How University Construction Projects Offer Opportunities to Reform Architecture Education

University of Kansas, The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image © James Ewing Photography
University of Kansas, The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image © James Ewing Photography

There is a dichotomy to the business of educating architects. While the real world profession is a collaborative field, one in which projects of even the largest and most publicly-acclaimed offices are team-led initiatives, the study of architecture is often insular, myopic, and devoid of such partnerships. Certainly there is a benefit to this style of teaching – it builds confidence for one thing – but it is troubling to think that in a socially-oriented and practically-minded field like architecture, there can be such major disconnects between the process of designing and the act of building. As many critics of current architectural education have pointed out, incorporating design-build projects into school curriculums is a pragmatic solution oriented towards correcting such imbalances.

The fact that more schools don’t have programs for students to both design and build their projects is especially perplexing when most universities, particularly those located in the United States, are in such a prolonged period of institutional and budgetary expansion. With many schools now governed like corporate entities, it’s surprising that architecture programs and students are not treated like in-house resources. Why aren’t architecture students treated like assets, the same way that student doctors and nurses are brought into university led medical facilities or scientists into campus research labs?

Munroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering, Design: Brett Virgl, Ruth Barankevich. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–LincolnMunroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering, Design: Lily Cai & Phuong Nguyen. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–LincolnUniversity of Kansas, Ecohawks Research Facility, 2013. Image Courtesy of Studio 804University of Kansas, Center for Design Research, 2011. Image Courtesy of Studio 804+32

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University of Kansas, The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image Courtesy of Studio 804

University of Kansas, The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image Courtesy of Studio 804

Glass Installation at The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image Courtesy of Studio 804Form Work for the Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image Courtesy of Studio 804Auger Excavation for the Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image Courtesy of Studio 804Auditorium, The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image Courtesy of Studio 804+32

Two schools of the American Midwest, namely the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and Studio 804 of theUniversity of Kansas, are taking up the matter by upending traditional pedagogies, giving architecture students a say – and in some cases, the actual means to build new facilities for their chosen places of study.

In standard educational environments, architecture students are often restricted to the design stages of a project, and thanks to the industry’s progressive segmentation of roles, many have limited experience with construction. This was the reasoning for Dan Rockhill to establish Studio 804 at the University of Kansas. “The entire youth culture has changed over the course of my teaching career of 45 years,” says Rockhill. “I watched the tectonics of architecture alarmingly slip away.” In 1995, while teaching Arch804, the last studio before graduate students complete their degrees, Rockhill came across an opportunity for a design build project, a roof for an open-air stone schoolhouse building, and quickly realized how pivotal this experience could be for his students. The opportunity provided a means for learning about everything that a typical studio couldn’t; it was hands-on, fully collaborative, and a project that students could see through to being a finished product.

In any of Studio 804’s projects there is no subcontracting: everything from welding to concrete forms to digging is done by the students. This strategy is part of the Studio’s dynamic and at the foundation of its success. According to Rockhill, “the students realize that they’re going to have to depend on one another to get things done, and this helps build the camaraderie.” This is not your typical design studio, meeting once or twice a week for desk-crits and group reviews. Students take no other courses when working forStudio 804; it’s an academic setting that operates more like a job, 12 hours a day, six days a week.

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University of Kansas, The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image © James Ewing Photography

University of Kansas, The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image © James Ewing Photography

University of Kansas, The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image © James Ewing PhotographyUniversity of Kansas, The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image © James Ewing PhotographyUniversity of Kansas, The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image © James Ewing PhotographyUniversity of Kansas, The Forum at Marvin Hall, 2014. Image © James Ewing Photography+32

While students initially worked on projects outside the university, especially single-family houses, an important change happened in 2008. After a tornado devastated Greensburg, Kansas, Studio 804 reacted to a new mandate from the Greensburg City Council that all future publicly funded city buildings must be designed to LEED Platinum specifications. Studio 804’s Sustainable Prototype was the first building built by students to achieve the standard, and the first LEED Platinum building in the state of Kansas. With a history of using donated, recycled and salvaged materials, Studio 804 has never been a stranger to measures of sustainability, but as these principles have become more widely accepted, they have played a more integral role in shaping the studio. The methods, says Rockhill, “are time-consuming, methodical, and careful,” especially for a standard like LEED that requires bi-weekly reviews, and for which even details as minute as the type of caulking are vetted in an approval process. But Rockhill relishes in the rigor, and although students may not have the requisite skills at the start of the semester, many alumni are now the directors of sustainability in their offices.

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University of Kansas, Center for Design Research, 2011. Image Courtesy of Studio 804

University of Kansas, Center for Design Research, 2011. Image Courtesy of Studio 804

University of Kansas, Ecohawks Research Facility, 2013. Image Courtesy of Studio 804University of Kansas, Center for Design Research, 2011. Image Courtesy of Studio 804Panel Installation at Ecohawks Research Facility, 2013. Image Courtesy of Studio 804University of Kansas, Center for Design Research, 2011. Image Courtesy of Studio 804+32

The high standards and resultant praise for the Studio’s designs certainly shaped an already agreeable relationship between Rockhill and the University of Kansas. After the University put forth its own agenda to support and promote sustainability, in 2011 the Center for Design Research became Studio 804’s first building designed for the campus. The Center is a facility “that aids in the education of the university and community on sustainable strategies, material innovation and building efficiency.” Two years later, the Studio designed EcoHawks Engineering Research and Teaching Facility, “a refined space for the research, fabrication and refurbishment of electric vehicles.” Most recently, Studio 804 had the somewhat self-reflexive task of an addition to the University’s architecture building in The Forum at Marvin Hall. The space provides a much-needed auditorium for lectures and guest speakers and facilities for student presentations and reviews.

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Galileo's Pavilion (Johnson County Community College Center for Sustainability), 2012. Image Courtesy of Studio 804

Galileo’s Pavilion (Johnson County Community College Center for Sustainability), 2012. Image Courtesy of Studio 804

Galileo's Pavilion (Johnson County Community College Center for Sustainability), 2012. Image Courtesy of Studio 804Galileo's Pavilion (Johnson County Community College Center for Sustainability), 2012. Image Courtesy of Studio 804Galileo's Pavilion (Johnson County Community College Center for Sustainability), 2012. Image Courtesy of Studio 804Galileo's Pavilion (Johnson County Community College Center for Sustainability), 2012. Image Courtesy of Studio 804+32

Scale is at the heart of Studio 804’s success in campus building. The projects fulfill a university need at a scale that can be completed in just under a year. Without these limitations, students might not be able to see a project through from start to finish. Although working with students dramatically reduces costs and simplifies procedures, Rockhill does not envision a future where larger university projects could be completed by students. “Procurement,” says Rockhill, “is the biggest stumbling block. Institutions have taken years to develop ironclad procedures to protect themselves from any misappropriations that our process flies in the face of.”

But while students may never engage with large-scale university construction in a true design/build capacity, this doesn’t mean that architecture students can’t be consultants. For many years at theUniversity of Nebraska – Lincoln, students have engaged with various design studios that have the school’s campus as their focus. According to Jeffrey L Day, Professor and Director of the Architecture Program, “While there is no specific location in the curriculum for campus based design projects, such work occurs anywhere from the first semester, first year Design Thinking class (part of the d.ONE curriculum) to the final year of the M.Arch program.”

In the past, student projects have ranged from interior spaces for a new multicultural center, to expansion plans for the College of Architecture, an addition to the Sheldon Art Museum, and landscape studies for the new campus masterplan. Working with FACT (Fabrication And Construction Team), UNL students are able to become part of a “forum for exploration aimed at expanding the understanding of the complex relationships between thinking (conceiving, designing, theorizing) and making.” Day acknowledges that the College’s long term goal is “to expand our role as the home design team on campus with new projects and increased responsibility.”

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Munroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering, Design: Lily Cai & Phuong Nguyen. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Munroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering, Design: Lily Cai & Phuong Nguyen. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Munroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering, Design: Lily Cai & Phuong Nguyen. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–LincolnMunroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering, Design: Lily Cai & Phuong Nguyen. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–LincolnMunroe Meyer Institute, Axonometric Plan, Design: Lily Cai & Phuong Nguyen. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–LincolnMunroe Meyer Institute, First Floor Plan, Design: Lily Cai & Phuong Nguyen. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–Lincoln+32

Building on the aspiration for greater engagement, during the Fall 2015 semester UNL students worked with instructor Sheila Elijah-Barnwell on a project to redesign the Munroe-Meyer Institute (MMI), a service and support facility for individuals with intellectual, developmental, or genetic disabilities, and a part of the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC). The graduate-level design-research studio was conceived with a focus on health and healthcare concerns, and was joined by fourth-year undergraduate interior design students during its last five weeks. Elijah-Barnwell explained that graduate students first conducted population research, a precedent study, and a campus analysis for the potential sites in groups of three. Students then worked individually to further develop a particular site, prompting them to create initial design studies, and were later paired with an interior design student enabling the groups of two to complete the project as an interdisciplinary partnership.

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Munroe Meyer Institute, Atrium Rendering. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Munroe Meyer Institute, Atrium Rendering. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Munroe Meyer Institute, Atrium Rendering. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–LincolnMunroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–LincolnMunroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–LincolnMunroe Meyer Institute, First Floor Plan. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–Lincoln+32

Through the duration of the project, students were able to consult a number of relevant parties, including Interim Director of MMI, the Interim Executive Director of UNMC-Facilities, Planning and Construction, Departmental Directors from MMI, several nurses, patient family members and allied professionals. But the commitment to give students access to real stakeholders doesn’t stop there: I asked Elijah-Barnwell if medical students were also consulted, and although they weren’t due to the brevity of the studio, “In the future,” she said, “we would like to provide health design studio topics that also offer course credit for students in related but non-architectural programs.” Involving relevant parties helped students devise some unexpected proposals, such as co-locating office and staff support areas, thereby reducing the distances patients would have to travel, having a reciprocal effect on anxiety and thereby generating an increase in satisfaction, it would also be a boon towards achieving a more interdisciplinary approach from the care team.

Ideas developed in the design studio will help to streamline the process of selecting a firm for construction when the time arrives. Even if student ideas are not ultimately incorporated into the final project, they will certainly help guide the process. As noted by Elijah-Barnwell, “Students were given a straw program at the onset, but through their research and precedent study were really able to challenge some of the assumptions built into the program and push the design palette on this campus through building orientation, massing, and use of materials.”

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Munroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering, Design: Brett Virgl, Ruth Barankevich. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Munroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering, Design: Brett Virgl, Ruth Barankevich. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Munroe Meyer Institute, Atrium Rendering, Design: Munroe Meyer Institute, Atrium Rendering, Design: Brett Virgl, Ruth Barankevich. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–LincolnMunroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering, Design: Brett Virgl, Ruth Barankevich. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–LincolnMunroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering, Design: Brett Virgl, Ruth Barankevich. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–LincolnMunroe Meyer Institute, Exterior Rendering, Design: Brett Virgl, Ruth Barankevich. Image Courtesy of College of Architecture University of Nebraska–Lincoln+32

As pioneering studios have tangibly demonstrated the ability for schools to grow and evolve through the insight and passion of their students, will we begin to see more architecture programs and their parent institutions follow similar trajectories? Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Dan Rockwell if he is ever consulted by others seeking advice about starting a program similar to Studio 804. He said that inquiries arrive in his inbox almost daily – and that perhaps unsurprisingly, the inquiries are often from students themselves.

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