URBANbuild: Learning by doing
Tulane University architecture students design and build homes through an unusual professional training program that gives them the opportunity to lead a collaborative project that connects the ideas in the classroom to the needs of the community.
June 19, 2012 | On a recent spring day, Tulane University architecture students Katherine DeLacey and Abbie Readinger worked on a home construction site under a sunny, crystal-clear blue sky. Power cords snaked through the structure in all directions, and the sounds of sanders and nail guns whirred and popped, echoing through the building.
The students had been on-site almost from the break of day, and their work didn’t end until early evening. They, along with their classmates, were putting the finishing touches on a house -- the seventh home built by an innovative service-learning project called URBANbuild, in which architecture students design and then construct a home in a lower-income New Orleans neighborhood.
As her classmates bustled around her, DeLacey busied herself cleaning one of the front windows that overlook Toledano Street in the struggling New Orleans Central City neighborhood.
“I was interested in what really went into the construction of a house,” DeLacey said as she brushed wood dust from the windowsill. “I wanted to have a deeper understanding of what we were doing in the studio and how it was turned into reality.”
Students in the URBANbuild program are taught and mentored by School of Architecture professors, including Byron Mouton, the program director. URBANbuild offers 15 students the opportunity to see a project through from start to finish, and allows them a rare, revealing glimpse of the physical, laborious effort required to convert what happens in an architect’s office into a finished product.
It also gives the students a chance to contribute -- in a small but significant way -- to the rebuilding of the city, which, six years after Hurricane Katrina, is still struggling. Rebuilding the city has been an institution-wide focus of the university since the storm, and URBANbuild is one of several outreach projects at the School of Architecture.
It's an approach to teaching and mentoring young professional students that benefits all involved. A blighted Crescent City neighborhood gets an anchor residence, a family purchases a first home, and Tulane students receive up-close-and-personal mentoring and learning that they can use as they launch their careers. Even the director says he has grown as a teacher.
Because of its multiple beneficiaries and surprising success, the URBANbuild program has received national recognition and accolades as a cutting-edge educational effort. It was the subject of a six-part television documentary featured on the Sundance Channel.
Questions to consider:
- URBANbuild includes hands-on service learning, putting theory into practice, seeing a project through from start to finish, mentoring, partnering with other key stakeholders, working in teams and creating a product that benefits others. Which of these components already exist in your work? Which could you add?
- What is the “hands-on experience” for less-tangible projects or ideas? How might the URBANbuild teaching model translate to a church setting?
- The design of URBANbuild helps students realize the impact of their efforts on those in need. Do the young people you mentor directly experience the impact of the work they do? If not, how could they?
- A key component of the URBANbuild program is the mentorship provided by Tulane faculty. If you were to design a such a program for your institution, to whom would you look for mentoring?
“It’s a great opportunity to see how to construct your design, and it’s great for the community,” said Readinger, a fourth-year student. “I’m sad that it’s ending, but I’m excited to see it finished. It’s a great opportunity that most other students don’t get to experience.”
More than a class
When students sign up for URBANbuild, they make a commitment to something more than just another elective.
Readinger, a Philadelphia native, said she heard about the effort when she first visited Tulane. Once she got the chance to enroll in the class, Readinger became part of the first-semester team that drew the design that was chosen for the seventh URBANbuild home.
Under the program, students take only this class during the school year. They spend the first semester working in groups, designing three-bedroom, two-bath homes. After voting on one design, students spend the second semester working on the newly designed house, doing most of the work themselves.
Jake McGregor of Los Angeles said this year’s URBANbuild class wanted to create a modern, energy-efficient home that represented an outside-the-box approach to design while sticking to the $116,000 budget. To do that, the class drew up several different design options before settling on one. Chris Berends of Trenton, N.J., said the students aimed for “a more holistic,” fluid feel to their project’s house.
“It was like a big puzzle,” McGregor said. “We tried out a bunch of different options and configurations. We identified the concept, then moved from there.”
This isn’t just a typical group project; it requires students to collaborate on an effort with real-life stakes, forcing them to work through the differences of opinion and style that naturally pop up as the process unfolds.
“Fifteen students all work together investing in one project,” Mouton said. “They clear the site, prepare the foundation and build every part of the home except the ones that require licensed tradespeople,” like the plumbing and electrical systems.
Even the property’s landscaping is done by the class members. As they move into the construction phase during the second semester, the students toil full time on the site, working 50-hour weeks -- and weekends if necessary.
Working well with others
For a professional school sending graduates out into a competitive field in a tough economic environment, the boost that URBANbuild gives its students is also a benefit.