• Abdiel Cota, a member of the first-place team, works on their design. - photo courtesy Socorro Independent School District

For more than two years now, we have been living under the “new normal,” our lives disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those most greatly affected by the virus were students, as they dealt with the loss of predictable daily routines and the social growth provided by in-person schooling. The experience of “shelter” — a shielded or safe condition — had been sorely lacking from students’ lives as they learned to navigate new unknowns. Thus it was particularly poignant when middle and high school students across the state rose to meet the Texas Society of Architects’ inaugural Student Design Challenge, established last summer by TxA’s Education Outreach Committee. The competition called for students to find creative design solutions surrounding the idea of shelter, specifically encouraging spaces for youth experiencing homelessness and other marginalized individuals in their communities.

Kyle Kenerley, AIA, chair of the TxA Education Outreach Committee, sees the competition as an invaluable opportunity to connect with students statewide and promote interest in the industry. “If we make this effort accessible to students at a young age, then they have a better idea of who they can reach out to in the future, rather than being completely clueless when they get to college,” Kenerley says. 

The competition received nearly 100 entries, more than the committee anticipated for the first year of the contest. Kenerley notes that the quality of submissions and presentations impressed the committee and jurors. Finalists presented their projects via prerecorded videos at TxA’s 82nd Annual Conference and Design Expo last fall in San Antonio to a panel of five jurors.

Among the five final projects recognized, three came from teams of students at El Dorado High School in El Paso. “That group in particular shined above the rest of the projects,” says Kenerley. 

The El Dorado students are led by teacher Luisa Valenzuela, AIA, who has taught the architecture program at the school since its inception in 2018, while also freelancing for New Republic Architects. The high school is home to the Aztec Architectural Academy, a unique program where students can earn college credit and take career and technical education courses, as well as become certified in Revit and AutoCAD. “The classes are specialized to teach the students what they will be doing in college and the industry,” Valenzuela says. 

Valenzuela explains the extra challenges the pandemic posed for her students, who learned how to draw to scale in PowerPoint without access to specialized software when school was being taught virtually. As students worked to complete their projects for the Design Challenge in August and September, some were returning to in-person learning for the first time in two years. They were learning the technology and creating their designs simultaneously, coming in on weekends to work. 

Abdiel Cota, a junior at El Dorado and a member of the first-place team, Desert Hope, marveled at how much they had all grown since the beginning of the project. “Everyone on the team had a variety of ideas, so we didn’t know how to start, or even how to design and work in Revit,” Cota says. 

Cota, along with teammates Ari Chavez and Jared Sanchez, designed a space “with the purpose of helping everyone who needs a safe place to go or call home.” Their project features a “minimalist building with warm colors that blend” into the desert landscape and climate of El Paso, complete with a cafeteria, a library, a gym, spaces for mental and physical health services, and living areas. 

When Valenzuela and her students learned of their success in the competition, they celebrated the recognition of their hard work. “I cried,” says Valenzuela, now laughing as she remembers the moment. “I told the students, ‘This is what happens when you really put 110 percent of your effort in. Don’t give up! Just keep on going.’” 

Exposure to the architectural field through projects like the Student Design Challenge and architecture classes before college can help students prepare for the future. “Architecture has helped me figure out what I like and what I want to do,” says Ana Becerra, a senior at El Dorado. “It’s taught me how to express my artistic self, and I’ve figured out I really like design. Architecture combines math and art, which are two of my favorite things.”

The Education Outreach Committee hopes to see participation grow even more with this year’s Design Challenge, which has a new theme: “CONNECTION: Design + Nature.” The deadline for submission is October 2.

“I’m very proud of the students,” Valenzuela says. “[This recognition] really helps them to see that they are at a level where they can design something that can be built.” 

Rachel Cooper is the communications coordinator at the Texas Society of Architects.

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