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

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