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Reverie vs Reality // Austin Ungerbuehler


Early conceptual rendering

Abstract: The disparity between architecture school and the career field is a strong contrast, but the Design+Make studio makes allows students to learn in a hands on way that eases the transition to the career field. It also depicts a more realist approach the real world architects must consider.


Audience: To all aspiring architects, and observes of the design world.

"Reverie vs Reality"


Young architecture students go through school creating fanciful designs that, oftentimes, are logistically and realistically impossible. Picture this: the thin 1/8” basswood sticks (and Elmer’s Glue) of the up-and-coming architect’s model easily spans and supports the floor above with what theoretically would be a 1’x1’x40’ wood beam—perfect. Use a multi-million-dollar bioplastic material for a housing project? Why not? Sure, there’s a learning curve. And sure, architects must first learn how to design the very best project before they get into the nitty-gritty.


However, many students find themselves finishing their architecture schooling without ever having any sort of (meaningful) construction or budgeting experience, let alone experience interacting with a client. Design + Make might be a step in the right direction toward better education.

After spending some time this past year working on a real project, dealing with real cash and a real client, I’ve come to see just how different this experience is than my past four years of architecture schooling. David Dowell, AIA, Design + Make’s professor straight out of el dorado, recently begged the question, “Does this feel like architecture?” He, of course, was referring to the process of creating a real structure up to that point. This got me thinking. It certainly didn’t feel like what I was used to, but was this what architecture really was?

An earlier concept that was scrapped because the studio and client felt it was unfit for the project. Price, however, certainly factored into our decision to move away from this design.

Architecture students are very familiar with limitations including the focus of a hypothetical program defined by a professor. We, however, have yet to be faced with such great limitations. The studio initially felt confined by the “burden” of budget and client preference. This actually resulted in really thoughtful and contemplative thinking.


Just how can our studio create very effective and interesting architecture without possessing access to unlimited funds and implementing a noisy modern design aesthetic.


Architecture really is brought to life when faced with such great “adversity,” which, in the end, is simply reality. George Nelson says that “Good design, like good painting, cooking, architecture or whatever you like, is a manifestation of the capacity of the human spirit to transcend its limitations.” This is architecture.


Walt Disney was also quoted saying, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” It’s certainly been an enlightening and fun challenge to overcome this project’s bounds. Design + Make is well on its way to creating a subtly beautiful piece of architecture.

Photo by: Karl Ndieli

Members of the studio removing trim, lathe & plaster.

Moreover, architecture is in the details. With a limited construction background, getting the chance to participate in selective demoing of the long-standing Sears Roebuck house taught me more than any technical architecture class ever could.


Even through tediously stacking bricks using different brick-stacking methods, I learned about the bounds and variations of the material. I learned just how tough and labor-intensive the seemingly simple task of staking brick actually is. In the end, lectures can only get you so far. Professional Practice certainly didn’t prepare me for hauling huge piles of shingles while fending off dozens of wasps.


Peeling back the house to its guts allowed me to really understand its construction, to really understand just how these various pieces fit together. In addition, the knowledge gained from this real-life experience is going to translate to future design projects I get to be a part of. When the design process progresses past the diagrammatic and theoretical, I will know just how thick the wall needs to be, exactly what different elements a roof consists of, and the structural limits of certain materials—not because I remember looking at example construction details, but because I experienced the construction first hand.

One of many iterations of brick-stacking.

A segment of Research-Based Strategy to Ignite Student Learning published by ASCD  unpacked the following: “An ideal event-memory lesson would be one where students' brains are stimulated by their participation in a challenging and engaging student-centered activity that simultaneously activates multiple sensory systems and executive functions as they strive to make sense of experience. The goal is to provide experiences that enable students to interact with knowledge in ways that arouse their physical senses and positive emotions, or to connect the new information with their past experiences and interests.” (Willis) Especially when discussing the sciences, experience is key to learning and retention! Architecture, of course, is both an art and a science.

The hands-on style learning currently implemented by architecture studios across the globe is by no means ineffective. Though, there’s always room for improvement, right? To me, the incredibly rare and very hypothetical projects that students receive in school act as a sort of sales pitch for architecture. In a sense, the school has been recruiting me to the field for five years by showing me the profession’s very best version! Projects focus on design and tend to stop before the tough construction phase begins. Is this wrong? Not necessarily. It reminds me of my time spent as a recruitment chairman for my fraternity. Am I going to tell recruits all of our fraternity’s flaws and faults? Absolutely not. I want more men to join! My thought is, however, that students could be much more prepared if they were familiar with the less-than-desirable sides of architecture: detailing, budgeting, scheduling, etc. Students might just fall in love with architecture despite her shortcomings, or possibly even learn to love them.

My studio-mate, Angel, put it well when he said, “There are two times we are baptized into fire:” the first being when we enter architecture school and the second is when we enter the marketplace. To help diminish this, my hope is that all students would be given the opportunity to experience something similar to that which we have: getting their hands dirty and really understanding the construction of a building, making adjustments based on cost while maintaining design integrity, and talking face to face with the very people occupying the future structure.


During my recent visit to Prime Design here in Manhattan, Brad Buser affirmed my thinking. The real world, he said, really isn’t like what he experienced in school at all. What if our architecture studios (at least toward the end of our education) reflected more accurately what a firm is actually like post-college? What if the design-make education process was more widely incorporated? Summer internships and shadowing firms certainly help. Imagine with me, however, that studios themselves were more like this pseudo-employment of Design + Make we’re currently engaged in. Imagine if all graduates entered the work force with this sort of experience under their belts. What knowledge men and women with a degree in architecture would possess!

Written by Austin Ungerbuehler

Works cited

Willlis, Judy. Research-based strategies to ignite student learning: insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher. Hawker Brownlow Education, 2009.

"Quotes for All Occasions." A-Z Quotes. Accessed March 06, 2018.

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