In 2008, nearly a decade after meeting as one-year Outreach Program student's at the Rural Studio, Virginia Tech architecture graduate Keith Zawistowski, AIA, and his partner (and wife), Marie Zawistowski, returned to teach at his alma mater in Blacksburg, Va. There, the pair established their firm, OnSite, and started Design/BuildLab, a Rural Studio–inspired program for third-year architecture students.
From its earliest days, Design/BuildLab has focused its architectural energies on Clifton Forge, Va., an impoverished Appalachian rail town located about 70 miles northeast of campus. The town is one of several in Alleghany County where Marie, Keith, and their students have found a warm local reception, critical backing from a visionary community foundation, and substantial need for design services.
The resulting projects in Clifton Forge—a farmers market, an amphitheater, and a pedestrian bridge—grew from needs identified by the community. Each project is distinct—a new group of students design and build them every year. And while the professors are often credited with the award-winning work, "these are the students' projects," Keith says. "We just try to help our students do them as well as they can."
"This group of students was our first group of minimalists," says Marie of their 2013–2014 class, which begins to explain Design/BuildLab's latest project, an elegant fieldhouse for a little league baseball diamond.
Vertical, solid-steel studs, painted white, line the perimeter of the fieldhouse, while leaving it open to the air and to views of the adjacent baseball diamond. Three pavilions hold a concession kitchen, restrooms and storage for equipment, as well as a covered picnic area with tables designed by the students and crafted from leftover steel, respectively. A locally sawed white oak ceiling warms all three from within. "As clean and refined as everything is, it's all still handmade," Keith says. "The concrete work is wavy and imperfect, as are many of the welds."
Student Forrest Bibeau—now in his fourth year of Virginia Tech's five-year B.Arch. program—recalls a solo trip that he made to the fieldhouse shortly after its grand opening last August, when a local resident relayed the resoundingly positive community response to the project. "That feedback reinforced for me that what we do matters beyond just us as a studio," he says.
"The real lesson for our students is that they have to pour themselves into these projects," Marie says. "But then, they give it to a group of people and walk away. It reinforces my belief that architecture is a selfless act."
Project: Sharon Fieldhouse, Clifton Forge, Va.
Client: Clifton Forge Little League
Architect: Design/BuildLab, Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design, Blacksburg, Va. . Marie Zawistowski, Keith Zawistowski, AIA (professors of practice); Landon Williams, Molly Vaughan, Mitchell August, Ryan Myers, Julia Vasquez, Xiao Fu, Ellie Burns, Forrest Bibeau, Mykayla Fernandes, Kellen McGinley, John Iaconis, Chanel Carter-Harris, Barbara Dior Kane, Nancy Redenius, Tom Powers (student team)
Structural Engineer: Setareh Structural Engineering
Steel Fabrication Instructors: Jeffrey Snider, Matthew Tolbert
Civil Engineering: Virginia Tech Land Development Design Initiative . Randy Dymond, Kevin Young (professors); Charles McKeever (student)
Surveying: Vess Surveying
Size: 2,000 square feet
Materials and Sources
Airflow: Big Ass Fans
Ceilings: Union Church Millworks
Electrical: State Electric
Exterior Wall Systems: James Hardie; Huber
Glass: AGC Glass
Hardware: C.R. Laurence; Stafford Nut & Bolt; Simpson Strong-Tie; Sugatsune
Landscape: Lavery Sod Farm; Cooke’s Gardens; Boxley Materials
Paints and Coatings: Sherwin Williams; Waterlox
Plumbing and Water System: Zurn; Bradley; Blanco; Sloan; Dornbracht; Haws; Ferguson
Structural System: BMG Metals; ConRock & Amanda’s Redimix; Weyerhaeuser
Windows, Curtainwalls, and Doors: Trimble; Marvin Windows & Doors