Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Teaching design students about materials and sustainability

So I'm in the middle of our in-town "intensive" session for the Boston Architectural College Master's Program in Sustainable Design. Our first site visit was to North Point in east Cambridge. North Point is a work-in-progress, a planned community-green space that was sparked by the completion of Boston's Big Dig. I've written about it several times in these posts.

Our second field visit was to the Boston Fens, just a few steps from the BAC and what I consider to be a 19-th century iteration of the process now underway at North Point. City, nature, people, landscape and its myriad interactions. It surprised me that students liked the Fens more than North Point. They felt comfortable there, connected, and inspired. Maybe it was because we got a little closer to nature.

I had a chance during our walk to stand under a leafy maple tree for a short discussion with the students. We noticed that the leaves were fluttering happily away in the wind, and I asked them to do a little thought exploration on how the leaves could function so well for the tree at the same time as they are light and airy, made up of almost "nothing." We discussed briefly cellulose and lignin and what they do in plant systems, but only very briefly. This is not a botany class.

An hour later I had the students busy at work in our homeroom/laboratory where they engaged in an extended experience with zometool building pieces. Four groups ended up creating four distinct projects, with various shades of focus, noise, and fun.

One of the projects really surprised me. The students built catapults with the zometool, an unexpected outcome to say the least. But when they presented their work they discussed it in terms of materiality: How much catapult action did they get for the size of their structure and the number of pieces used? Their conclusion: The structures performed the same regardless of size or number of pieces...a great preliminary experiment in the use of materials in the built environment.

I asked the students how they came up with their design and their premise. Again I was surprised when they told me it related back to our study of leaves. How people make connections, how they relax into learning, how nature speaks to us in a "biophilic" sense, all of these are questions I'd like to pursue more. What lessons should we keep in mind when we design courses about design?

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