The Kids Are Alright in Green Housing Competition

When the Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) Home Competition opened last summer in Roanoke, Virginia, it became an instant inspiration for architecture students and educators from around the world. Prompted by the competition’s call for affordable, sustainable urban housing, as well as the fact that the winning designs would be built in the city’s neighborhoods, dozens of universities initiated green-building studios to prepare students for the contest. After all, the competition offered a hands-on project rare in most academic studios: a chance to re-imagine the American house through the lens of ecological design.

Conceived by Roanoke architect Gregg Lewis, C2C Home was based on the design principles laid out in William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The book’s tenets—which include embracing renewable energy, recyclable materials, and nature as a model for design—present formidable challenges even to seasoned architects. But the student designers who enrolled in the competition were undaunted. Nearly 400 entered in the individual student category, while roughly 500 more were members of the 51 university teams.

The four students awarded prizes—Sean Wheeler, Virginia Tech; Damien Urain Linnen, Clemson; Jinyong Yum, University of British Columbia; and Robert Gay, University of Texas—also won the opportunity to be on-site interns while their designs are being built by local construction companies. The groundbreaking for the first C2C home is scheduled for May 2005.

Wheeler, Linnen, Yum, and Gay all found innovative, skillful ways to integrate cradle-to-cradle principles into their cost-effective, site-specific designs, but most students began the design process just trying to get a practical grasp of C2C ideas.

“The cradle-to-cradle paradigm is complex and operates at many levels,” says Anna Marshall-Baker, head of the interior architecture program at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “The difficulty for students, and for everyone involved in this kind of design work, is keeping in mind all the layers at the same time.”

To do that, students first had to take the paradigm apart. Marshall-Baker’s class, for example, began by investigating the effects of a variety of materials on human and environmental health. In other studios, students developed a palette of locally harvested and manufactured building products. Prize-winner Wheeler identified easily accessible materials in Roanoke’s waste stream, such as billboards, tractor trailers, and train cars, which could be used as framing and skin for his portable, modular “pMod” homes.

Students coupled their material inquiries with research on solar energy and living technologies. Many also visited the building sites in Roanoke. Students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, for example, spent four days studying the relationship between the sites and the surrounding neighborhoods, talking with neighbors and imagining designs that would soften the boundaries between house, landscape, and community.

Yet not all students were able to develop strong concepts for their designs. The jury chose to select no winners from the university teams’ category, as the submissions were generally regarded as too weak to build.

Part of the problem, it appears, was the complexity of the assignment. Three out of four of the student winners developed C2C Home projects as part of their graduate thesis or advanced postgraduate work, bringing to the competition both refined skills and an orientation to sustainability. The students on university teams tended to be less experienced; in many cases they were trying to get a practical grasp of the concepts and apply them to home building, all within the time frame of a single semester. The university teams also lacked the multi-disciplinary expertise that makes professional collaboration so effective. The result: their entries tended to capture only a single element of cradle-to-cradle design, working better as polemics than designs for new homes.

University of North Carolina’s Marshall-Baker found these shortcomings neither surprising nor disappointing. “Regardless of the outcome of the competition, C2C Home was an invaluable service to design education,” she says. “It gave us a vehicle to introduce critically important ideas into the design studio, not just conceptually, but practically. My students were reeling from the challenge, but they loved it. Whether they become signature designers or not, they now understand that the design of the built environment has to change and they can take part in changing it. As their teachers, it’s up to us to help them develop the skills to do that well.”

Categories: Residential Architecture, Uncategorized