The AIA has targeted the teaching of how buildings are made as the weakest aspect of architectural education, and there is some merit to this charge. Because of time constraints (among other things), most traditional studios result in what can only be called schematic design. Design development, construction documents, materials and methods, and structures generally are taught as isolated subjects, and the transfer of that knowledge into studio design often is negligible.
But technology is most meaningful when integrated into the studio context, and there is no substitute for hands-on experience. Three-dimensional reality suggests solutions that are elusive or simply impossible to detect at the drawing board or computer screen. The best architects understand the logic and poetics of construction, and the best way to teach this is to build.
The design/build movement emerged out of ’60s counterculture architecture, which looked to ecology, new technologies, social experimentation, and community outreach. In 1967, Charles Moore started The Yale Building Project as a way to harness student interest in social justice issues and their frustration with hypothetical “paper architecture.” Storefront community design centers were started at many schools at the same time.
Students today don’t look like the students of the ’60s, but there’s an undercurrent of the same activism, and that is fueling the resurgence of design/build studios. Students are frustrated with theory-driven virtual architecture and a profession that works at the top of the food chain. They are pushing for outreach, hands-on experiences because they want meaning in their lives and want it to be embodied in their education.
Tips for schools embarking on design/build programs: 1. Start small—be realistic about available time, money, and skills. 2. Design by consensus, to avoid creating a hierarchy within the class. 3. Keep it simple (identify core ideas and eliminate fussy details). 4. Think Globally, Act Locally–avoid the ambulance-chaser approach.
Finally, 5. Make it fun. Students love to build. Working in groups is fun, and most nonprofit clients are incredibly grateful. All the pieces are there: It’s up to the instructor to keep the process as fabulous as the product.