February 27, 2009

Insight to Practice Is Relevant to Design Education
Architecture educators find new ways to meld academia and the real world

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: To bridge the practice and business knowledge gap between professional practice and academic teaching, architecture professors are exposing students to interdisciplinary practice settings and bringing them in contact with active practitioners in a variety of ways. The diverse range of topics architecture schools are required to teach has often prevented programs from emphasizing business and professional practice more. Despite oppositional appearances, professors say the study of design and the study of practice should be taught as processes that mutually define and inform each other.

“The distance between what’s happening in architecture schools and what’s happening in practice has never been greater,” says Marvin Malecha, FAIA, dean of North Carolina State University’s College of Design and 2009 AIA president.

The ideal of quality design may be eternal, but the way architecture is practiced and how its businesses are run are always a product of their age, and these are the parts of the craft where Malecha and others see such an academic and professional gap. A sampling of the ideas and concepts that have raced architectural practice ahead of architecture education includes: building information modeling, integrated project delivery, sustainability, design-build, and digital fabrication—none of which existed 20, or sometimes even 10 years ago. “I do think that schools have to do a better job placing the study of the profession on par with theory courses,” Malecha says.

A common refrain among architects is never, “I graduated from architecture school and I don’t know how to design,” but often, “I graduated from architecture school, and I wish I’d learned more about practice and running a business.”

That sounds familiar to Len Charney, Assoc. AIA, the head of practice at the Boston Architectural College. “We’re making progress, but my sense is that we have a long way to go” he says. His school has students gain practice experience by working concurrently in architecture firms for one third of their class credits. “Many people who are teaching studios in a university setting are not as active practitioners as others, and their bias is one that’s likely towards theory and design.”

Reaching out
For schools to remain accredited, the National Architectural Accreditation Board requires an “understanding of the basic principles and legal aspects of practice organization, financial management, business planning, time and project management, risk mitigation, and mediation and arbitration as well as understanding of trends that affect practice, such as globalization, outsourcing, project delivery, expanding practice setting, diversity, and others.” This is just one of 34 criteria. The American Institute of Architecture Students essentially echoes this criterion in its advocacy portfolio.

To build a more robust practice and business curriculum, schools have been drawing on local practice communities, bringing them in as adjunct professors and guest lecturers. Renee Cheng, AIA, head of the University of Minnesota’s architecture school , has practicing architects work interactively with students on case studies and project management issues from their own experience—an easy way for architects without much academic expertise to share their ideas. Beyond bringing practice in to students, architecture schools are also re-examining ways to send students out into practice. In addition to programs like the Boston Architectural College, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee offers a community design center and an alumni mentoring program.

As architecture students reach out beyond the academic design world, it’s becoming more common for them to broaden their business and practice experiences by collaborating with students of other professions. This interdisciplinary approach has obvious real-world parallels. In a joint program overseen by Greg Kessler, AIA, at the Washington State University School of Architecture and Construction Management, architecture students become immersed in construction management coursework. The school (one of roughly a dozen in the nation with similar joint programs) offers eight courses that both architecture and construction students take together. Symposiums pair architecture and construction students to work on practical case studies. Kessler is also establishing an internship program where architecture students will work for construction management firms.

“We very much have to get out of the mode we seem to have been in for the last 50 years or so where we’re just talking to ourselves a lot,” Kessler says.

Similarly, the Boston Architectural College is collaborating with engineering schools, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee architecture school offers a real estate and development certificate taught in conjunction with Marquette University. Yale offers a dual MArch and MBA degree program.

Most often, architecture business and practice instruction comes from a handful of classes that are relatively self-contained. These classes alone cover vast swaths of what an architect deals with after they graduate: business development, research, firm financial management, project delivery, risk management, professional ethics, legal obligations, etc. Design technology (like BIM) is often covered in these kinds of classes as well. “What I’m trying to do,” says Philip Bernstein, FAIA, who teaches Yale’s professional practice curriculum, “is create a conceptual framework so people can understand the practice context into which they’re entering,”

The list goes on ...
Professional practice and business coursework constitute just one of many factors schools need to address to remain accredited, and, despite critical need for better instruction of this type, adding more of anything requires an arduous balancing act. Before professors can start teaching students about contract laws and fees, “we have to bring [students] up to speed in terms of the whole culture of our profession,” says Malecha. (Although, he says, architecture schools are doing the best they ever have at meeting all their instruction obligations).

“It’s really hard to get everything in,” says Robert Greenstreet, International Assoc. AIA, the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s architecture school. “Consequently, schools are continually balancing baseline education with the additional strengths they think they can provide.”

And the long list of new practice and business trends today are “important but useless without design thinking,” says Cheng, who is also the president of AIA Minnesota.

This perceived practice vs. design conflict spurs a well-established, ongoing education debate: “It’s analogous,” says Bernstein, “to the argument: ‘Should we be churning out little practicing architects?’”

Many professors say it’s best to focus on developing the creative and analytical synthesis that drives the design process. “I think that the mission of schools is education for a lifetime career, not training for your first job,” says Kay Davis, FAIA, a professor at the University of Tennessee’s College of Architecture and Design and the president of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

Practice is design
But are practice and design really best considered separately and forced to compete for credit hours? Many professors say that students learn best when the two are allowed to define and inform each other.

“If you study the architecture of Frank Gehry, you really should not place the organization of his office and his project delivery methods as somehow not important, whereas the theory of his free expression and material expression gets studied and studied and studied,” Malecha says. “You could never deliver or build one of those buildings without the kind of office structure he has built around him. Glenn Murcutt is the same thing. He delivers the kind of building he delivers because he draws every drawing himself. Those are all practice models.”

“If you can see the relationship between practice and design, then you don’t have to think of design as the fun part and everything else as something you’re just forced to do,” says Bernstein. “I say: ‘Look. This is a design problem. It’s the same kind of experience as going into the studio. You have to analyze alternatives, analyze their characteristics, come up with strategies for how you’re going to solve the problem, and synthesize an answer.’”

An economic context
Malecha says architecture schools will be asked to create more comprehensive approaches to business and practice education so that graduates will be better able to compete in the collapsing design and construction economy. The nonresidential construction sector is expected to drop 11 percent in 2009 and 5 percent in 2010.

Not everyone is so confident that architecture schools can be so reactive.

“I think it would be great if schools could turn on a dime and make those kinds of adjustments,” says J.W. Blanchard, Assoc. AIA, president of the American Institute of Architecture Students and a recent graduate of Southern Polytechnic University. “I don’t think that universities will be able to adjust in that way.”

The pace of change for architecture schools lasts as long as degree programs and not in months, in the (optimistic) case of a typical recession. With a protracted recession, schools’ tasks may not be to do more, but to produce less. “If we’re still in the same position five years from now, we won’t need to be producing as many architects because the economy will have collapsed,” says Bernstein.

Cheng says she still sees innovative design thinking as the skill set most prized by employers.

It’s common for young architects to wait out recessions in graduate school, but what happens there in terms of business and practice instruction is another point of discussion. Greenstreet says more graduate-level study could allow for more professional specialization, such as in architecture practice and business, but Charney says that a generational retreat to ivory tower academia might reinforce the supremacy of design and theory in the minds of students.

That would be redundant, according to Malecha. He says design excellence is nearly a given among recent graduates. What will separate young architects is their ability to work as a team, be budget and time management savvy, and articulately communicate their ideas in public.

“The old days of only being judged by whether you are an exceptional studio rat,” says Malecha, “those days are fading.”


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