A gap exists between seeing a building product online and actually working with it, says Bruno Rivera Rodrigues Silva, a first-semester graduate student in the School of Architecture & Urban Planning (SARUP).
For Silva that gap closed when he enrolled last spring in a studio sponsored by Waukesha-based Spancrete, which engineers and produces precast concrete building solutions and the equipment necessary to make the products.
“Once we saw the product in the plant, we fell in love with it and grilled the engineers with questions,” says Silva. “We have to understand the craft of building and the only way to do that is to get our hands dirty.”
Five years ago, the company asked to sponsor the first-ever SARUP studio that would integrate firsthand knowledge of its products with the design curriculum.
Since then, UWM students have taken first place in thestudent design competition of the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI) every year. This year’s top project was submitted by Silva, Colin Brown and Hugo Reymond.
While Architecture Professor Gil Snyder encourages students to push the boundaries in terms of creativity, the company helps bring reality into the mix.
This year, SARUP offers four sponsored studios in which commercial businesses contribute financial support and provide real-world experiences for students without dictating the course pedagogy.
A model for other schools
The studios have become a unique feature of SARUP: The National Architectural Accrediting Board specifically identified them as being models for other schools.
“The partnership studios enrich the education of our students,” says Robert Greenstreet, dean of SARUP. “By working directly with our colleagues in the professions, the school becomes relevant to the needs of the built environment and provides a unique educational experience for all the participants.”
Over the past few years, commercial sponsors have included: Eppstein Uhen Architects; KI, a furniture design firm based in Green Bay, Wis.; Haworth, which sponsors the UWM Chicago Studio; the design firm BCI/Building Committee Inc.; Towne Investments/Towne Realty; Plunkett Raysich Architects; and We Energies.
The newest sponsored studio began this semester with Assistant Professor Greg Thomson at the helm. Bradley Corp. produces fixtures in a variety of materials for industrial and commercial restrooms and locker rooms.
“Architects use our products and we are influenced by them,” says Kris Alderson, senior marketing manager at Bradley Corp., which is celebrating its 90th anniversary. “So we thought we could bring something to the table, giving students background into how these products come into being and what they are made of.”
But the studios offer more than product familiarity for architects-in-training. Knowing more about the product can lead to new ideas about how to use it, says Clinton Krell, project engineer and sales representative at Spancrete.
“Every year I’m more and more impressed with what they design,” he says. “We hope to see more Spancrete precast concrete incorporated at the design stage of a building project.”
One example of an innovative use of precast concrete, he says, was a student’s design of a bicycle parking ramp in which the structural Spancrete precast components resembled parts of a bike.
“It’s forcing all of us at Spancrete to understand the perspective of an architect during the design phase of the structure. The learning experience is not one-way,” says Krell.
The architects at Eppstein Uhen echo that, saying their sponsored studio has become “an incubator” for new and innovative ways to use Revit, a kind of architectural software known as building information modeling (BIM).
Bradley Corp. has the same aspiration for its partnership studio. The company has taken on a sustainability challenge with several of its products, recycling waste on both ends of the manufacturing process.
For example, the company manufactures group lavatories made with recycled solid surface material that can be ground up at the end of the products’ life cycle and reused in new fixtures.
For students, this presents an opportunity to develop ideas for products as well as new sustainable processes, says Thomson. And “green” is particularly attractive to students.
“During the semester, we’ll take some of their products and turn them on their ear,” he says. “What if you put a high-end indoor sink, for example, on the outside of a building?”
In touch with experts
As an early adopter and now a national leader in the use of BIM software, the firm of Eppstein Uhen is the go-to training ground.
BIM allows all the different professions involved on a construction project to work simultaneously and be connected in real time. Skill with the software is essential for new graduates.
In their studio, “students are experiencing a very real design process where they become faced with maintaining the strength of an idea under the weight of real-world influences,” says TJ Morley, design associate at the firm.
So it isn’t surprising that student work from this studio also is nationally recognized with honors such as an American Institute of Architects award for academic programs, and the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards prize for design research.
“The studio immerses students in a multidisciplinary, collaborative process,” says Morley. “The result is work that has tremendous depth of resolution and believability.”