Hey, when do we get to build something?

Students of the GDBS with their work. From http://www.uh.edu/gdbs/site_installation.html.

Students at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture at the University of Houston have a unique opportunity: the Graduate Design-Build Studio program, where students get the opportunity to create a structure from design through fabrication and all the way to construction. These structures, mostly pavilions or other shade structures, while usually fairly simple, provide the students with an invaluable experience.

These projects start as a fairly basic design studio, where students do research and design schemes to try to solve certain problems of a site.

Students in design studio. From http://www.uh.edu/gdbs/spring_design.html.

The more ambitious designs that architects often create are generally pared down to a more workable design, which is appropriate considering most of the students have little to no construction experience. This is important because it helps designers to understand what building is like beyond the design phase. Architects often have trouble picturing how their designs will work for anyone else. While they try to envision how it will be for users (although there are many that aren’t even willing to let that distract them from their artistic statement), few are terribly concerned about the work of welders, carpenters and masons that go into making the building a reality.

Students, after settling on a design, move on to the fabrication phase.

Student working on the metal parts of the pavilion. From http://www.uh.edu/gdbs/shop_fabrication.html.

Students are given arc welders and circular saws and produce the components of their project themselves. This is where the class moves beyond design and into real-world building. This is honestly something that I wish were more widely available for design students. As the kid whose favorite toys were Legos growing up, I wish that we had more opportunities to actually pick up some tools and get our hand dirty. The students assemble the parts in the warehouse to make sure everything fits, and then it is taken apart again and moved to the site.

Professionals do assist the students in using larger tools such as augers and cement mixers, but the students still survey the area, put up forms, work the concrete, and install the fabricated elements.

Students insalling a concrete bench. From http://www.uh.edu/gdbs/site_installation.html.

This project in particular included more specialized work, as solar panels were installed on the roof and wiring had to run from the structure. In the end, the students get a project that they can look at and know that they were a part of from start to finish.

This is a great experience for the students, and also for the users of the new facility, who are often schools and other institutions in need. I don’t at all question the importance and efficacy of the program, and wish that I personally could participate in something so hands-on. However, I do question whether some of the designs are the most appropriate.

Shade is an important element of the public realm in hot places such as Houston. However, there is more than one way to create shade. In many ways, I think that trees or some other sort of landscape installation may be more appropriate for the Houston climate. These structures, while they provide shade, also create added stormwater runoff, which can be an issue when a large storm or hurricane hits Houston. Such a structure may be more appropriate in nearby San Antonio, which gets much less rain. Trees may not work well in San Antonio, where their water requirements might be burdensome, but in much wetter Houston, they might be a better option than permanent structures. While trees could not work as a site for solar panels, there are plenty of existing structures with flat roofs that would work just as well, and may require less copper, an increasingly expensive construction material.

This is a great program, one that should be considered at other graduate design programs, and leads me to ask, when do we students at Penn get to build something?


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

One Response to Hey, when do we get to build something?

  1. Jazz says:

    I am one of the students who designed/built this project, and we want to thank you for featuring our work. I also want to comment on the last part of your post about the trees and stormwater runoff. You are right about the shading problem in Houston. We actually just finished planting 3 new Mexican sycamore trees to help create more shading area. It has also been really dry here so there has not really been a problem with storm water. However, we do have a rain garden on the south side of our structure to help with that problem. 🙂

    Anyway, thanks again for featuring our work!

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