Monday, January 18, 2010

The Case for Building Homes in Architectural Education


In 2007, the Department of Architecture adopted a track focused on home architecture as one of three alternative paths to completion of the degree of Bachelor of Environmental Design. Under the curriculum devised at that time, students are provided with a broad suite of alternatives that include a traditional and conventional path in the Architectural Studies Track, an exploratory and self-directed path in the Research Track, and a construction-oriented path in the Home Architecture Track. While the Research Track largely consists of a customized degree plan of 13 credits in the senior year, the Home Architecture and Architectural Studies Track are based around studio sequences and integrated technical courses.

The Home Architecture Track consists of an eight credit experience in the fall semester and five credit studio in the spring semester. The fall unit combines ARCH 407 design studio with ARCH 432 and ARCH 436. The intention is that students will conduct a construction project at the Architecture Ranch and will gain hands-on experience with construction, structures, systems, detailed design, and project management. The spring semester consists of a final design studio (ARCH 408) that allows students to apply the practical skills that they have learned to produce innovative designs for homes that can then serve as plans for construction in the subsequent fall.


There are several motives for introducing the Home Architecture Track. The BED curriculum dates from the late 1960’s and is long overdue for a deep reexamination within the context of 21st century social needs and technological opportunities. The tri-partite form of the new curriculum allows the department to preserve the tried and true conventional sequence of courses while experimenting in new curricular forms. The Home Architecture Track is one of the experimental forms that has the potential to achieve a national and international reputation for excellence and help our department to establish itself as a leader. A minor consideration is the existence of the Mitchell endowment that provides funding and expects a commitment to residential design and construction.

Similar programs already exist at other schools throughout the United States. The Department of Energy Solar Decathlon Competition has been run through several cycles and has included up to 20 schools in each cycle. Several schools, such as University of Colorado, Virginia Tech, Cornell and Puerto Rico, have repeatedly participated in the competition, demonstrating a deep and strong commitment to home building. The list of participants is shown at

Other schools have a commitment to home building independent of the Solar Decathlon competition. The University of Kansas has operated Studio 804 since 1995, building 14 projects of startling beauty. Auburn University is highly celebrated for its Rural Studio, which often involves building houses. The University of Kentucky has also built several houses under the leadership of Professor Greg Luhan, including the Resonance House, also seen in a video and the Blue House. The Yale building project was conceived at Yale University by Charles Moore, and has built houses for 40 years. Building houses in an architecture school has become a mainstream activity that is extremely attractive to students, former students, funding agencies, and the general public.

The regional context for Texas A&M establishes further motive. Hurricanes of recent years have devastated the housing stock in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Mexico coastal regions. The recent earthquake in Haiti is another example of the clear need in our region for disaster relief and provision of affordable houses to disadvantaged communities. As a land grant university, Texas A&M has a mission to provide service to the public and particularly the lower income residents of our region who have been harmed by these events. Recovery will take decades. Our department can seize the opportunity to lead recovery and serve the public in a very genuine and tangible way by helping to rebuild devastated communities and strengthen communities that are at risk.

In addition, the colonias of the border region have long been a focus for college research and service. These communities continue to have extreme needs to develop of residential resources.

Focus on innovation in residential architecture has strategic value for the department in two key areas. Green architecture and the concept of triple bottom line sustainability have come into strong focus as national and global priorities for current and future development. Global warming is a dominating issue of the 21st century ( The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified decreasing energy consumption in buildings as the highest priority for immediate action in slowing the trend toward global warming and the reducing the impacts of climate change. Energy efficient residential architecture is a key part of surmounting the challenges that society faces from climate change. Texas A&M has an obligation to search for solutions to these problems. Demographic changes in Texas, the nation and the world are also a key driver for focusing on residential design innovation. Demand for housing and new residences will increase rapidly due to population increases, population migrations, disruptions due to environmental stress, and other factors. Texas A&M should provide leadership in finding solutions to the problems that will arise.

As compelling as these motives are, perhaps the most important motive for introducing the Home Architecture Track is the educational experience that it provides to students. Beyond the technical knowledge and skill obtained in architectural education, our department can provide experiences that are life-changing in the maturation of individuals that they offer. The Solar Decathlon effort that culminated in 2007 was a highlight life experience for those who participated. Students learned to work as a team, learned to accept responsibility, learned to provide leadership, learned to follow leadership, and learned how to achieve something bigger than the individual. They learned all of these within the context of architecture and construction. These are lessons that are at the core of behavior of a competent and successful architect. No other experience that our department can offer comes close to the experience of building a house in preparing a student be an architect and designer.

Resource requirements and availability

The Home Architecture Track will require reassignment of resources and generation of new resources, but should not adversely impact any other programs within the department. Personnel assignments, space allocations and funding availability are all needed.

The Home Architecture Track consists of 4 courses: ARCH 407, ARCH 408, ARCH 432, and ARCH 436. Accommodating one cadre of 16 students should require approximately 1 FTE at the typical teaching load of two courses per semester per faculty member. The skills required of faculty members probably suggest that the load should be spread over two or three faculty members. An efficient offering of the courses and the needs to achieve sufficient student-power to construct a house may more realistically require two sections of 16 students.

A willingness to redefine curricular content and expectations to accommodate the objective of building a house can lead to a relatively straightforward implementation of the track. The structures component should focus upon residential construction and structures, such as lightweight wood framing, wood joinery, slab-on-grade and simple foundations, SIP construction, cabinetry and fabrication. The systems component should focus upon residential systems, such as single zone mechanical systems, solar hot water, photovoltaics, simple water and sewage systems, home theaters and audiovisual design, and residential sustainable systems. Skills in these areas are typically within the expertise of architects, home designers and tradespeople rather than professional engineers.

Faculty assignments could be achieved as follows:
Fall Semester
ARCH 407-501, 16 students, Faculty 1
ARCH 407-502, 16 students, Faculty 2
ARCH 432-501, 32 students, Faculty 1 or Faculty 3

ARCH 436-501, 32 students, Faculty 2 or Faculty 4

Spring Semester
ARCH 408-501 Faculty 1
ARCH 408-502 Faculty 2

The fall semester staffing presents some challenges. A most efficient staffing would make use of two faculty members, one who combines expertise in design, structures and construction, and one who combines expertise in design and building systems. Alternatively, a specialist in structures and construction and a specialist in building systems could be assigned to work with two design instructors. Outside consultants in residential building technology could be provided to enhance the educational experience. For example, a contractor with expertise in photovoltaic system design and installation could provide a hands-on workshop, and be either uncompensated or provided with a stipend.

Graduate students, if carefully chosen, may be able to provide very tangible support through GAT positions. Risks are significant that the fall semester house building effort would be overly demanding of the time of a graduate student. It may be inadvisable to hire an M Arch student for this position as commitment to completion of the M Arch program should take precedence for that student. However, many of our PhD students have substantial experience in architectural practice or even building construction and could be of great support for the ARCH 407/432/436 sequence.

Another model for staffing could include hiring an expert from practice, either architectural practice or construction practice, to provide instruction and guidance during the fall semester. Funds from the Mitchell endowment could be devoted to this position.

Space needs are not exceptional. ARCH 407/432/436 can be taught in a normal studio setting with special activities at the Architecture Ranch for actual construction. If permission can be obtained, the sequence can be held entirely at the Ranch, relieving some demand upon space on the main campus during the fall semester, when demand is highest. ARCH 408 can be taught in a normal studio setting.

Funding for the house construction is probably the main barrier. However, informal conversations with students and former students suggest that building a house is an exciting and attractive prospect that could be funded through private donations. Cooperation from local builders and even regional and national builders is also highly probable. Contributions from material suppliers should also be achievable. A concentrated fund raising effort will be necessary to raise the funds. Mitchell funds can be used in the spring of 2010 to undertake a fund raising effort.
The Brazos Valley Affordable Housing Corporation has offered funds for building an affordable house (approximately $80,000). The house could be built at the Ranch and then moved to a lot for sale to a client. BVAHC suggests that it could be kept at the Ranch for up to a year to enable testing and monitoring before it is moved. Alternatively, our department could build the house on site or even design the house and provide plans to BVAHC for construction by them.

The funds needed for a meaningful experience are not overwhelming. Recently, the Auburn Rural Studio built a small house for $20,000. A goal of raising $100,000 in materials and cash contributions, coupled with funds from the BVAHC, should be adequate for a first prototype. This first prototype should be modest in size, use relatively conventional construction technology, and relatively conservative building systems. By setting our sights appropriately and avoiding high risk through too much experimentation, the program can get off to a solid start.


In summary, the potential benefits are substantial while the costs are significant but not excessive. The primary benefit is an enhanced educational experience for the students who participate, increasing their confidence, leadership ability, and practical knowledge of architecture. An additional benefit is the public service provided by a continuing program of building affordable and prototype homes. The research benefits are also substantial, as we can use the homes as test beds for innovation in energy efficiency and sustainable design. The public relations benefit could be the most important value, as a continuing program can achieve national attention, attract support from agencies, inspire students and student applicants, and rally former students.


At this point, January 2010, the recommendation is to proceed with the Home Architecture Track by implementing the following steps:

  • Incorporate courses into the course schedule for Fall of 2010.
  • Conduct a competition to select a design for construction from the products of one or more studios in the spring of 2010.
  • Commit administrative leadership and resources at the department and college level to raise funds for construction of the first house.

The Home Architecture track can become a highlight of the Department of Architecture and help propel us to achievement of the consensus Top Ten position that is our stated goal.

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