Good Enough? // Brock Traffas
A comparison of “traditional” architecture school projects to our Design+Make project.
Abstract: A series of perceived shortcomings suggest that architectural education as a whole is missing some of the point. There are many reasons for this. We took this studio because of a desire to know and appreciate more about the process of construction and the art of fabrication. However, it’s taught us much more than we anticipated. It’s taught us about what is truly important in the project and how a seemingly ordinary program and constrictive budget can still turn into something extraordinary.
Audience: The Design+Make studio has been growing over the past six years. We’re looking to publications and industry sponsors and partners to truly establish our place among collegiate design-build programs – and what sets us apart.
To fully understand architectural education, it’s important to know where we think it falls short. These shortfalls are why all 13 of us made the conscious decision to take the Design+Make studio as our capstone studio at Kansas State University to finish off our five years of study.
Up to this point, we’ve all taken 7 different studios from 7 different professors and are currently on our 8th of both. On top of that, we’ve all either studied abroad and taken an additional studio or taken a semester away from campus for an internship. In those previous studios, we learned that architecture school isn’t really intended to be a full preparation for the field – think of it as an IKEA assembly manual. It’s well-designed, but definitely open to interpretation. If you pay attention and follow closely, there’s a chance that you’ll actually get what you paid for. However, there’s an even better chance that you’ll get caught up in smaller problems – like missing a 5mm screw.
All allusions aside, we’ve learned that architecture school is intended to teach a specific way of thought. We believe the design-build method of learning reaps tenfold the benefits of a traditional studio. It’s still teaching and building on this way of thought – but it’s now morphing into a way of thought that suggests a higher refinement of details, constructability, and concept through a rigorous understanding of craft and assemblies.
We’ve learned how to push an idea – or at least how to push an idea in an educational setting. There’s a model in architectural education that suggests a project begins with an over-arching concept. This concept is intended to hold the answers to all the questions that lie ahead. Schematic design then begins – picking apart and putting back together the program that is given on the first day. Most projects in architecture school then don’t move past this phase. Instead of moving into design development and construction documents, a new project is started. There’s normally no construction or built project to conduct a post-occupancy evaluation to learn from and iterate on. It is a cycle that purely consists of design without much development. While that’s enjoyable to an extent, it’s not how the real world works.
However, this studio is different. In elevator speech terms, Design+Make can be described as this:
“Design+Make is a research-based architectural enterprise where graduate students from diverse backgrounds develop their passion for innovative problem-solving, focused on community needs.”
- Design+Make Studio Mission Statement
We’re not designing skyscrapers or envisioning urban plans in this studio. It’s not hard to pick out the Design+Make project among the four presented in the cover image.
This isn’t to say that all projects in architecture school are wholly unrealistic. It’s not the project itself that’s necessarily unrealistic. Instead, it’s the process of design and the assumptions of construction that is disjointed with how architecture should work and be produced.
It proved beneficial to stop producing shop drawings and to simply build a cabinet. In this exercise, we learned the constraints and opportunities that still lie ahead when working on documents – the phase where most would consider design as being over.
Architecture works best when there’s a desire to get back in touch with the craft of building. This isn’t done through detailing or through drawing. Rather, it’s something that should be done through hard work and fabrication. Fabrication of your own ideas and details brings a much greater respect for the qualities, capabilities, and limitations of the materials that you’re working with. It was with this exact idea that our studio sponsor, el dorado inc., was founded on. It’s what they know, so it’s what they teach. This is something that I’ve picked up on most of all throughout my time at Design+Make, and I can also see it in my peers.
The art of fabrication is just one of the aspects that set Design+Make apart from the various studios and professors that we’ve taken. On top of that, Design+Make operates day-to-day like an architecture firm – not a collegiate studio. We push out drawings, meet with vendors and subcontractors, and test out our own ideas. As our mission statement suggests, this is not just a studio – it’s an architectural enterprise. Although the studio has only been around for six years, we’re solidifying our place among student-led design-build programs. Last year’s project was recognized by the ACSA (American Collegiate Schools of Architecture) as one of the best student-led design-build projects in America in 2016. We’ve started to get press on our current project – and we’ve only got the foundation and slab in the ground. There’s high expectations for this project and what the future looks like for Design+Make.
More than any other reason, Design+Make is different because of the willingness to fight for what’s right and establishing an understanding of what is truly “good enough.” This characteristic is what defines el dorado and sets them apart from a clear majority of architecture firms. They don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions. Each project completed is the result of a careful exploration of constraints just as much as the possibilities. El dorado seeks to solve problems that the stakeholders in each project don’t even know that they have. Just like the idea of understanding and appreciating elegant design through fabrication, this is how el dorado practices, so this is what they teach.
The final product of the initial casework mock-ups. We learned an incredible amount more through making than we ever would have drawing. Because of these mockups, details that we assumed were resolved had to be changed. For example, we learned that dado’ing most every joint in the cabinet isn’t quite necessary and will more than likely give more places for error and the construction tolerances to catch up to you.
Written by Brock Traffas
In this studio, we have fought to push the idea of affordable housing. We’ve fought within our studio, within our budget, and within our own preconceived notions of what affordable housing is. We understood that if you’re pushing an idea to its full potential, then it should never be “good enough.” Architecture and design should never be a process that ends on its own terms.
This understanding was capitalized on when our project moved past schematic design. Moving past schematic design meant that the budget was now extremely real. The less-than advantageous site conditions needed to be resolved quickly. Skeptics and critics desperately needed a dignified reply. Each day, a new problem presented itself. These are all problems that no traditional studio would ever have to face. All these problems could be responded with stock reply, but that’s not the Design+Make approach.
Instead, you need to figure out what’s right. You need to figure out the ten percent of the project that needs to be pushed harder than the rest. This is the ten percent of the project where no precedent suffices. Although the rest of the project may rely on standard details or construction, this ten percent is how Design+Make can create meaningful architecture on constrictive budgets and sites.
That’s what sets Design+Make apart. That’s why all 13 of us are here. That’s why we believe that we can achieve things that are truly special. To create a duplex that satisfies the constraints of affordability while dignifying and defying the stigmas, every action we have taken and will continue to take is the result of an intensive search for what’s right. We understand that nothing is ever going to be “good enough” if we hold ourselves to the standard that we should. Instead, we search for what’s right. We search for the elements in a project that will have the largest impact and solve much more than one problem.
The elevation of the Waldo duplex can look a bit radical when compared to the neighbors along Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s interesting to note; however, that the Design+Make duplex looks relatively tame compared to the projects above that are plagued by the wild imagination of an architecture student. For myself, this duplex has become the most elegant, enlightening project that I’ve worked on in my time at Kansas State. This is a direct result of the design process that works for the studio. We push a range of ideas, iterate on the strengths of each, combine the talents and diverse backgrounds of the entire studio, and learn a passion for problem-solving that’s rooted in community needs. This is why Design+Make attracts clients, industry sponsors, and subcontractors who can facilitate open, expansive processes to create meaningful architecture.