The Only Thing at Stake Is the Future of our City

This op-ed column, authored by rotating guest writers, aims to stir conversations on architecture and design among our creative community. 

Words: Rick Sommerfeld and Rachel Koleski, Colorado Building Workshop


In the traditional model of architectural education—a model that dominates today’s colleges and universities—students create highly theoretical projects, built around the illusion of endless funding, with little concern for systems, scheduling, or budgets. They churn out enchanting forms as individual authors, without regard for construction, detailing, or even gravity. They are well-versed in theory but encounter very few moments when that theory is applied to the practical, build-able realities they’ll face as practicing architects. Technicality and poetics are needlessly divorced.

The evidence is visible in the built environment we navigate daily. Students enter the profession and are unable to clearly translate classroom theory into tangible buildings. They lack the tools necessary to convince a client their ideas have value. The work teeters between shallow and flashy or dull and formulaic, while the academy and the profession stand around pointing fingers at each other.

We only bring this up because it’s incredibly important. The only thing at stake is the future of our city.

So is there an education model that effectively translates theory into reality and serves as a bridge between the academy and the profession? Is there a model that provokes architects into doing work that is a more appropriate reflection of our time, not to mention our lives?

We believe there is, and it’s called design build education. It’s not exactly a new idea—Yale has offered it since 1967, and it’s estimated that more than 70 percent of architecture programs have some form of design build in their curricula. But in the traditional model, design build is often a supplemental accessory rather than a guiding principle. And although a small number of these traditional programs challenge students to be innovative in ways that create value for the client, most merely teach students “how to build.” Perhaps that seems like a small distinction, but it’s a big difference.

Innovation is born not from a singular architectural author, but from rigorous and thoughtful collaboration. Design build education uses peer-to-peer collaboration to allow students to clarify their solutions and strengthen their designs. 

They work with consultants to help focus the creative dialogue and to help form solutions which, through honesty of material, simplicity of assembly, and integrity of craft, create details that imbue the project with breadth.

They work with community organizations to learn how clearly communicating intent creates value for the client. They learn to talk about building performance and user experience and to avoid the trap of engaging in a stylistic spiral. In all these cases, design build is the bridge between what it is to design in theory and what it is to build in reality. It is the educational conduit linking the practical and theoretical.

The melding of these collaborations with a student’s naturally occurring curiosity leads to innovative investigations. Materiality becomes an expression of the concept, and the interplay between materials—the language by which to read the structure’s story—becomes apparent. The result saves client money, speeds project delivery, and eases construction. It also advocates for the conscientious use of materials, which gives meaning to surrounding context and user experience.

The time has come for mindful evolution of traditional architecture education models. Our built environment depends on it.

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