The future for construction education

Consider this to be the first of many blog entries covering the big event in my professional life for 2010, being my research for the Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship (BHTS) I was awarded last year. In case the name of this blog entry didn’t make my topic obvious enough, the real title of this research journey is “Build/Ability – The Future of Construction Education”. Catchy, huh?

Yeah I know – the use of the “/” in this title is possibly a little passe out there in archi-theory-land – BUT in an e.e. cummings kind of way, I did feel that the “/”  gave the best verbal and visual impression of what I am seeking and hoping to find in my research journey. That is – that the best teaching in construction is equipping the architects of the future with the ability to build what they envision and design. And that these two ideas are inherent to a holistic design process- thereby being blurred, overlapping, maybe even interchangeable at times – just like the “/” implies.

When I use the word “build”, I am not necessarily stating that architects must be physically involved with the building of their designs – although some architects out there actively seek and maintain that level of involvement in their projects. What I am referring to is architects having the ability to design so that the construction of their work is not only a true realisation of their design intentions, but is also one which is underpinned with a real understanding of materiality, functionality and sustainability (in no particular order).

Of course, this title is also a direct play on that somewhat clumsy word “buildability” – one online dictionary (businessdictionary.com) defines this as being “the degree to which the design of a planned building facilitates its construction and utilisation.”

Hmm – on the basis of this definition, it doesn’t sound unreasonable that an architect should be taught to design with construction in mind. And it is also not unreasonable for builders, engineers and other consultants in the industry, and the general public (shock horror) to expect that architects thoroughly understand the construction of buildings. Not unreasonable at all, I hear you say.

And yet……and yet…..

the construction of buildings is not what architecture students have necessarily been taught very much of at all lately.

The resulting low level of construction knowledge amongst recent graduates is evidenced directly and/or anecdotally by many of those established in the architectural profession. For example, graduates with little or no work experience are requiring extensive in-house training on basic construction knowledge – not what you would expect for someone carrying an M.Arch.  (and $40,000 in HECS debt). And this level of training is not what an employer wants to necessarily spend all of their time and money on…

For those who teach or tutor in architecture faculties, the sometimes increasingly dismissive approach to construction education has been experienced first hand –  where students are now receiving a single semester of construction lectures for each year of the undergraduate program, and often no construction teaching or tutoring at all in the Masters course. Along with this, there is little formal instruction in construction documentation (or CAD for that matter), and construction barely rates a mention in the Design Studio. And, as the icing on the cake, many students are completing five years of architectural study having spent very little, if any, time on real building sites.

Now, to avoid crucifixion by the archi-theorist-terrorists out there, I must clarify my starting position – I don’t believe that construction is more important than design. And I don’t believe that the design programs, philosophies and ideas being pursued in the universities should be limited to producing only that which is immediately “buildable” i.e. able to be realised with today’s technology, today. Rather, I do believe that stretching the design and overall conceptual thinking capability of students is most important for their overall development and future growth as architects. But this should not occur at the expense of developing their ability to design that which can be built, nor their ability to understand the impact that  their choice of material and detail has upon the budget, the consultants, the builder, the trades, the users and the environment.

Coming back to my investigative trajectory then, the main focus of my research is to review the approach to construction education across a number of Architecture faculties in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the USA. The places I will be visiting have been chosen because they are recognised locally or internationally for their particular approach to teaching construction and I want to experience and review first hand the course programs, facilities, student work and culture of these faculties that contribute to this area of architectural teaching. From this research it is my intention to compile a report document that proposes a model curriculum for the future of construction education.

So there’s my first blog entry. In my next post for the BHTS, I will be talking a bit more about some of my other research methods and the second strand of my topic. And maybe I will have some exciting news about who I will be interviewing as part of the research. So stay tuned…

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