• Coleman Coker, director of the Gulf Coast DesignLab at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, assists and directs students as they construct a screened porch for their project, SHIFT. - photo by Natalie Avellar

How learning through making brings unique opportunities to architectural pedagogy

A kinship exists between former and current architecture students, brought about by the arduous task of late-night model-making in the first years of schooling. Through the duration of the program, though, emphasis tends to shift more heavily toward the production of drawings and other visualizations and away from physical models. While captivating section-perspectives and artistic collages display students’ visual communication prowess, model-making fosters the continual development of a project’s overall design and form. The practice of learning through making has been a pillar of architectural academia for decades. 

The ethos of one of the twentieth century’s most influential design institutions, Black Mountain College (1933–1957), was “learn by doing,” based on the educational philosophy popularized by American scholar John Dewey. Led by Josef and Anni Albers and Walter Gropius after the closing of the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College influenced the likes of Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, and Cy Twombly through an artistic approach that centered around making. Presently, learning through making exists most successfully within architectural academia at the scale of design-build studios. Such studios are typically offered later in the academic sequence and allow students to construct their design for a real client at a one-to-one scale. Design-build studios are already quite different from theory-based studios, but the approach to the design and construction methods—whether computational, analog, environmentally focused, or for different localities—can vary greatly based on the program, instructor, and institution. Design-build studios serve as a bridge between academia and practice, better preparing students for architecture beyond the academic setting. 

Design-Build as Means of Environmental Awareness

“Design-build has always been dependent on an instructor to lead design-build studios,” says Coleman Coker, and that’s exactly what he has done for more than a decade as director of the Gulf Coast DesignLab at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture (UTSOA). Coker’s highly regarded and regularly awarded Gulf Coast DesignLab is a popular offering among students due to its ecologically conscious ethos. Coker firmly believes in learning through making, which is why students spend approximately twenty-five days per semester constructing their design, which typically interacts with the fragile ecosystem of the Texas Gulf Coast. “Being out in the field gives them a deeper understanding of where they’re working and how place-based design can be influenced by the local ecology,” says Coker. 

Construction is a major component of each studio, but Coker notes that while he is “not trying to teach the students to be builders,” there is a cerebral awakening “when [students] dig the hole for a footing [as] it gives a different perspective and understanding than just drawing a rectangle on the plan.” The ability to physically build their design enables the students to have a closer relationship and more intimate understanding of the immediate site. Coker’s approach to learning through making isn’t restricted to lessons in tactility; it also enables students to gain an understanding of why architecture is, not just what architecture is, and who will be using it and why it is needed. This understanding of the relationship between the designer, user, and environment is all part of the broader learning experience. 

Similarly, Erin Hunt, assistant professor at Texas Tech University’s Huckabee College of Architecture, has recently co-taught various studios dealing with material reuse and fabrication. Hunt’s teaching, along with the work of former faculty member Neal Lucas Hitch, led to a submission for the 2023 Bethel Woods Art and Architecture Festival in upstate New York that utilized biowaste composite materials. The project—two thin-shell pavilions named Java and Jam—reflects the strong interest within academia to explore material reuse within new construction. 

Java, made from spent coffee grounds, and Jam, composed of white grape skins, were constructed using a parametric plywood structure and a contemporary approach to wattle and daub construction. While not all her studios realize a full-scale pavilion, Hunt emphasizes the importance of learning through making no matter the scale, noting that students “learn the process of iterative improvement, continually refining and enhancing their designs and fabrication methods to achieve the most refined outcome.” She adds that “this learning environment promotes risk-taking, encouraging students to step out of their comfort zones and [view] mistakes as opportunities for growth.” 

Making through Analog and Computational Methods

The past decade has provided extraordinary technological advances that have altered the world of academia and design. The intersection of computational design and design-build has been central to the teachings of Kory Bieg, AIA, associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs at UTSOA. In Spring 2023, Bieg’s students designed and built an installation that was created using computational and parametric design along with artificial intelligence. The students’ comprehensive parametric Grasshopper model—which even accounted for all bolt receptors, part numbers, and fastening notches—was cut on CNC machines to create modular aluminum and polycarbonate members. Once these were adjoined to create a waffled structure, 3D-printed parts were placed within the waffled cavities to provide structural rigidity and cover the wiring of the motion-detection lighting system. Students utilized ChatGPT to develop a code for the control board to enable this system. “What I think is so great about working digitally,” says Bieg, “is that it allows students to work much later into the semester and expands the design schedule,” meaning that the iterative process of learning through making extends further than most other design-build studios and enables students to explore a greater variety of outcomes. 

While Bieg’s studios are in high demand, UTSOA students similarly compete for enrollment in Mark Macek’s longstanding wood design studio. There, students spend the semester gaining an intimate knowledge of woodworking, which often culminates in uniquely rich pieces of furniture. An analog course, the studio provides students with an embodied knowledge of materials and tools, which Macek stresses is how “designers truly understand what they’re building.” He says students “understand grain direction because [they’ve] cut it the wrong way and the right way—the knowledge is in [their] hands.” The hours spent in the woodshop developing designs and gaining confidence with power tools and chisels are a constant cycle of testing and making. “If you want to know what the common ground is between architecture and craft, my answer is embodied cognition,” says Macek, paralleling architecture and furniture design. “As you experience buildings that are rooms full of space and light and furnishings, that experience is remembered in your body. It becomes part of your architectural vocabulary, [and] you draw on that experience when you design.” 

While the realized projects from Bieg’s studio are drastically different than Macek’s, both professors use very similar methods in their teachings: Their strict parameters force students to fully understand the design process and materials being used. Bieg says: “I like Mark’s class because no digital technologies are used, just as mine doesn’t really use analog methods. Although the two approaches are oppositional, they complement one another.” He notes that when working at the scale of furniture or installation, it is important to be constrained in the methods so that the methods aren’t explored superficially. Craft and precision are paramount to the design process in Macek’s studio, and Bieg points out that AI uses craft and precision in a different way: “The sequencing of words plays into the final output and quality of the image.”

Tyler Swingle, UTSOA’s current Emerging Scholar in Design Fellow, is also dedicated to teaching design through making as he pushes the boundaries of material characteristics within computational models, particularly dealing with timber. Material mapping—a spatial narrative for understanding material processes from harvesting to implementation in construction—is a common exercise in Swingle’s studios. This approach enables students to have “a better understanding of the material, [which] will yield better designs with more accountability.” It also allows students to focus on a range of topics, from the decomposition of a building to carbon sinks. This deep-rooted comprehension, stemming from site visits to East Texas forests, supports Swingle’s belief that “making is the way to engage with these larger issues” pertaining to ethical material sourcing. 

Designing for the Local Community

Associate professor of practice Darryl Ohlenbusch, AIA, has led design-build studios at the University of Texas at San Antonio for the past decade-and-a-half. Recognizing the importance of locally driven design, nearly all of his studios’ fifteen completed projects are located within Bexar County, with twelve of those built for the urban land trust organization Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas. 

Throughout the design process, students are engaged with community stakeholders, broadening their perspectives on the realities of working with public clients. Most projects are centerpiece structures for public parks or community gardens that bring visibility to infrequently visited spaces. The simplicity of the structures allows for streamlined, offsite prefabrication of most components, but Ohlenbusch emphasizes that students learn “how to detail in a way that recognizes the effects of weathering and exposure.” He even leaves enough room in the budget for one specialized connector detail to serve as a playful challenge to the students’ design-build process. 

At the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), assistant professor Julia Lindgren views “design-build as a hands-on approach to address pressing urban and social justice issues around Dallas-Fort Worth.” Lindgren and adjunct assistant professors Brad McCorkle and Cord Read lead design-build studios at the School of Architecture that have recently seen an immense increase in student interest. Over the past few years, McCorkle has led an ongoing studio that is constructing twelve tiny houses for senior citizens south of campus. Due to its duration and complexity, students are able to engage at various phases of the design and construction process, which McCorkle points out is a way for them to learn “that there are implications for what they draw.”

In contrast, Lindgren and Read have led one- and two-semester studios, each addressing “a micro-question in collaboration with project partners,” such as “How can a community farm become a wellness hub in a federally declared food desert?” Read says that the goal is for students to understand how to design for constructability by the end of the semester. UTA’s generously sized workspace even allowed students in one studio to assist in prototyping the next generation of bus stop shelters for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit. Lindgren shares that one of the benefits of the design-build program—beyond learning about construction processes and being better prepared for professional practice—is that many students “can see themselves reflected in the communities that they’re working with and how they can directly shape places through design.”

Similarly, Rice Architecture Construct (formerly the Rice Building Workshop) has prioritized student engagement through projects embedded within the community that “can effectively disseminate information and ideas to the public,” says Andrew Colopy. Colopy is an associate professor at the Rice University School of Architecture whose interest and research in accessory dwelling units (ADUs) has steered a shift at Construct in recent years. He challenges his students through a variety of questions such as “How can our research further engage the city and shape public policy?” and “How can we impact the Houston community more effectively?” Colopy’s studios and corresponding seminars are research-intensive, and two ADUs have been realized to date. Construct directors have met with the local planning director, and the studio’s efforts have contributed to changes to the city’s ordinances that reduce the parking requirement and increase the buildable area to help facilitate ADU development. 

Across town, at the University of Houston’s Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design, Patrick Peters has also focused on building for the community in his role as coordinator of the Graduate Design/Build Studio (GD/BS) for the past thirty-one years. The studio exposes first-year Master of Architecture students to the realities of design and construction early in their three-year degree program. 

With the bustling and sprawling metropolis of Houston at Peters’ disposal, a commitment to community-driven design permeates the program. “It is through creating climate-influenced permanent works of architecture for area nonprofits that we inform the students’ design process and teach principles of sustainable design and construction,” says Peters. 

Projects from the GD/BS have been designed for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, Port Houston, Hermann Park Conservancy, Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council, and various Houston Independent School District campuses, among other clients, revealing the enormity of the impact the GD/BS has on the greater metroplex. Peters reflects on the significance of community-driven design, saying that he views “the students’ contact and interaction with a diverse group of stakeholders and users as invaluable,” especially at the local level.

It’s inspiring to see that outside of Texas, many other admired architecture institutions also offer well-respected design-build studios, such as the Rural Studio at Auburn University, Dan Rockhill’s Studio 804 at the University of Kansas, URBANbuild at Tulane University, and Design Village at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Design-build studios have the ability to influence future interactions of young designers with users, the environment, and the design and construction process. 

When designing for real clients, empathy becomes a more profound component of the design process, something Julia Lindgren notices in every studio. “This has been a real learning moment for all the students,” she says. “To understand who they’re designing for is a real responsibility that the students feel and take on very seriously.” UTSOA dean Heather Woofter highlights this aspect of the courses as well, stating that design-build studios “provide a venue for students to engage with a real-world client and learn about the importance of communication as the role of architects is changing to be one of advocacy.”

When asked if there is an argument for more design-build studio offerings at schools of architecture, the respondents were emphatically in agreement. “Obviously, yes,” says Coleman Coker. “What [students] are designing they actually see built—not only the three-dimensionality of the work, but they can understand its relationship to the greater context.” Likewise, Erin Hunt states that “the programs provide valuable real-world experience and can bridge the gap between theoretical learning and practical application” that better prepares students for industry employment. Woofter emphasizes that exposure to these skills is at the core of our disciplines. She says, “It is our responsibility to our students and the profession that we prioritize them, just as we prioritize theoretical and critical engagement.”

But perhaps the most important outcome of design-build studios is the personal fulfillment felt by the individual students who take part in them. When it comes to the construction of a project, Patrick Peters notices that there is “consistently a moment of great joy and surprise when a student sees what he or she has been modeling or drawing realized at full scale.” When students learn through making, they acquire self-assuredness in their design abilities. Says Mark Macek: “I see a sense of confidence and accomplishment at the end of the semester that I’m not sure students get from non-design-build classes.” 

Cole Von Feldt is a designer, photographer, and writer educated in Austin and Copenhagen and trained in New York and Houston. He currently lives and works in New York.

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