Firsthand Experience : Learning Through Design-Build

Ever wondered why the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, “Colorado Building Workshop,” is so popular amongst students, faculty, and Colorado residents?  Aspiring architect and graduate student Samantha Strang provides us with a guest post this week regarding her experience as an active participant in a project to design and build year-round cabins in Leadville for the Colorado Outward Bound School.  Read ahead to learn about what she aptly describes as a “layered design process.”   

Thanks Samantha!

-Beth R. Mosenthal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C



Photo credit: Rachel Koleski.   Description: Students presenting during the final design crits with the client, Colorado Outward Bound School

As a developing architect, I aim to approach all projects with a committed contemplation for detail, place, time, material, craft, and people. I hope to always represent those who will use the space through an informed design process based on sensorial and emotional understanding as well as environmental and regional components. These powerful elements invoke a timeless relevance and open direct lines of communication between people and the architecture that surrounds them.


My participation this semester with the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, Colorado Building Workshop, has given me (as well as many collaborators) the opportunity to utilize this layered design process to achieve a built outcome. Working and learning from our clients, Colorado Outward Bound School, while helping to build their community is a unique opportunity to enhance and contribute to the school’s sense of place and identity. As opposed to generating a theoretical design problem, I’ve found that CU’s Design-Build program allows students to develop key skills to explore the integral relationship between architectural design, people, and building construction.


Photo credit: Samantha Strang.  CU-Denver Design-Build students in Leadville conducting Post-Occupancy evaluations of the fourteen cabins from the 2015 build.

This semester, twenty-eight students are designing seven year-round accommodations. The housing, which includes three single occupancy units, three double occupancy lodgings, and the Executive Director’s cabin, will be built in Leadville during the CU-Denver Maymester. Expanding upon last year’s build of fourteen summer-use cabins, these seven units will be roughly 300 square feet, fully insulated, and will include electrical. Working in teams of four, my classmates and I have worked intensely throughout the design process to personalize our particular cabins to our sites and project concepts. Simultaneously, we have had the challenge of relating to the previous build while creating works which are individual to our class’s design sensibilities.

Working much like a professional studio, we have come to rely on one another’s strengths. Aside from our design teams, students work within other groups including areas such as Logistics, Structure, and Budgets which serve to keep the project focused as a whole. This ensures communication exists between the seven cabins while promoting a cohesive design approach relating to the architectural language and techniques employed in the fourteen cabins built last year.

Within the program, every student has the potential to bring unique insight to challenge and improve the architectural design. I have learned not only how to deal with structural issues and budgetary restrictions, but also the importance of efficiency, on-site problem solving, and adherence to deadlines. I’ve noted the clarity of communication necessary to maintain organization and the intricate detailing of construction assemblies required to fully understand how a project comes together. Needless to say, it has become exceptionally clear that one’s understanding of every detail matters.

As an aspiring architect, I want to experiment, pose questions, be questioned, and collaborate to create unique works. Learning and readjusting after each step through an iterative process is part of the Design-Build program. This is where I can bring all of my skills and put them into practice, learn from students with other backgrounds, and potentially teach others as well. This in-depth experience promotes the ability to comprehensively design, define career goals, and affords students the potential to be a more informed, valuable member of a professional studio in the future.

Teaching Up; Learning from our Summer Interns

Just yesterday, our summer interns gave a final presentation regarding a Denver-specific research project they have been working on in tandem with project work for the entirety of the summer.

 Upon first initiating the project, our intern committee’s hope was that the research might be used as a vehicle for collaboration as well as a chance to become acquainted with one another and the city of Denver.

 After the presentation, and hearing the interns talk about their experience, it seems the research exceeded our expectations. Serving as a vehicle for sharing ideas and skill sets, the project became an important opportunity to merge and acknowledge different work styles, processes, and modes of thinking amongst students from different disciplines including architecture, interior architecture, interior design, and illustration/environmental graphic design.

 Not to get too warm and fuzzy, but the interns smiled as they described their experience working together on a shared project as transitioning from “difficult” to their new team description—“four hearts and one mind.”   This Captain-planet combining of forces, skills, and viewpoints led to a cumulative design that articulately blended their different ideas and disciplines into one cohesive design—a feat I wasn’t entirely sure could be pulled off in the brief interlude of summer, but is now under consideration for potential realization.

 Watching them present was a refreshing reminder of the importance of teamwork, and the beauty of the multidisciplinary approach to design. When asked how the interns combined their work, they talked about looking for “the most important aspect” of their preliminary designs, and finding ways to prioritize the inclusion of these ideas while formulating a cohesive design. As my coworker mentioned, this provided a design solution based on the importance of function, rather than aesthetics.

This reminder of approaching group work as a chance to extract the most salient design ideas of individuals, and bring them together as a group to solve a problem was both refreshing and reaffirming.

While most of us have been taught to work in partners, groups, or teams since college or graduate school, I have found professional practice to be the ultimate litmus test for collaboration. Whether a project is a month or two years, the changing nature of project teams, the delegation of roles and responsibilities, as well as the mixture of different personalities often feels like experiencing one sea change after another.

I am always excited when a new project starts, as working with different people and clients is an inherent opportunity for growth and exposure to new work styles and ways of thinking. With that said, the nature of professional practice at times can lend itself to efficiently living within the confines of certain roles and responsibilities—a navigable but at times stifling way of working. What excites me about the intern presentation is that it reinforces that the best idea should, and must win, regardless of source or origin.

 Today is the interns’ last day—we are sad to see them go, but happy that they have “taught up” in providing a stellar example of what productive collaboration can yield- both in terms of building relationships as well as creating amazing work.



As the Saying Goes…


Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.  –Ancient Chinese Proverb-

This past weekend, AIA Denver hosted the first 2 in a series of 8 classes for those studying to pass their AREs.  As the instructor for both of these classes, I was elated with the number of those that attended.  Split between a strategy session, and a session that was specific to the Site Planning and Design portion of the exam, I worked with over 60 people this weekend.  This is an incredible showing of interest, and it speaks well to the determination of our Colorado Emerging Professionals.
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Final Reviews Part Deux: A Critic’s Perspective

First year Final Review at Syracus University, my alma matter, 2009

First year Final Review at Syracuse University, my alma mater, 2009

After reading David’s post from this past Monday (in which he articulately summarized the challenges and potentials of the architectural review from a student’s perspective), I thought I might respond with my recent experience and thoughts regarding participating in final reviews from a critic’s perspective… Feel free to share your thoughts from your experiences as well!

A few weeks ago, I sat on a final review for a first-year graduate program at a local architecture school.  Arriving a few minutes early, I found myself in a big room filled with pencil drawings, balsa wood final and study models, Christmas cookies, and eager/exhausted students, professors, and professionals.

Having graduated from architecture school only a few years ago, the final review is an experience that feels both near and far to me; a rite of passage that architects’ own and endure as a necessary means to what is hopefully a professional end. Perhaps this makes me a more sympathetic critic than most, given my visceral memories of late nights spent trying to articulate my design ideas while navigating learning curves associated with software, theory, and the often perplexing comments from that particular day’s meeting with my professor.

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Get with the program

Program is a word that architects use in a way that only architects understand. For most everyone else, a program is something that is installed in a computer or an football team and organization with an overzealous coach. But for architects program is… well, what is it?

The term has been defined many, many different ways over the history of architecture. For modernists, program is function. Form follows function and what is function but the list of activities that are done in a space or building. More specifically, program was the ‘spatial relationships and other physical conditions required for the convenient performance of specific functions.[1] For Rem Koolhaus and Bernard Tschumi in the period they were writing ‘Delirious New York’ and ‘The Manhattan Transcripts’, program didn’t exist. To paraphrase, a subway station could become a church, then a nightclub, and then a farmer’s market. They argued that buildings and spaces had a complete interchangeability of form and function, with neither following or leading the other. In stark contrast to modernism, program was in reality, indeterminate. So what is program today?

Architects and architectural academics today see program differently and in my opinion, the current definition of program is one that might stick. Program, much like the computer reference above, is active and the architects are the programmers, creating forms, shapes, and space with agency. Broadly put, program is the question and architecture is the answer.

If someone presents you with a problem, the assumption is that you will solve that problem, employing your skills to provide a solution. In the design world, that solution is a built product, something that actively solves a problem. To me, that means that a material employed in the design is part of the solution as much as the plan layout. The way in which the question of a project is answered is broadened from organizational elements to include form making elements, engineering systems, specific project requirements such as acoustics, and the list goes on. This opens up projects to be driven by any portion of the program, from the mechanical system driving interior organization to a reinvention of the shape of a lap swimming pool generating the form of an entire building.

To me, what this means is that the architect becomes the programmer, the person along with the design team, who define the project. The list of specific requirements and square footages that the Client provides at the beginning of the project become the parameters to which the architecture is applied. Beyond that, the architect takes over the programming of the building, adding energy efficiency to the program, adding social aspects of a project to the program, and giving these additions weight in the design. The architect and architecture, in redefining program, can move beyond the minimum requirements to make buildings that act and are active.

[1] John Summerson, “The Case for a Theory of Modern Architecture,” 1957