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Architecture student wants to help people, small towns
by Katy Purviance on 01/26/09 @ 12:17:15 pm
Categories: Articles | 834 words | 6494 views

I just read this article in the South Bend Tribune by Gene Stowe about architecture student Matthe VanSoest.

Architecture student Matthew VanSoest plans to design more than buildings in his career. He wants to design better schools, better communities, better downtowns for a better life, especially for struggling small towns such as his native Bremen.

VanSoest, who graduated from Bremen High School in 2004 and earned a bachelor’s degree at Ball State University last year, will graduate with a master’s degree in architecture from Ball State next year.

He has interned at Ancon Construction Co. during summers and other breaks for three years and expects to work at the company when he has finished his education.

VanSoest’s broad interest — far from “trophy architecture,” designing skyscrapers or monumental buildings — traces to his observation of job loss and downtown decay in Bremen.

“It’s just a small town,” he says. “You see more and more people going to Mishawaka or Plymouth or Nappanee. There’s a lot of programs at Ball State that are nationally known for community revitalization. These programs have gotten me interested in it as well in using architecture as a way of helping people, helping small communities.

“I think they’re being overlooked,” with more focus directed to on larger cities, VanSoest says. “Architects can almost become urban designers. That’s what I’m concentrating on.”

The architect can brainstorm with the community, find strengths and weaknesses, and propose changes. “In a lot of cases, it’s not just one building,” he says, but rather a block of buildings, town center or gateway to the downtown.

For example, redesigned town centers could increase interactions among residents. “There’s a loss of a sense of community,” VanSoest says. “Neighbors don’t know their neighbors. Architects think in that way. It’s not just one building.”

Last semester, he was part of a team that worked with leaders in Topeka, a community with a significant Amish population and ties to the RV industry, not unlike his home area.

Among other things, the team proposed buildings to fill vacant lots and a trade school to improve the education level in the community, which hopes to develop a high level of energy independence and expects to have the largest wind farm in the Midwest.

“The level of craftsmanship is there,” he says. “The question is, how do you use it? The architect, I think, has to think outside the box and not just focus on aesthetics and function.”

This semester, he’s on a team that is working to revitalize a section of Muncie, Ind.

“I’ve done some work in Muncie with urban design,” VanSoest says. “Right now, we’re looking at 10 houses in Muncie that are deemed unfit.”

The team proposes to save the houses and retrofit them to be sustainable. The plan includes shared yard and garden space for the neighbors. A grant will support construction for one house according to the plan.

“Maybe that model can serve for other houses in the area,” he says.

Charter schools, like urban planning, are a big concentration for VanSoest. His work with Ancon has included consulting with a school in St. Joseph County.

“It’s thinking of new ways you can design a school,” he says. “It’s not just the architecture.”

As a Ball State University Business Fellow, on an interdisciplinary team that includes education, finance, economics and other majors, he was part of a two-year research project, “Charter School Patterns of Innovation: A New Architecture for a New Education,” sponsored by Eli Lilly.

“The team researched exemplary case study exemplars throughout the country in order to understand the unique ways charter schools operate,” VanSoest says. “Because charter schools have more freedom in how they teach, each school can take a different focus with their curriculum.”

The team applied the results of their study to Indiana partner charter schools, interviewing teachers and students, conducting building assessments and providing hypothetical designs. It will present its work in Portland in March and is writing a book about the project

“The group finally created 50 design patterns or principles that would become useful tools to actively engage school administrators, designers, parents, students, teachers, communities, and businesses in the development of their school,” he says.

“The patterns or ideas go way beyond providing solutions for a facility of learning and teaching, but begins to look at ways buildings themselves can actually be learning tools, creating an image of the educational environment that creates pride in the students’ and a presence in the community, or identifying ways to supplement the school’s funding needs.”

In a design competition sponsored by Cripe Architects and Engineers, VanSoest proposed a Charter School of the Dunes in Gary, a middle school that includes space that would be useful for parent-student nights and community events as well as classrooms and a cafeteria. His design placed first, and some of the ideas will be incorporated into a new school in the Gary area.

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