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architecture schools' hands-on studios move design from the ivory tower to the edges of town
by Katy Purviance on 04/11/10 @ 08:44:12 pm
Categories: Articles | 2552 words | 2367 views

I just read this article by Cheryl Weber about studios that, you know, do stuff in the sunshine. Like how it should be.

As an undergraduate at Auburn University in 1994, Jonathan Tate, a white suburban kid from Huntsville, Ala., signed up for Rural Studio, where he helped to design one-of-a-kind “charity houses” on a shoestring budget. The university-affiliated program was only in its second year, but director Samuel Mockbee was a compelling figure who offered two things Tate wanted: exposure to the poverty-stricken rural South and a chance to build something unique. As it turned out, he got more than he expected. “It’s not how to hang a door in a frame that I carry with me,” says Tate, a partner at New Orleans-based building studio and an adjunct assistant professor of architecture at Tulane University. “It’s the strong confidence in who I am as an architect and the role I can play to affect people in this world.”

On the West Coast, Geoff Piper chose the University of Washington’s architecture program because of the design/build studio offered through BaSiC Initiative. As he worked alongside community folks to build a library in Mexico in 2000, he, too, became less focused on the pragmatics of building and more attuned to architecture’s social power. During the course of his studies, Piper worked with BaSiC Initiative founder and director Sergio Palleroni on several low-income projects, including a straw bale house in South Dakota. Today, he divides his Seattle practice, Fivedot Design/Build, between traditional design/build/development and nonprofit international projects.

Just 10 years ago, community-based design/build studios were a novelty in architecture schools. But now they’re commonplace. When Fivedot organizes a project and looks for students to participate, “we’re competing against 30 design/build programs happening over the summer, as opposed to about two when I was going to school,” Piper says. It’s as though the profession is rediscovering social agendas after a long hiatus following the failed public housing experiments of the 1960s. It’s not that architects didn’t care about social issues, Tate says. But in Mockbee’s hands, Rural Studio may have marked a point where they could once again be involved, by raising the idea that it was time to get over the stigma and back into the discussion. “For a few decades, architects were afraid to step out and say something about these things, not to mention that there was a period of heavy intellectualizing about what architecture was,” he says.

As Mockbee brilliantly illustrated, doing good and doing good architecture can be the same thing. And when students are involved, everyone wins. They get to experience the thrill of building their ideas while also leaving a legacy. But it’s not just the hands-on time that’s ultimately of value. Community-based design trains budding professionals to work as a team rather than as a single genius architect, to take control over complex real-world conditions, and perhaps most important, to have a greater sense of agency in the world. In short, it exposes them to the side of architecture that schools tend to miss.

mixing altruism and ego
Back in 1995, another designer observed the disconnect between classroom conjecture and real-world design—and decided to do something about it. But The University of Kansas’ award-winning Studio 804 was born almost by accident. As professor Dan Rockhill tells it, his firm, Rockhill and Associates, needed help on a project out in the country. He enlisted his students, who were wildly enthusiastic. In 1999, Studio 804 was incorporated as a 503© organization, and the model evolved over the years. After stick-building five affordable houses, the group began designing prefab structures that could be transported to sites farther away. And unlike many school studios, this one is run as a business, without university subsidies. Rockhill borrows money from the community development corporation that sponsors each speculative project. When the house is sold, he pays back the loan with interest and plows any profits back into Studio 804. Meanwhile, he gets a salary from The University of Kansas and students get credit for the course.

Although participation isn’t mandatory, Rockhill truly believes that having their hands in the concrete makes his students better architects. And by working in poor communities where there are few English speakers, students see a side of life they never knew existed nearby. “Helping them be accountable to sustainable practices is another thing I feel good about,” Rockhill says. “Students are anxious to produce buildings that are responsible to the environment. They’re the ones who will bring about change.”

Accountability is the big bonus at Tulane’s URBANbuild program, too, according to director Byron Mouton, AIA. In this case, he says, it’s about helping each other maintain energy, stay on schedule, and practice diplomacy with colleagues and city agencies. Unlike design studios in which students work on a project at their desk and stand up alone to defend it to jurors, fieldwork is all about collaborating. “I like watching these guys figure out how to control their anger and deal with disappointments, but most of all how to come together in support of each other,” says Mouton, who became semi-famous when a 12-week URBANbuild class was filmed for the reality TV series Architecture School, which aired last year on the Sundance Channel.

Occupying the gap between theory and practice can be painful. The documentary-style Architecture School series drew some criticism—mainly that the finished house didn’t blend with the Central City neighborhood and that no locals could afford to buy it. Mouton admits that encouraging innovation within nonprofit parameters can be a tricky balance to achieve. The agency with whom URBANbuild works asks for a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home because it’s the easiest model for matching low-income buyers with government subsidies. So size and function are non-negotiable. And to keep things interesting, URBAN-build experiments with different building systems each year. The first house, built in summer 2006, used familiar wood framing to ensure that the project could be completed in 12 weeks with unskilled labor. The second project featured prefab metal panels, the Architecture School house was made with SIPs, and LEED Silver certification is the current project’s goal.

But Mouton is unapologetic about giving students a long design rope. “We won’t ask a group of 12 students to work for free on a tight schedule and then just produce a Habitat for Humanity house,” he says. “What we give them is design opportunity.” Sometimes that means allowing students to design special components that aren’t cheap but that can be eliminated without compromising the basic scheme if the house is reproduced with paid labor. As hard as URBANbuild works to keep costs low, finding qualified buyers in down-and-out neighborhoods is daunting. “They have to find people who have a perfect credit score and have had the same employer for three years,” he says. What’s more, “we’re trying to resurrect old neighborhoods that are often dangerous, and it’s difficult to find buyers who want to take that plunge. It will take a decade of just dropping the seeds into the neighborhoods, and it’s a slow, agonizing process.”

Indeed, a project’s location has a huge influence on how funding, construction, and legal terms are structured. Programs located in places with no building codes or officials have very different educational opportunities than those in red tape-entangled urban environments. All, however, share the belief that the logistics can’t be handed off as though they were the responsibility of other entities. Students learn to work with trade contractors, understand the process by which a piece of equipment or building material arrives at the site, and the environmental impacts of construction. If they’re cutting a material, they need to know the ordering lead time and how and where it’s made. “All of those things are abstract until the moment it’s your obligation to deliver it to someone,” says David Lewis, director of The Design Workshop at Parsons The New School for Design, where nine of the design/build projects in the New York City-based studio’s 11-year history have been urban. “More important, your design won’t be erected if you don’t understand how those things operate and control them.”

William Jelen, director of The Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning’s CUAdc program, agrees. “There’s a certain kind of maturity in being able to follow through on a real project, because you have to be responsible and self-motivated; these are real people’s money and lives you’re dealing with.” He’s noticed that students are energized by those dynamics and the deeper understanding that comes from exposure to neighborhoods they never would have visited as an outsider. That’s why, for Jelen, an integral part of architecture education is its relationship to clients and the community.

“I always felt that you have all these talents and skills in school that are underutilized in terms of harnessing that creativity and applying it to real-world problems,” Jelen says. “In school I wondered why we had to tackle some theoretical problem in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, instead of dealing with issues in Philadelphia.” He adds that there is strong ongoing interest in the university’s design/build program; some alumni even jump in on local projects. “A lot of times, young people in architecture firms have little responsibility; this is something they do have responsibility for,” he explains. “And there’s a desire to do something for the common good.”

public-spirited entrepreneurship
There’s no doubt that for many young, idealistic architects-in-training, designing and building for the disenfranchised is a powerful experience. But does it change their career aspirations? David Buege, one of Rural Studio’s first participants, doesn’t think so. “If there were a kind of methodological study of what has happened with people who’ve gone through such programs, I’d say the impact would be pretty subtle,” says Buege, director of the architecture program at Philadelphia University. “Even in good times, survival strategies take over.”

And in a tough job market, it’s even harder for debt-strapped graduates to act on their newfound passions. Just ask Wes Janz, Ph.D., RA, associate professor of architecture at Ball State University and co-director of CapAsia, which takes students to South Asia for 11 weeks every other spring. He’s also led field trips to border towns in Northern Texas and Skid Row in East Los Angeles, as well as Midwest distress tours to Rust Belt cities that have been failing for years. He says he gets too many e-mails from former students saying they’re dissatisfied with their jobs or altogether disillusioned with the profession, like the graduate in Fort Wayne, Ind., who was working on construction documents for a Holiday Inn.

“I say, Just calm down, keep paying off debts, try to be patient, and do some volunteer work,” Janz says. But he feels their angst. “As educators we need to have a better answer to the question, What is this bridge after graduation? If I could, I’d probably bring a social entrepreneurship curriculum to the architecture school, because in the end I think becoming aware of entrepreneurship at an early age might be the foundation piece students need to create roles for themselves.

Ted Smith thinks so too. That’s why he created the master’s in residential development program for architects at Woodbury University in San Diego. With its focus on affordability, it’s one way for socially conscious designers to invent their own opportunities. The premise is simple: Instead of trying to work within the limits imposed by cash-starved community development corporations, architects are taught how to conceive, finance, and sell a project, often leveraging affordability by taking advantage of zoning loopholes. Smith says it creates a different kind of dynamic than simply designing something cool.

“The nonprofit sector puts huge constraints on building by specifying minimum bedroom size and a certain number of closets, so that by the time you’re done, you’re stuck with a cookie-cutter project to get the tax credit,” Smith says. “It’s about not letting the client make the wrong decision, which is so often the case. Very often the goal of affordable housing is to make it look like every other house, but every other house is 50 percent too big. My son grew up with his crib in a closet with the doors removed; it’s those sorts of crazy solutions that are efficient.”

Working with Mockbee’s former partner, Coleman Coker, in a practice that serves both mainstream and marginalized clients, Tate says Rural Studio had a profound personal impact. It’s taken a good 10 years, he says, to begin to structure his practice nontraditionally, but he sees more young graduates finding ways to do so immediately.

And there’s another, perhaps unintended, outcome of community-based university studios: Architects are doing a better job of designing forward-thinking homes that aren’t prohibitively expensive. “More and more people are beginning to realize that custom progressive homes are, in fact, accessible,” Mouton says. “We’re not just training architects to make cool houses; in a culture where most houses are designed by builders, we’re showing people that there are affordable options.”

Hands-on skills surely give affordability a boost. The Yale School of Architecture’s community-based Building Project studio, for example, teaches students to challenge the prevailing notion that architects should not build. “We have quite a few students who’ve tried to address larger social issues through design/build in their practice,” says director Adam Hopfner, who launched his own design/build firm after participating in the program.

The hope is that, with their real-world focus, these studios are creating a different kind of architect — one motivated by imagination and public spirit. “Students coming out are raising interesting questions about how one practices today,” says Parsons’ Lewis. “We’re seeing alumni translating the knowledge they get into design/build or offices with a more immediate relationship to construction economies.” That’s good news—not just for the profession and nonprofits, but for everyone.

good fellows
Graduation from architecture school brings with it energy, idealism, and an appetite for self-invention, but it often brings a mountain of debt too. What’s a socially conscious young graduate to do? One option is the Frederick P. Rose Architectural Fellowship. Established by the late developer Frederick P. Rose, of the New York City-headquartered Jonathan Rose Companies, and run by Enterprise Community Partners (ECP), the program pays a community development corporation (CDC) to bring an architect on staff for three years.

ECP chooses the CDCs and drafts the work program, which typically includes the roles of project manager, green guru, and vision keeper. In exchange, recipients receive more than the security of a regular paycheck. In addition to being sponsored for licensing and LEED accreditation, the nine fellows (three are chosen annually) meet several times each year for formal training on such topics as understanding tax credits, how to use a financial calculator, and negotiating skills. “Our goal is to create a next generation of architects who understand the community development process and can be leaders in that field,” says fellowship director Katie Swenson.

Through May 1, ECP is accepting applications for the next round of fellowships, which begin in September ( “We look for good designers with a demonstrated commitment to social and environmental justice and an entrepreneurial spirit,” Swenson says, adding that this isn’t the Peace Corps. “We don’t look for people who want an experience, but for people who want to make a career in this work.”


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places where you could probably learn more about designing and building in just a few days than I did after a year of grad school

Know of some others I can add here? Let me know. Have you already visited some of these places...or planning on it? Let me know and I will feature your story and your photos here!

I am starting a new kind of architecture school. Unlike most architecture schools, you wouldn't have to submit GRE scores or good grades or letters of recommendation. You wouldn't have to put the rest of your life on hold for 3 to 5 years. You wouldn't have to accrue tens of thousands of dollars in debt. At my architecture school, anyone could come for a few weeks and learn how to build a house with their own two hands. My teachers would take skills and concepts from some of these other workshops I've listed above... except classes would be held year-round to make it easy to fit into your schedule. I would have a number of different campuses around the country that would teach building designs appropriate to the local climate. And I need your help. Can you donate land for a campus? Can you dotate books for a library? Can you teach a workshop? Can you provide start-up capital? Let me know.

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