integrated design studios coast to…

…well, not exactly coast to coast, but central North Carolina to Kansas, at any rate.  ‘Tis the season…

OK, to get back on that soapbox from last week for just a minute…The National Architectural Accreditation Board made a fundamental change to its list of Student Performance Criteria last year, re-organizing and re-emphasizing the couple of dozen aspects of architectural design and practice that any school needs to demonstrate to receive accreditation.  On one level we’re sort of casually interested, since we received an eight-year re-accreditation in 2012.  But Comprehensive Design was one area that we were flagged for, and so we’ve watched as the accreditation criteria have changed.  It’s a bit self-serving to say so, but to my eyes the revision matches more closely what we’ve always done, and what we’ve consistently battled NAAB over for the last 15 years.

At the risk of boring the readership, here’s the language that schools used to be held to:

Comprehensive Design: Ability to produce a comprehensive architectural project that demonstrates each student’s capacity to make design decisions across scales while integrating the following SPC:
A.2. Design Thinking Skills
A.4. Technical Documentation
A.5. Investigative Skills
A.8. Ordering Systems
A.9. Historical Traditions and Global Culture
B.2. Accessibility
B.3. Sustainability
B.4. Site Design
B.5. Life Safety
B.8. Environmental Systems
B.9. Structural Systems

So, in effect, students had to produce projects that would fully meet all of these criteria–demonstrably code-legal, environmentally efficient, structurally sound, and historically/culturally conscientious.  Nothing wrong with that, but in practice Comprehensive studios became the place where visiting teams could score easy points–a door swinging the wrong way in one project, for instance (bitter?  Not me), and the whole program could fail.

We had always made big noises about how Comprehensive studio should be comprehensive, and to incorporate the vast range of criteria involved we took an integrative approach.  Do your doors swing the wrong way?  OK, that’s a problem, but if that’s part of an overall project that’s looked for ways to blend a reasonable exiting strategy with everything else, we thought that met the spirit of the law, was forgivable in the grand scheme of the studio, and in hindsight we were pretty obstinate (too obstinage, apparently) about that when visiting teams showed up.  Other programs met this criteria by having students basically do construction drawings for super-reductive programs (two-story suburban office parks, e.g.), and we thought that kept the bar for design unconscionably low.

So when the 2014 revisions came out, my colleagues and I couldn’t wait to page through and find the new Comprehensive criteria, because the word on the street had been that our objections, along with a couple of dozen other schools, had been heard.  And, in fact, the whole notion of a “Comprehensive” project got shelved–when you think about it, asking a 23-year old with maybe a summer or two of practice to design a perfect project is pretty ridiculous (disagree?  Well, then I assume you do your own mechanical engineering?  Never hired a code consultant?).  Instead, NAAB even adopted a new title that reflected a more holistic approach that suggested looking for the forest in addition to the trees:

Integrative Design: Ability to make design decisions within a complex architectural project while demonstrating broad integration and consideration of environmental stewardship, technical documentation, accessibility, site conditions, life safety, environmental systems, structural systems, and building envelope systems and assemblies.

Total win.  “Broad integration and consideration” ring far truer in terms of a design student’s abilities, knowledge, and–frankly–how we educate architects today.  Any project in an Integrative Design Studio still needs to show that code, environment, structure, and cladding have all been part of the design strategy, but the “tick-in-the-box” mindset has all but disappeared.  If a door swings the wrong way it can still get called out and discussed, but it no longer invalidates the entire project.

Christensen Mueller_Page_4

King Street Station Hotel, ARCH 603 project by Frank Mueller and Nick Christensen

So, Integrative Design Studios are now a thing, and last week I was lucky to sit on juries for three good ones–our own ARCH 603 reviews as well as those at UNC-Charlotte and at Kansas State.  And while there’s still a range of approaches evident, including a few construction drawing sets in the mix, there are also more and more presentations that go back and forth between diagrams and renderings, system drawings and models–that do that binocular vision thing where the forest and the trees both get documented, and the relationships between one and the other get explained, proving that they’ve also been thought about.  This, to me, is what any design education is all about.  Do you understand the basic vocabulary of forms, elements, components, and systems, and do you understand the rules–the grammar, maybe–that determines how all of these have to relate?  That takes enormous cognitive attention and labor, and that, more than anything else, is what I hope our students leave us with; an understanding of the architect’s role as orchestrator and the immense effort and responsibility that takes.



King Street Station Hotel, ARCH 603 project by Bryan Johnson, Nathan Peters, and Thomas Thatcher

And, of course, this also jibes with the immense brainpower that now sits on student desktops.  Data-driven design is no longer a buzzword, it defines how a whole generation of students tackles a complicated project.  Get critiqued on daylighting?  Run a quick Sefaira model to find out whether you or the crit (or neither of you) are right and adjust accordingly.  All of that brainpower, of course, is uncoordinated–so far, though Grasshopper is now also a legitimate cognitive assist in studio–so the integration still has to take place in the discussions, sketches, and noodling around that (thankfully) still goes on around the desktop.


Finally, while there’s no requirement for it in the new criteria, it’s cheering to see that the final results still get held to the basic scrutiny of human experience.  All the correct decisions in the world can still easily lead to a design that sucks, and that subjectivity will keep juries, studio critics, and designers contentedly arguing no matter what evidentiary backup gets produced.  Good to see over the last week that students remain passionate about creating things that touch our souls even as they meet the ever more demanding criteria for demonstrating fluency in the stuff of building.  Heading off to break feeling humbled by the great work I’ve seen this past week and recharged by the energy, thought, and flat-out joy that’s been on display in these three programs…

Elliott Vansice 24

King Street Station Hotel, ARCH 603 project by James Elliott and Kyle Vansice

uncc reviews

IMG_125835 minutes from alarm to gate this morning…Charlotte’s legendary traffic isn’t nearly as impressive at 5:00am.  A good day yesterday reviewing projects at UNC-Charlotte.  Our programs have been nicely hybridized over the last ten years or so–we’ve traded faculty and made enough connections that there’s been a good bit of healthy sharing, and it’s been nice to get out here for the first time in a few years and review Comprehensive Design projects for former colleague Chris Beorkrem.

(I meant, of course, Integrated Design.  NAAB’s change in nomenclature is significant, and it represents a shift in what this accreditation requirement means…no longer do students have to show mastery of every technical detail, they have to show that they understand how various systems interact and how a holistic approach to engineering, construction, function, climate, life safety, etc. needs to account for each of these.  This isn’t without controversy, but it jibes very well with what we’ve emphasized at ISU.  Specialists do the math, we do the orchestrating, and while you need to anticipate what sort of solutions the number crunching is going to give you, we need to get it 90% right to begin with.  And, since a 15-week project isn’t really any more than schematic design, it’s getting to this 90% that’s most important–not drilling down and getting one or two systems 100% right and having no time to think about the rest.  Soapbox being put back in its place).

IMG_1266Anyway.  A lot of 90% being done right in Prof. Beorkrem’s graduate studio review yesterday.  By happy coincidence, they’ve been working on a high rise in downtown Charlotte that’s a similar scale as, and on a similar site to our Seattle project, so it felt very comfortable sliding into their world.  As you can see, they’ve emphasized all the usual elements–structure, cladding (this one’s got a Ned Kahn-inspired fluttering wind screen).  But Chris also asked them to incorporate some parametric aspect into the processes, so there were interesting forms that came about as results of programming, solar, and circulatory responses.  What your data come up with are often richer and more interesting than anything that comes out of your aesthetic instincts…but it takes those instincts to make sense of the data.  Lessons worth repeating.

IMG_1252IMG_1251UNCC has had an incredible decade and a half or so.  It’s gone from being a commuter school to being a powerhouse of design, computation, and fabrication (one of the world’s few degrees in motorsports engineering, e.g.), and any visit means seeing what the new toys are.  Robot arm?  Check.  They live and breathe the philosophy that these are studio toys, though, not lab toys, so instead of being locked away in a clean room the cutters, routers, robot arms, and high-end processors are all in the same suite of rooms that double as classrooms and studios.  So students get familiar with the equipment on a day-to-day basis instead of having to run across campus to have a grad assistant run their models for them.  As a result, there are some really innovative projects going on, including this one that produced precisely deformed steel sheets by having the robot arm draw with a ball-bearing ‘finger.’  With very carefully calibrated differences in pressure the arm slowly, patiently presses the sheet into forms that could be ornamental, or could stiffen curtain wall panels, etc., etc.  Pretty stuff, and nicely complemented by morning reviews of projects in a combined design/computation master’s program that looked at software and hardware ‘nudges’ to change energy-intensive behaviors.

Oh, and the reviews were held in their fifth year graduate suite, housed in the brand new Kieran Timberlake satellite campus downtown, pictured above.  Every hip school in the U.S. these days is building a new KT building, of course…

old home week–lego style

I’ve hit the point in my academic career where there’s a “circle of life” moment every so often–a former student who suddenly shows up as a colleague, for instance.  This week was a pretty glorious example.

Dan Winger graduated from our B.Arch. program in 2003, after surviving one of my first studio teaching experiences (our inaugural Comprehensive Design studio, in fact).  Dan was a brilliant drafstman–his sketches were consistently amazing but it was clear that his interests lay well beyond architecture.  We kept in touch a bit after he graduated, and after a couple of years of–by his own account–waiting tables he was accepted to the Art Center College of Pasadena in their industrial design program.  Where, obviously, he did well.

Winger has been with LEGO almost ever since, and he’s now a Senior Concept Designer for the LEGO Future Lab, an R&D branch that produces things that, as he admits, he can’t really talk about.  But he did talk about some of the projects he’s worked on that are on the market now, including some of the company’s digital innovations.  LEGO Worlds, for example, which is basically an infinite digital LEGO kit.

Scratch almost any architect and you’ll find a one-time LEGO maniac under the surface.  Like me, Dan grew up with a tub of random parts (but I’ll bet he doesn’t remember when they started including wheels in sets…me and LEGO go back pretty far).  I think that a lot of the appeal has always been the low-context nature of the bricks.  Nothing you can build in your playroom has the verisimilitude that, say, a ready-made plastic toy has.  Your mind always had to fill in the blanks, and I think that sort of engagement made the bricks that much more interesting…to some of us.

LEGO today, of course, has taken the 2×4 brick and turned it into an empire…robotics, digital and board games, etc.  LEGO Worlds turns that around–even though the company got beaten to the punch by Minecraft (and, arguably, by SimCity), the idea of a never-ending supply of bricks online finally satisfies that part of my brain that was always–always–looking for one more red 1×2.

Dan spent the afternoon in our studios, interested in the digital tools we use today and talking about the links between industrial design and architecture.  Architectural education often seems like a good liberal design education that can be translated into any number of fields, and our graduates have gone on to careers in law, medicine, urban planning, development, software design, and–yep–product design after their time with us.  Seeing the LEGO-architecture inspiration go full circle was particularly rewarding.

And, just to show that the apple doesn’t fall that far away, my 15-year old son joined me in the audience for the lecture.  Afterwards I suggested that we download LEGO Worlds and mess around with it.  Turned out he’d been playing with the beta version for months already…