Most Architecture students will tell you their passion for design drives them to work very hard on their studio projects. Many spend the hour-equivalent of a full time job each week pouring themselves into research, learning new software, design, presentation prep, etc. Then the all-important mid-term and final reviews require an extra surge of effort to produce quality, engaging work at the end of each semester.
One of the cornerstones of the curriculum at Louisiana Tech University’s School of Design is the ARCH 335 Design-Build Studio led by Professors Brad Deal and Robert Brooks. The design-build studio challenges third-year students to conduct design research and then apply that research to completing a rigorous collaborative design process in just 3 weeks. The students are expected to produce comprehensive construction documents, including budgetary considerations and real-time construction schedules, that will guide the building project during the the remaining 7 weeks of the class. It’s a fast paced “drinking-from-the-fire-hydrant” experience that aims to help students understand the full ramifications of their design decisions.
In 2014, the ARCH 335 Studio began a partnership with MedCamps of Louisiana, a non-profit organization that provides free summer camp experiences for children with chronic illnesses and disabilities. The camp’s mission involves providing transformative and empowering experiences for its patrons, which, conveniently, is a shared goal of most great architecture.
Each Spring the students tackles the camp’s most pressing facility needs, which in the past have included a barrier free central assembly space, an archery range, and a canoe launch. Through quality design and execution, these projects offer confidence-building experiences to their users. The design students describe the empathetic and energetic collaboration with MedCamps as highly motivational, allowing them to bring their design ideas into the real world for the first time and witnessing the positive impact they can have on the lives of the children that use them. The partnership has also had significant impact on the camp’s fundraising efforts, allowing them to expand the quality and quantity of their programs.
In the Spring of 2017, the studio took on its most ambitious project to date, a 340 ft. long bridge that spans the lake at the center of MedCamps’ facilities. The bridge, conceived in an earlier master plan, reduces the ¾ mile trek from the canoe launch to the archery range, a daunting task in the summer heat for campers with wheelchairs, crutches or heart conditions, to less than ¼ mile. In addition to the practical nature of the bridge, the studio provided accommodations specifically dedicated to fishing, one of the favorite activities of the campers. The difficulty of building over the water and the sheer scale of the project seemed to have placed this project out of the realm of feasibility for a student work. However, in the months leading up to the project, the donation of over 120 55-gallon plastic drums from area car wash facilities and 15,000 linear feet (over four tons!) of scrap steel rod from a local oil and gas company allowed the studio to develop an inexpensive floating modular frame that would become the structural system for a floating bridge.
“This is the coolest thing I have ever had the honor to be a part of. It really is an overwhelming emotional experience that I’m still processing. …This experience, despite its frustrations and bad days, has been the most important gift I’ve been given. Human beings are at their strongest when they are acting selflessly. A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to learn that lesson, especially not in this capacity.”
– Lacey Hanemann, 2017 Design Build Student
The design and research process led the team towards a conceptual framework centered around Pisces, the two fish connected by a chord from mythology. The fish use their chord to solve problems, help others and to ensure they don’t lose one another. Similarly the bridge serves to connect the two sides of the camp as well as forever link the student designers to the campers they served through their first built project. The Bridge shortens the journey between camp activities, creates opportunities for fishing and even allows canoes to pass through the bridge via a pivoting passage module. The fishing experience is also improved by detail elements designed and fabricated by students including rod holders, lowered guard rail areas, fishing jetties with gates as well as two large shade structures that mimic the form of two fish leaping out of the water over the bridge.
Despite the brief ten-week timeframe, such an impactful design and construction experience imparts tremendous intellectual, creative, emotional and physical lessons not easily replicated in traditional college classrooms. The outcomes for the students span from learning to use hand tools, to making better drawings and even to shifting the trajectory of their careers toward public service.
“The amount of dedication put towards this project by myself and everyone else, was not fueled by the hopes of getting a good grade but rather by the hopes of making a difference for the campers. I feel that this particular project has also changed me substantially. … I find myself wanting to go and above and beyond for other people.”
– Jonathan Nasser, 2017 Design-Build Student
ARCH 335 and its relationship with Medcamps and the larger community has allowed service learning to deeply impact the outlook of the students involved and their projects have allowed those that attend Medcamps to experience the power of quality design that prioritizes transformative experiences for its users. At its core, this program embodies the belief that education outside of the traditional classroom is not only worthwhile, but inwardly meaningful and outwardly powerful; and that design can represent that which we aspire to as a compassionate and hopeful part of the next generation of architects.
A brief film about the ARCH 335 studio is available here: https://vimeo.com/197240574
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Learn more about the Louisiana School of Design at www.design.latech.edu