“The design-build movement really emerged out of sixties counterculture architecture, which was inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog, inflatables, and an amazing combination of futuristic and space technology, social experimentation, and community outreach—some of the things coming back now. In the 1980s, postmodernism—an all-face, no-space idea (perfect for the Reagan era)—took over, and architecture became more about image, and the social and environmental issues disappeared.
“The same issues that were around in the seventies have now returned again, and one of the big ones, of course, is energy. This time it seems a lot more urgent because it’s connected with climate change. It’s really the students who are driving these social issues, because they want to have meaning in their lives and want it to be embodied in their work. They’re frustrated with a profession that works at the top of the food chain. The students today don’t look like the students of the sixties, but there’s an undercurrent of the same sort of activism.
“My educational goals for them are twofold. One is to teach them how to build, teach them the repercussions of the lines they draw. But it’s not easy: just imagine sixteen students who have never built anything before, many of them with a Howard Roark mentality, trying to agree on a simple, buildable idea. It’s almost as if you have to reprogram them, because they’re taught that creativity is a solitary endeavor, and they can go home and stay up all night and not talk to anyone else and come back with the drawings and models and be a hero, as long as they can defend it at a jury. But most architecture in the world is done in teams.
“The other goal is to give them a social consciousness, and maybe nudge them into a different type of career or practice. I want them to have confidence in their ability as makers but also have a sense that architecture can make a real difference in the lives of people who can’t afford it. For me, teaching is an amazing experience. There is something basically healthy about hanging around young people who are still optimistic about their ability to have an effect on the world and their ability to do good. People of my generation are somewhat pessimistic, so I face optimism every day, and it keeps me from be-coming too cynical.”
How to train the next generation of collaborative thinkers by creating a design-build program that works:
1. Start small. New programs often try to build a bigger project for less money than is realistically possible with the time, budget, and skills available. Cost and time overruns are smaller and shorter for modest projects.
2. Design in groups. The competitive approach to deciding what scheme to build creates a hierarchy in the class, with winners (who are invested in the project) and losers (who think their ideas were better). A consen-sus process leads to group ownership of the concept and the willing participation of all dur-ing the construction phase.
3. Keep it simple. Students often try to use every move they’ve ever learned on a single tiny project. Eliminate excess elements and fussy details. Identify the “heavy hits” of the project, editing them down to a simple, legible design statement. Also, try to eliminate moving parts on student projects in the public realm, since they will inevitably require maintenance down the road, when the students are gone.
4. Think globally, act locally. Avoid the ambulance-chaser approach. Some programs do this well, but it’s much more efficient to work closer to home, where you can be more productive, save energy, and build community credibility.
5. Make it fun. Students love to build and design. Working in groups is potentially more fun than struggling on your own. Non-profit clients are typically incredibly grateful. All the elements are there—it’s up to instructors to keep the process as fabulous as the product.
From the notebook of Sergio Palleroni:
The idea of incorporating hands-on educational experience with socially responsible design is not a new one, but its cultural currency seems especially relevant today. “When we started this, there were just a few programs going—I could probably count them all on one hand,” says Sergio Palleroni, the cofounder and director of BaSiC Initiative, a multidisciplinary design-build program that for 13 years has challenged students to use their education in the service of poor people throughout the world. “Now I can’t even tell you all the programs going on. Part of that is maybe it’s the flavor of the season. But these projects also provide a rich experience in all the things that make architecture unique. It’s not just about the pure things you do on paper. It’s about community relations, talking to the client, figuring out what the site is about.”
Palleroni is based at Portland State University, but the program has affiliations with more than a dozen schools and organizations nationwide. The projects tend to start in the architecture and engineering departments but, depending on the complexity of the task, can often include business and public-policy students. “When projects come in through the door, we try to filter them by deciding ‘Can we make an impact on them?’ We can’t contribute to everything. And, secondly, we ask, ‘Will they provide a good educational opportunity, for us and for the community?’” —Martin C. Pedersen