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Prof. Chad Kraus's DesignBuild Education book sets foundation of architecture trend

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

LAWRENCE — The rise of design-build education for architects can be tied directly to the decline of old-fashioned treehouses.

“Students are clamoring for design-build education experiences, by and large,” said University of Kansas Associate Professor of Architecture Chad Kraus. “It’s also very new to them. This generation of students comes from suburban areas, and they don’t have the kind of integrated tectonic experiences that earlier generations had, where they would build a treehouse with a box of nails and some lumber. This generation came up during the rise of the helicopter parent, who bought them Little Tikes playhouses from Home Depot or a catalog.”

Kraus said this has led to a backlash, giving rise to both the maker movement and design-build education.

“They are not as interested in buying anything everyone else has,” he said. “They want to make it themselves. You can see this in the tiny-house movement. Handmade things become more valuable.”

KU has been at the forefront of design-build education since the 1990s, Kraus said, citing the work of colleague Dan Rockhill in Studio 804 and its cutting-edge houses and other buildings. Kraus himself leads a design-build class for third-year students who take on slightly less complicated, semester-long projects such as pavilions or renovations of existing buildings.

“The learning curve is tremendous,” Kraus said. “Sometimes they don’t know what it means to countersink a screw. A lot of architects are knowledgeable in how to draw spaces but not how to build them. But they are still responsible for oversight of the contractor, and that can lead to a lot of unnecessary conflicts. Design-build strives to cultivate empathy and sharpen their detailing ability so they can draw with a bit more understanding.”

Seeing patterns

“What hasn’t been done very well is to have theorized the role of design-build education,” Kraus said. “I wanted to understand the motivations of design-build educators. What unites them? Is there a common goal? It had arisen in different ways, but I was seeing a pattern in what architecture education is doing in design-build.”

Thus, Kraus undertook the project that became the new book he edited, “Designbuild Education” (Routledge, 2017). Kraus sought out contributions from KU colleagues like Rockhill, Nils Gore and Shannon Criss and from Andrew Freear of Auburn University’s renowned Rural Studio.

“I teach theory of architecture, with a focus on phenomenology and American pragmatism,” Kraus said. “Pragmatism, as put forth by John Dewey, has permeated our society. It’s been instrumental in shaping American thinking. So I thought: What if I look at design-build education through the lens of pragmatism? Will I see the motivation and how that comes through the pedagogy of design-build education? I felt like some interesting patterns emerged.”

Kraus categorizes those patterns, and thus the book, into four areas:

  • People: “It’s about the communities we work with,” Kraus said. “The criticism of architects is we don’t listen very well. It’s often thought of as a pure art form. It’s said to be about self-expression, but ultimately we design for society and need to be engaged.”
  • Poetics : “This is the experiential dimension,” Kraus said. “The form arises through material and natural phenomena.”
  • Process: “It’s easy to forget about the process we undertake to build our projects,” he said. “Design-build explores unorthodox materials or processes.”
  • Practice: “This is about integrating with the profession; aligning what we teach with the question of what the practice is engaged in. It’s like medical students working in a hospital residency, shadowing a doctor. When you complete a design-build education, you know how to talk to a structural engineer. It smooths the line between academia and practice. You ramp up to it. It gives them confidence and exposure. You are not entering a career guessing what it is like; you enter it with a better idea.”

Kraus said he is pleased to have created a book that makes a contribution to the field.

“There aren’t many books on design-build education,” he said. “I was lucky to have Dan Rockhill here at the same institution. Originally, I had a lot of questions like ‘What do I do about insurance? What happens when students can’t agree on a design? How do I, as an instructor, shape that process?’ It would have been nice to have had a book on design-build education I could learn from.”

Photo: Students working on Chalmers Hall renovation (Courtesy of Chad Kraus)