator, Assist will also create a computer simulation of growth options, and will build a tiny cardboard and styrene model of the town.

With these tools, says Borgenicht, Riverton residents "can face change with an open eye."

Assist staffers have made models for West Valley City, West Jordan and Sandy, as well, to help planners envision developments such as West Valley's new civic center.

The models provide planners with a movable feast of options. "We never use any glue on any of the models," says Borgenicht, who helped Sandy officials look at 80 different variations before they chose a design for their renovated Main Street.

"We're toolmakers and idea spawners," says Borgenicht about Assist, which uses the volunteer services of dozens of local architects, students and VISTA workers.

The core of Assist's work, however, is still its work with the low income, elderly and handicapped.

Requests for design and installation of ramps, grab bars and other home modifications for handicapped residents have increased fivefold over the past few months, says Borgenicht.

And, he adds, there is the "persistence of poverty" - an unrelenting need that Assist volunteers see manifested in a continual parade of leaky roofs and broken furnaces. These are the houses of what Borgenicht calls the pre-homeless.

Last year Assist's Emergency Home Repair program patched houses for 426 Salt Lake families with an average monthly income of $552. "We're the last safety net," he says. "Without us they might be out on the street."