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"Trust Me, I'm An Architecture Student": The Self-Build Heroes Of Colorado University

Imagine laying eyes on your first built project … before you have even left architecture school!

One of the most common misgivings that architecture students harbor on exiting university revolves around a lack of demonstrable practical experience  my recent article on the failings of UK architecture courses lambasted a long-running theoretical bias within our schools, leaving students unprepared for the complexities of life in professional practice.

It is incredibly refreshing, then, to report on a different system across the pond in the United States, allowing students an incredibly valuable hands-on experience that benefits both them and the local community simultaneously.

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The Colorado Building Workshop was set up in 2010 for students entering their final year at CU-Denver. The Workshop gives students two options, both of which can enable them to benefit from seeing a project right through from conception to completion as they approach graduation. The first of these University-run program DesignBuildBLUFF — gives architecture students the chance to design and build a new home for a Navajo family in the remote town of Bluff, Utah. A recent success story for this program comes in the form of "Skow Residence," developed by Colorado Students for a couple attempting their own self-build project in the region.

In this instance, clients Harold and Helena Skow had already constructed a foundation for a conventional, gable-trussed home, before running into difficulties. The Skows turned to the Colorado Building Workshop for help, and in stepped a team of students with inquiring minds and a flexible brief that encouraged a healthy degree of experimentation.

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Taking inspiration from their client’s wide-brimmed hat  providing crucial protection from Utah’s intense summer sun  the students inverted the typical roof to provide the home with its very own sombrero. In doing so they created a distinctive, contemporary house with passive shading enabling large expanses of glazing across two elevations. The slender framework used for the external envelope was complemented with thick earthen walls and straw-bale insulation for the inner compartment, giving the Skows a consistently cool place to sleep throughout the year.

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The students’ relative inexperience was not a cause for concern to the Najavo locals, who were open to the youngsters exploring new ideas in exchange for the donation of time and materials by the DesignBuildBLUFF program. The students also worked in collaboration with senior staff members of UC-Denver, as well as professional structural engineers from Studio NYL. The ability to work with other specialist consultants in this fashion no doubt provided the students with an invaluable insight into professional practice, when they will be engaging with a wide variety of parties throughout the design process.

The other pathway the Workshop provides is the option to manage the design and construction of a public project, usually focusing on facilities for not-for-profit organizations that support arts, education, and the environment. A case-in-point is the Urban Farming Classroom, recently completed in Lakewood, Colorado, by another group of savvy students. Located adjacent to the state’s newest light-rail line, the outdoor learning facility is intended to educate local residents on the topic of city-based agriculture.

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The raw industrial aesthetic of the classroom-meets-kitchen is derived from the need to create a hardwearing, weather resistant structure that would also stand up against the risk of vandalism that is inherent within its urban context. The innate structural quality of the steel bar grate structure also meant that a large cantilever was possible, leaving the space beneath free from columns. This allowed for a flexible, open-plan space ideal for many different forms of agricultural demonstration.

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Once again, the students collaborated with faculty members and structural engineers to bring their project to fruition, enhancing their knowledge of the construction process and providing the city with a cutting-edge educational amenity at the same time.

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These two projects illustrate the potential for students to gain a far more tangible perspective on technical detailing, project management and communication, and the ultimate satisfaction of seeing their work built and occupied by clients. They also show just how invigorating it can be to allow young minds unhindered by years of conforming to accepted design conventions  to experiment at a one to one scale. The results here are terrific, and for the students, clients, and institutions involved it appears that everyone has benefitted in one way or another.

This is one farming classroom that should certainly provide architectural professors around the globe with some food for thought …

Yours educationally,

The Angry Architect