College of Architecture Texas A&M University


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 Phillip Rollfing  

College-wide efforts

College of Architecture focuses
on Interdiciplinary Initiatives



Texas A&M University boasts the largest College of Architecture in the U.S., but it’s not just in size that its distinction lies: The college’s three departments also are leading the way in interdisciplinary initiatives, a teaching and research thrust that many academics regard as the wave of the future. And because the college is one of the few accredited design schools that houses all of the “built environment” professions, it is uniquely suited for interdisciplinary study.

College boasts organizational uniqueness

Dean Tom Regan cites the college’s organizational uniqueness.

“Our college hosts three unique departments — architecture, construction science, and landscape architecture and urban planning — that work well together, at the same time they function superbly as separate entities,” Regan says. “But, from another perspective, our college’s faculty is truly interdisciplinary — they represent not only those disciplines traditionally associated with the virtual and built environments, but also come from a variety of other academic areas, such as computer science, medicine, law, economics, sociology, psychology, engineering, art and even physics.
“While all of us recognize our college’s important mission to produce competent professionals, we also realize that the world around us is integrating. It becomes increasingly important that our students understand the interdependence and interrelationships of various disciplines, so it is crucial that we integrate our teaching mission and our research across the academy.”

To facilitate this mission, the college has established three interdisciplinary professorships, one for each department, to be funded through donations from Harold L. Adams. Adams, a member of the Class of 1961, is chairman emeritus of architecture firm RTKL Associates, Baltimore, and has committed more than $500,000 to the One Spirit One Vision fund-raising campaign.

And college faculty have themselves taken Dean Regan’s words to heart — the college now hosts a number of interdisciplinary research and design projects and five interdisciplinary research centers: The CRS Center for Leadership and Management in the Design and Construction Industry, the Center for Housing and Urban Development, the Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center, the Center for Health Systems and Design, and the Center for Heritage Conservation. For example, the Center for Housing and Urban Development, led by architecture professor Jorge Vanegas, marshals faculty from all three departments to address special problems in urban areas — especially in colonias, the sub-par residential developments in Texas near the Texas-Mexico boarder. The colonias are served by community centers designed, built and managed by the college to provide social services and development planning to Texans struggling to overcome poverty.

Teaching mirrors interdisciplinary mission, focuses on real-world challenges

“To facilitate such efforts, our design studios are organized around projects,” says Mark Clayton, architecture professor and interim department head. “All of them feature project-based learning centered around a real or a hypothetical design challenge. Students are tasked to come up with comprehensive and holistic solutions to problems which cut across disciplines, just as they do in the real world.”

An example of such a real-world challenge has been designing a research and education facility for the Casa Verde Reserve, a 40-acre Costa Rican rainforest donated to the university by Aggie Bill Soltis and his business partner Curt Clemenson.
“Many Texas A&M colleges will use this facility,” says Guillermo Vasquez deVelasco, architecture professor and executive associate dean of the college. “Our college has collaborated across departments to design it. Architecture faculty and students worked to create a holistic, aesthetically pleasing design. Construction science faculty and students consulted on scheduling, construction and safety issues. And faculty and students from landscape architecture and urban planning have evaluated the site to make sure our efforts are responsive to natural systems.”

Interest in using Case Verde for research, study-abroad activities and student field trips has been expressed by the Colleges of Architecture, Geosciences, Engineering, Science, Education, Agriculture and Liberal Arts, giving the facility a real interdisciplinary clientele. Faculty from these different colleges will be using the facility to teach different subjects, Regan noted, and leaders from many nations will also be visiting it.

“Given the nature of real-world problems, there is obviously a real need for such an educational melting pot,” Vasquez deVelasco said. “But such cooperation is not easy; often, no road maps exist because no one has tried it before.”

The college’s efforts in Costa Rica are indicative of its “anti-silo” approach, Regan says. “Interdisciplinary cooperation keeps each department and college from being isolated in a vertical educational shaft.”

Some projects, topics naturally lend themselves to interdisciplinary approach

Some topics in landscape architecture and urban planning by their nature lend themselves to cross-department or cross-college approach — for example, sustainable urbanism, says Foster Ndubisi, professor and head of landscape architecture and urban planning, which hosted a graduate student symposium this fall, drawing participation from students in various disciplines from as far away as Europe.

Construction projects themselves also naturally dictate cooperation, notes Charles Graham, professor and interim head of the construction science department. “In the past seven or eight years, our students have worked on aspects of many interdisciplinary projects, including additions to Dallas Children’s Hospital and Scott and White Hospital in Temple.”

Architecture faculty from all three departments frequently are asked by a diverse clientele — for example, the hospitals mentioned above, Texas A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the university’s Galveston campus — to provide input on proposed facilities.

“These projects may not get built exactly as we advise, but we help our clients see the alternatives open to them and we may influence their decisions before they engage architecture or construction firms,” Regan said. “We help our clients become more knowledgeable, and that makes their projects better. For example, in Dallas, our students showed the Children’s Hospital how it could expand its building on the existing site.”
Input from faculty and students often helps educate clients to understand the limits and the opportunities presented by proposed projects, as well as showing them how they might cut costs, Clayton, Graham and Ndubisi agree.

Home-building also lends itself to cross-disciplinary cooperation, and the record $2.3 million dollar gift to the college this summer from Fort Worth’s Bryan N. Mitchell family aims to revolutionize teaching in residential construction and design. The gift will fund an interdisciplinary initiative preparing College of Architecture and Mays Business School students for careers in an increasing diverse construction, endowing five faculty positions, funding 10 scholarships and providing support for an interdisciplinary studio/class focused on residential construction and design.

“Through the involvement of our students in classes and design studios, we can help clients see what’s possible,” Graham says. “Our college has the potential through such interactions to directly benefit society.”

Ndubisi believes that such interdisciplinary collaborations work best if they are either theme based or place based, as with the Pont du Hoc documentation of a D-Day landing site on the French Coast, spearheaded by faculty and students from the Center for Heritage Conservation. For Pont du Hoc, faculty and students from the visualization laboratory in the architecture department collaborated to provide three-dimensional drawings. The colleges representatives worked with faculty from the geosciences, history, anthropology and engineering to evaluate threats from erosion and to proposed solutions to keep the memorial to Rudder’s Rangers from falling into the Atlantic, thus allowing the memorial site to be reopened to tourists.

Another interdisciplinary effort is Team Aggie 2007, Texas A&M’s entry into the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition. Led by college faculty Vanegas, Pliny Fisk III, Charles Culp and Jeff Haberl, the team is designing and building a prototype home employing photovoltaic panels and energy efficiency innovations to allow it to be self-sufficient and to product enough energy to power an electric car. Jody Rosenblatt Naderi of landscape architecture and urban planning and Yilmaz Karasulu of construction science are also contributing to make the solar home not only architecturally pleasing but integrated with nature and constructible. The home will be exhibited on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2007.

Collaboration sometimes requires some adjustments

Of course, such collaborations are not without pain, as some graduate students experienced when they participated in the inaugural run of a multidisciplinary studio involving all three built environment departments and had to confront demons of their own making — clashing egos, artistic disputes and heated debates over project details. The studio required students to develop long-term plans and facility designs for Peckerwood Garden, a 20-acre site established in Hempstead in 1971 by architecture professor John Fairey, which serves as a living repository for rare and unusual plants from the southern United States and Mexico. Fairey said he needed a master plan for the site, to integrate an adjacent undeveloped 18-acre parcel of land into the existing garden.

The studio, which illustrates much of the essence of interdisciplinary projects, was the brainchild of Vasquez de Velasco, Naderi and former construction science professor Neil Eldin and, according to Naderi, was designed to “mirror real-world practices in which designers and builders work together in various configurations for the life of a project.”

Eldin praised the studio for helping students to see the value of “melting academic silos to get to the core of knowledge.”

Though team captains were appointed for the sake of communication between student teams and with the instructors, Eldin said that “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, then the leadership shifted to the architects who designed buildings for the project. Then, toward the end, the construction science students were in the driver’s seat because they had to address final decisions on materials, costs, delivery and scheduling.” The result was a project that remained true to the collaborative process and, despite its growing pains, validates the interdisciplinary approach.

“We are seeking to implement an interdisciplinary approach even when it comes to faculty reinvestment initiatives within the college,” Regan says. “We have conducted college-wide searches for appointments housed in all three departments in the areas of sustainable development, visualization and health facilities design. Our college directory is arranged alphabetically, rather than by department, and our physical space is not divided into separate office wings — we’re all living together in Langford.

“Our Dean’s Advisory Council of industry professionals has outlined a need for well-rounded generalists, graduates with a broad understanding of the design-build process, who can integrate the activities of the various project participants. That real-world input, coupled with rising concerns within the academy of the pitfalls of academic segregation, has fueled our interdisciplinary thrust.”


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College of Architecture student designs for the A&M facility in Costa Rica

Aggies at work preserving the Pointe Du Hoc memorial site on the coast of France

Students working on the A&M entry to US Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon 2007

A presentation from the Peckerwood Gardens studio

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