Students pursue interdisciplinary
accord while envisioning future
of Peckerwood Garden

There was no screaming and gnashing of teeth, but graduate students participating in the inaugural run of a multidisciplinary studio involving all three built environment disciplines at Texas A&M’s College of Architecture did have to battle a few demons of their own making — clashing egos, artistic disputes and heated debates over project details.

This was a good thing, the studio planners said, because the program was designed to help students identify and overcome conflicts inherent to interdisciplinary teamwork and better prepare them for collaboration in their professional lives.

In the end, they said, the student architects, builders and landscape architects received valuable lessons in teamwork, respect, and personal humility while gaining insight into their own disciplines.

The studio, conducted over the spring 2004 semester, required students to develop long-term plans and facility designs for Peckerwood Garden in Hempstead, Texas.

The 20-acre garden, established in 1971 by A&M architecture professor John Fairey, is a living repository for rare and unusual plants from the southern United States and Mexico. Nestled at the juncture of three distinct climatic zones, Peckerwood’s environment is uniquely suited for its eclectic collection of threatened species, many of which were gathered by Fairey on expeditions into the remote mountain regions of northern Mexico. The beautifully landscaped garden also serves as an outdoor gallery for the professor’s collection of Mexican folk art.

The experimental studio, created to introduce graduate students to the advantages and demands of interdisciplinary collaboration, was taught by professors from each department: Guillermo Vasquez de Velasco, architecture; Jody Rosenblatt Naderi, landscape architecture; and Neil N. Eldin, construction science. Together, the instructors played the role of “upper management” for four multidisciplinary student teams, each composed of two landscape architecture students, three architecture students and two construction science students.

Why collaborate?

“The studio was designed to mirror real-world practices,” Naderi said, “in which designers and builders work together in various configurations for the life of a project.”

The studio also responded to a need within the professions, recently outlined by members of the college’s Dean’s Advisory Council, for well-rounded generalists — graduates with a broad understanding of the design-build process, who can integrate the activities of the various project participants.

In addition to the industry’s demand for cross-trained employees, there has been rising concern within the academy of the pitfalls of academic segregation, or the “siloing” of education programs within departments.

“Because knowledge and industry practice do not conform to this ‘siloing’ model, academically segregated education can lead to a fractured learning experience for students,” Eldin explained. “Siloing does not enable students to bridge the gap between the strongly functional perspectives of their disciplines and the integrative strategic perspective necessary for success in practice.”

In the multidisciplinary studio, Eldin continued, “we are melting the silos so we can get to the core of knowledge.”

Additionally, Vasquez de Velasco said, “the interaction of the disciplines allows us to go way beyond the scope of a traditional design studio.”

Because the Texas A&M College of Architecture is one of the few accredited design schools that houses all of the built environment professions, he said, the college is uniquely suited for interdisciplinary study.

“In particular,” he added, “our graduate students are very well equipped for this kind of interaction because they already have a solid understanding of their own fields.”

“To my knowledge, we are the only design school in the nation bringing these three disciplines together in one studio,” said J. Thomas Regan, dean of the College of Architecture. “The success of this program has bolstered our commitment to expand interdisciplinary studies on both the graduate and undergraduate levels in order to respond to the evolving needs of the industries we serve.”

The project

The Peckerwood project, Naderi said, was well suited for interdisciplinary collaboration. The project called for the development of a master plan, building designs, and — because the site is a fragile ecological system incorporating wetland areas — it provided very challenging constraints for phased construction scheduling and delivery.

“The garden includes wetlands, wildlife habitat and many rare and endangered plants,” Vasquez de Velasco said. “So, you can’t just go in there with bulldozers and a big construction crew. There are some areas where we are handling this like an offshore operation.”

The instructors characterized the studio as a “think tank” exploring possibilities for the garden’s future.

“A master plan is absolutely necessary,” said Fairey, who is preparing to transfer ownership to the Peckerwood Garden Conservancy Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 1998 to ensure the preservation and continued development of the garden and its diverse educational and conservation projects.

“We need a master plan to assist with our fund-raising initiatives and grant applications,” Fairey said.

Perhaps equally important, a long-range plan will provide Fairey with some assurance that the garden’s new stewards will retain his vision — using ecology and art to promote cultural exchange and nurture appreciation for environmental conservation and aesthetics.

In developing a plan for the garden, Naderi said, the students were asked to “demonstrate how an international cultural exchange center that deals with the conservancy of plants can be designed to provide economic sustainability over a period of 25 years.”

The scheme called for integrating into the existing garden, an adjacent, undeveloped 18-acre parcel of land that is separated from the developed garden by a county road. Each plan included at least three buildings to be phased into the project over time. The proposed structures included a visitor’s center with a gift shop and exhibition space, an exhibition greenhouse and a lodge for overnight guests.

Exploring boundaries

Though team captains were appointed for the sake of communication between teams and with the instructors,” Eldin said, “the students quickly learned that the leadership shifted between disciplines as the job progressed.”

“The landscape students took the lead in the beginning, directing development of a comprehensive master plan,” he continued. “Then the leadership shifted to the architects who designed buildings for the project. Then, towards the end,” he said, “the construction science students were in the driver’s seat because they had to address final decisions on materials, costs, delivery and scheduling.”

But even though different groups took turns at the project’s helm, the students remained true to the collaborative process.

“It was not a process where one group followed the other, there was constant consultation throughout, and many passionately held differences to overcome,” Vasquez de Velasco said. Through this interdisciplinary give and take, he continued, “students developed a better understanding of the others’ professions while learning the boundaries of their own.”

Naderi echoed that observation, saying “The students got to the essence of who they are as professionals while understanding that at the edges, the boundaries are fuzzy. There is overlap at the edges and that is a place for collaboration.”

“The biggest challenge for the students,” Naderi continued, “was learning to drop their egos and work together.”

As the studio progressed, the students not only developed a respect for what the other students brought to the table, some developed a genuine interest in the other disciplines.

“It was interesting,” Naderi noted, “to see how my landscape students would sometimes wander over to eavesdrop on the architecture lectures.”

For the architect students, the ready input from the construction students, who also served as project engineers, proved invaluable. They assisted the architects and landscape architects with material choices and provided cost analysis, delivery options and scheduling.

“The construction students were involved from the beginning, and they had a significant influence on the design solutions adopted by each team,” Vasquez de Velasco said. “My students loved the idea of pre-dimensioning the structures and having someone available to provide exact measurements. The constructors also helped with the placement of mechanical rooms and duct work, and they ultimately helped save a lot of money on the teams’ solutions.”

The interdisciplinary process also encouraged studio participants to hone their leadership and management skills.

Dealing with disparate elements

“When students work in teams within their own discipline, management skills play a role in the process, but they are not critical,” Vasquez de Velasco explained. “In the interdisciplinary studio environment that is not the case, there, management skills are absolutely critical. Without them, there is utter chaos.”

Good organizational skills were also crucial to the instructors’ successful coordination of the studio. The three professors put in a great deal of time planning the class, and they met at least once a week outside of the studio to prepare the agenda and react to the studio’s evolution.

“Instructing an interdisciplinary studio takes a lot more work and a lot more effort than a traditional studio,” Naderi said.

Eldin said the amiable relationship between instructors also attributed to the project’s success by providing a collaborative example for students. It’s not that they agreed on everything. They didn’t. But they did manage to dance gracefully away from potentially unpleasant disputes.

“The three of us seemed to gel somehow and the students took note of that,” Eldin said. “During a class discussion on team building, one student remarked, ‘You guys don't agree on a lot of things, but you work like a team. You are cohesive.’”

Adding to the multidisciplinary nature of the workshop was an interesting cultural component.

“The studio participants represented a very diverse group,” Naderi said. “We figured out that we had something like 20 different nationalities and 10 different languages among us. Even among the faculty, we had three different mother tongues.”

This multinational mixture, plus Peckerwood’s mission of using a shared ecology to advance cultural exchange between neighboring countries, provided a truly international backdrop for the project and enhanced the potential for collaboration.

Pedagogical concerns

Though the studio sought to mirror professional practices, this objective did not override the pedagogical requirements for graduate-level instruction in each of the three disciplines. The students were often required to investigate aspects of the project unique to their disciplines or beyond the client’s specific needs.

“It was really important,” Naderi said, “for the landscape students to learn how to conduct an ecological analysis, even though that skill may not be as relevant to their teammates.”

There were similar curricular requirements for the other two disciplines.

“Designing a working greenhouse is not as rich a design experience as designing a greenhouse for exhibition, conservancy or retail purposes,” Vasquez de Velasco explained. “To provide students more latitude for architectural expression and enhance the learning experience, we opted for the more complex alternatives.”

Though not initially anticipated, the pedagogic aspect of the Peckerwood project may have had a negative affect on the teams’ solutions. For instance, to meet the demands of a graduate-level architecture studio, the students’ designed buildings that were more elaborate than the garden required.

“Though primitive structures might have offered a more appropriate aesthetic,” Vasquez de Velasco explained, “such buildings would not have properly challenged the designers.”

Such detours from client objectives make it much more difficult to choose a “real world” project for the multidisciplinary studio.

“It is important, Vasquez de Velasco said, “for potential clients to understand and respect that we are primarily engaged in a learning experience. The project can be based on reality and revolve around a client’s needs, but above everything, it is a pedagogic exercise.”

The Peckerwood project was a good choice for the experimental studio’s inaugural run, Naderi said, because the client, Fairey, was willing to tolerate educational detours. Also, as an architecture professor, he understood importance of encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration.

Valuable lessons

“It is not rare for architects, landscape architects and builders to disagree, often vehemently, on various aspects of a given project,” said Fairey. “I think it is very important to initiate interdisciplinary projects in school and give students an opportunity to experience the kinds of conflicts they will likely encounter in the professional world.”

As the instructors anticipated, the Peckerwood teams had plenty of conflicts to resolve. But while a few egos may have been bruised in the process, there was no bloodletting, and in the end, the students learned quite a bit about teamwork and diplomacy.

“Even though they may want to work on their own as far as possible, they now understand that interdisciplinary interaction is part of the profession,” Vasquez de Velasco said. “As a result of this studio, students have a better understanding of the interactive terrain and they now know how to navigate it.”

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