April 17, 2009

Open Architecture Challenge Gives Students and Teachers a Say in Classroom Design
Architecture for Humanity’s competition seeks educational facility design from Uganda to the U.S.

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

How do you . . . encourage interaction between architects and end users in a competition that educates end users on the value of design and sustainability?

Summary: Somewhat surprisingly, Sandhya Janardhan, a design fellow with nonprofit design services firm Architecture for Humanity, says that the impoverished Indian schools that are emblematic of this year’s Open Architecture Challenge competition don’t list a lack of basic infrastructure as their most acute problem. She says their biggest issues are inflexible and outdated classrooms, a lack of teacher training and current technology, and most generally, an overall lack of design quality.

Visit the competition Web site.

See what the Architecture for Education Knowledge Community is up to.

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the multimedia presentation, “The Power of Memorials: 9/11 Competitions and Designs.”

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Designing the Sustainable School by Alan Ford, AIA, (Images, 2007).

A school in India. Image courtesy of Architecture for Humanity.

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“It’s not that they’re short on infrastructure,” she says. “They’re not guided in the right direction in terms of how resources need to be used.”

This sadly common list of woes illustrates the global need for improved classroom designs that transcend single-dimensional notions of developing the nation’s needs. After all, what school district in the United States can say they don’t deal with these same issues? So, to tackle these universal problems in educational facility design, Architecture for Humanity has taken an equally universal approach with their latest Open Architecture Challenge: a competition open to all professional and nonprofessional designers to pair with teachers, students, and school administrators to design a sustainable, replicable, and cost effective classroom that will bring the light of quality design to the global quest for knowledge.

Two-way street
This year’s competition has four categories. The first asks architects to pair with a local (or non-local) school and design a classroom unique to their needs. The other three categories all use corporate and nonprofit sponsors as building clients. The second category has designers create upgraded and expanded classrooms for the chain of privately run schools in India funded by Orient Global’s Rumi Schools of Excellence. Another category asks architects to come up with a modular, relocatable classroom design for the Modular Building Institute and Blazer Industries. The last category has architects partner with the nonprofit agency Building Tomorrow to develop design solutions for classrooms in rural Uganda.

The winner in each sponsored category will have their design built. The architects who win the grand prize of all four categories will get $5,000, and their client will get $50,000 towards building their classroom design. Entries will be judged on how well they meet basic programmatic and functional requirements, as well as how they meet the challenges of creating cost-effective and flexible classroom space that is still gracefully designed and sustainable. As with all Open Architecture Network competitions, all information will be shared and open-sourced on their Web site, and, designers are encouraged to document their interaction with students and teachers every step of the way.

This kind of interaction is meant to do more than get architects a few good design tips from end users. Though her own work with students and school administrators in India has reminded her of the insights that this kind of end user “give and take” can provide to “bring you back to reality,” Janardhan says it’s important that students and teachers walk away with tangible lessons on the value of design as well. The competition “is a way to educate school administrators,” she says. “It’s not just a classroom design, and a winning design, and it’s over.”

The competition Web site presents curriculum that introduces kids to architecture and sustainability, so they can become more equal partners in the design process. It’s also an opportunity for school administrators to become more design and sustainability savvy—so they can make their own case for design value, should they get the opportunity to improve their facilities.

Unit of building
This year’s Open Architecture Challenge accepts the single classroom as the basic unit of educational facility building, not the entire school, and limits the scope of the contest to this one room. If this sounds like a particularly ad-hoc, narrowly third world approach to educational construction, Janardhan points out that schools are grown one classroom at a time everywhere. Six million kids use portable, mobile classrooms in the United States, many of which are destined to become permanent. A third of all schools in this country use portable classrooms, many of which are wasteful, poorly designed, and programmatically inflexible.

The last Open Architecture Challenge in 2007 focused on designing buildings that facilitate digital communication in the developing world, and since then Janardhan says she’s seen an uptick in this year’s entries, which stand at nearly 600. Why the increase? Now that the design and construction industry is in the midst of a severe recession, Architecture for Humanity hopes that more architects are taking time out for serious altruistic nonprofit design aspirations like this competition while they wait for construction cranes to begin swinging again.

Pre-fab’s next test
The most important baseline assumption of the competition is that all potential clients will have very limited funds to build with, yet the need for newly constructed classrooms will be immense. The World Bank reports that putting all children worldwide in schools by 2015 will require the construction of 10 million new classrooms and will cost roughly $72 billion. To meet such a widespread and immediate need, pre-fabrication techniques will have to be placed at the forefront of educational facility construction. Prefabrication has re-entered the public design consciousness with the MoMA’s recent Home Delivery show and designs like the Cellophane House by KieranTimberlake, but Janardhan says she hasn’t seen any systems that meet her competition’s requirements of sustainability, flexibility, and, most importantly, affordability. “We’re asking designers to look at the way portable classrooms are being constructed now and asking them to come up with an alternative solution to that, keeping in mind that it still has to be cost effective, but at the same time, sustainable, green, and very efficient as a learning space.”

Janardhan says she’s seen an overall lack of research into the design constraints and requirements this competition is examining, but this isn’t a gap that can be laid solely at the feet of architects. To solve this problem, she looks for everyone in the educational facility construction chain (teachers, administrators, architects, contractors) to collaborate together, just as they have in the Open Architecture Challenge.

“Everybody’s involved in this, everybody’s responsible,” she says. “We cannot just place it on the architect and the designers. We need to look at the constraints that they face. It’s more that everybody needs to play a role in this.”


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The registration deadline for the competition is May 4, and the project submission deadline is June 1. Entries will be judged by a jury made up of architecture and education experts, which Architecture for Humanity executive director Cameron Sinclair, Assoc. AIA, will chair. Winners will be announced in the fall.