TLEF snapshot: Bringing design-making and building tools to architecture students

Blair Satterfield, associate professor at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA), discusses how his TLEF project, now in its second year of funding, is helping to give students better access to contemporary making practices and technologies, such as 3-d printing, laser cutting and robotic milling. The three-year project will redesign the school’s fabrication-related curricula, infrastructure, training and teaching.

How did the idea for this project emerge?

Blair Satterfield: It emerged out of a series of conversations a few members of the faculty had (and continue to have) about SALA’s teaching pedagogy and how the school prepares students for the profession. We see a shift in how architects, landscape architects, and other allied fields execute their work. We see increased interdisciplinary collaboration and digital tool use. Tools also change rapidly and are transforming offices. SALA faculty saw a need to augment our teaching by presenting opportunities for students to do more hands-on making using digital tools in applied design work. We think integrating these tools and techniques into more of our teaching will really benefit our students.

Designers use a variety of techniques to represent projects and ideas. We teach techniques of representation. We draw. We model. We describe and represent the way a building or a landscape might behave or evolve. We imagine and embody possible futures. We produce materials that anticipate the real (or sometimes fictional) built environment. This is practical. Buildings, landscapes, and cities can’t be tested at full scale. We have to iterate through smaller models as we go.

This stated, we felt we were missing an opportunity. We are really interested in students having the experience of making things and using tools. We want students to connect input (digital models and drawings) to output (fabrication). We want every SALA student to have the chance to actually construct or prototype something at a scale and in a way that makes the design process more tangible. We already have some programs that afford this kind of opportunity. Design + Build, for example, is a SALA course that allows students to work through a project arc that begins with client meetings and design, and culminates with students out in the field building a building. While this offers a hugely valuable experience for a select group of students, we wanted the ideas of integrated making to impact our teaching more completely.

How will this project help enrich student learning? How will it impact teaching?

BS: We are taking a multi-tiered approach to the project. We want to identify opportunities at UBC to use tools and equipment. We want to build a variety of supplemental teaching tools (on-line videos and manuals). We are identifying ways to augment and expand our curriculum and bring tools into the classroom. We are finding new opportunities for students to work on design build type projects. We are enlisting students to design mobile infrastructure that we will use in our teaching (production will be paid for by SALA). We also want to apply TLEF support to help individual faculty members find opportunities to incorporate making and applied technology within their courses.

TLEF support will also helpis also helping us to think more ambitiously about teaching students outside of the classroom. We are mapping tools and shops throughout UBC. The University has tremendous resources, but they aren’t always easy to find or engage. It would be great for UBC students to have access to that infrastructure to make things. Where do students go if they want to 3D-print something, cut a piece of wood, or bend a piece of metal? Could we contribute to a collaborative UBC network that supports students, staff, and faculty? We see access to a wide variety of fabrication equipment as an extension of our teaching (and that of others). We think our efforts can help the university work toward supporting that goal.

Part of the TLEF is set up to help our students make instructional videos that help introduce processes and tools to other students. These will introduce tools in our shop. Once initiated, we may include things like VR and mediated reality software. With current technology, students should be able to make their own models and then walk around inside them using VR gear. 
It is an example of how technology can help students get a better sense of what they are proposing as designers. This isn’t pie in the sky. It is SALA visioning. It would be an amazing thing to be able to compare two precedents by walking around in them virtually. Imagine being able to “walk through” a Corbu house and a Loos house when researching how the architects tackled the domestic program. I think that would be an amazing thing to be able to do. We’re also working with actuated tool sets. Some of our students are working with robotics and things that move, and applying those in ways that actually help them do other work. Fabrication is one example of this. This multi-tiered strategy will impact student learning in a variety of ways. It will make the classroom experience richer and help us with teaching that happens outside of the studio. We’re trying to be thoughtful and creative about where and how we’re deploying things, how we collaborate with the broader UBC community, and about supporting the way students learn at the moment.

What are your main goals with this project?

BS: The long arc? We see the culture of the school evolving. I don’t want to say changing, because there’s such a strong program at SALA. But as media begins to push more and more into the way that we work it forces us to shift strategies. We are no longer simply using computers to accelerate our workflow. Our work is increasingly interconnected. Our design propositions can become closer to simulations than representations. Designers are able to move quickly between a virtual model and physical output (through 3D printers, CNC routers, etc.), often without intermediaries.

The TLEF project is going to helphelping us both position our students to work differently and more intelligently. The faculty wants to put SALA in a position to really lead some of these changes with new materials and new mediums. That’s one thing we’re really excited about.

The TLEF initiative and the work that we’re doing through it is providing opportunities to connect to our professional partners in a way that’s compelling. We’ve been able to engage a couple of practices in town, talk to them about what we’re working on with the initiative, and how we’re thinking about augmenting the way we teach. They’ve come back with opportunities for students to work with them on the changes I outlined above. They are thinking about the same things.

Have you started to implement parts of the project?

BS: Yes. We started this past April so we are still in year one. Things are going to ramp up in year two. We have an asymmetrically funded project. Year one is where we lay the groundwork for the project. We are working to pilot ideas in year one, begin to apply them in a robust way in year two, and then see what we’ve done, assess and tailor what we’ve done in year three.

We enlisted a group of strong students and deployed them over the summer. We knew that we were going to get the most quality time with them over those summer months. We’ve done a lot of heavy lifting this summer, so we feel like we’re productively out in front of the project.