Hopeful Signs

As the end-of-semester crit wound down in John Quale’s EcoMOD studio at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, the fledgling architects and engineers ribbed one another. “You guys are hopeless nerds,” the architects said to the engineers, “with your slavish attachment to numbers!” “You’re impractical artistes,” the engineers countered, “who pro-pose unbuildable shapes.” Clearly, they were happy with their experience and the studio outcomes. Everyone agreed that the projects benefited from the intense collaboration.

The assignment was to design a small accessory home where Grandma and Grandpa could “age in place.” The resulting structure would adhere to the wisdom provided by the Jefferson Area Board for Aging and show an understanding of the precedents set in the seven years since Quale introduced the studio at UVA, a program with rigorous research at its heart. The steady accumulation of information was in the interest of proposing affordable, prefab, sustainable housing and documenting it on the EcoMOD Web site, where it would be available to everyone, including potential developers.

But whereas previous semesters’ design studios had real clients and locations in Charlottesville (the designs were built in various neighborhoods, with the aid of the Piedmont Housing Alliance and Habitat for Humanity), the ADUs (accessory-dwelling units) had an even larger agenda. These particular houses were designed for communities that were committed to Smart Growth and aimed to fill in the sprawl with thoughtful land use and energy-efficient architecture. Complicating matters, the designs needed to work for different climates: in Virginia, California, and Oregon. This defining feature of the assignment made the engineers’ studies of local environmental conditions crucial to all the proposals in the studio.

On that bright and cold December afternoon, as I left the creative buzz of the classroom behind and walked back to my quarters on Thomas Jefferson’s historic campus, I thought about the future and decided that I had just seen it, and it works. I could say that the cause for my optimism had something to do with retracing the footsteps of our polymath third president and observing all around me his lasting ideas about democracy, history, learning, architecture, and nature. But in fact, what I had just experienced can be seen as an innovative and visionary continuation of the Jeffersonian spirit of inquiry. His legacy is being paid forward to future generations as they learn the importance of research, collaboration, commitment to community, and respect for the earth and all of its creatures.

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