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.

Humility and the Architect

Last year I wrote a post for AIA Colorado/Archinect titled “The Ego and the Architect.” ( )  If you didn’t read it, the post discussed evolving forms of leadership within an architectural office spanning age and experience, and how this relates to what seems to be a softening of the egotistical architect archetype in favor of a socially-conscious, collaboration-minded, sometimes empathetic individual.

As I look book after many months and reconsider this post, I have been scratching my head at how personal experience has begun to shed light on what might be a question and counterpoint:

Do architects need some sense of ego to maintain strength and optimism while experiencing what seems to be an even greater challenge than bravado; humility?

In the last year, I’ve moved out of the 1-3 year range as a designer and am now in what seems to be a rare bird in today’s post-recession market; a 3-5 year employee (Gasp! We do exist!)  In the 3-5 range, I’ve participated in a wide range of projects, large and small, from start to finish. I now recognize the importance of all project phases, and have begun to engage with each new assignment in a more involved role. Hence I am not a newbie, despite also not being an “expert.”

With that said, in this transition of time and knowledge acquisition, I’ve stumbled across a few revelations regarding perhaps the most exciting but also challenging aspects of becoming an architect: the ability to be humbled by the complex nature of what we do, how we do it, and perhaps most importantly, how we follow through once a project is being constructed.

To keep this post short(ish) but hopefully helpful, here is a counterpoint to my original blog post; a list of the lessons I’ve experienced as a student and young professional that require a personal shield of confidence to protect against an on-going sense of humility and acceptance in learning from experiences and decisions approached with optimism, idealism, and simply not knowing…yet…

(1) Academia: From a first critique, architecture students are challenged on every thought, decision, graphic, verbal, and text-related decision that is made. “Your project is promising, but must be improved here, here, …and here!” We are taught from an early age to both welcome feedback and to use it as constructively as we can, knowing that despite what we do or how much we produce, despite its level of quality, it will always have potential for improvement or different methods of thought and experimentation—a thought and design process carried throughout an architecture professional’s career and life.
(2) The IDP experience: At this time, a recently-graduated student is the most junior staff around (besides interns,) and he/she is eager to prove themselves while gaining relevant job experience. It is inevitable-regardless of what field he/she is in- that this time will be filled with learning, mistakes, and learning from your mistakes.

(3) The ARE: It wasn’t until I took my most recent exam that I felt truly humbled by the daunting process of taking not 1, not 2, not 5, but 7 exams testing ideas and concepts that I have engaged in directly, indirectly, or at this stage—not at all. I’ve found studying to be rewarding as a reminder of how many factors must be considered at every stage in the design process, and the degree in which an architect must become a semi-expert regarding the small and large nuances of our environment and the world we have made. With that said, I have found myself both bewildered, nervous, and then (hopefully) relieved to find my knowledge is on par with what NCARB might consider “sufficient knowledge” for an associate pursuing licensure. I have no doubt that after Test 7 I will have the biggest ego in the world, rooted in a necessary discipline, persistence, patience, not to mention a sharpened ability to complain, focus, agonize, and rejoice all within the same week (or days in some instances…)
(4) Becoming a 3-5 year person. After cutting your teeth as a junior designer, the more involved a young professional becomes in client relationships, a design process in its entirety, as well as actually walking his/her drawings in the field, there is a large window of opportunity to make mistakes that dance the line of being small but illustrative of how much you do not know yet.

So what will help the emerging class of future architects remain aspirational and optimistic, all the while knowing each design problem will require discourse, unfamiliar tasks and challenges, not to mention the uncharted territory of each unique client and client relationship?

I would come full circle from my previous blog post to say “mentorship”  as a form of leadership remains the key to balancing a young professional’s process of learning and developing.  Without oversight and people to teach, challenge, and recognize young designers (especially millennials,) our next group of architecture leaders may have to wear a similar façade of ego to protect them simply from what they do not know…

The art and… what..? of architecture

Incomplete house from Graduate Design Studio II.

One of my greater failures (so far).

Whenever I speak to someone new and mention that I’m in architecture, they’ll say without fail, “Oh, how creative! You must be an artist!” I’ve learned not to argue, to just smile and nod instead, maybe chuckle and say, “Something like that.”

 I grew up in the sciences, on the neuro side of psychology. I threw myself into biology, into anatomy and physiology. Into chemistry and physics, even. I was a research assistant for three years and found myself preparing for med school. My dad, a family practitioner and the biggest reason I flirted with becoming a doctor, once told me about ‘the art and science’ of medicine:

To be a good doctor, you need a deep grasp of the science behind the medicine. To be a great doctor, you need the ‘art’ – the intuition to know when to go with or against what the science seems to say.”

Here I am in architecture now, and I miss the science.

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