Houseboat to Energy Efficient Residences (HBEER) model shown 2010 at the University of Kentucky
Colley Hodges of Kirksey Architecture responds to the opening talk of the RSA/RDA Fall 2012 lecture series. Please let us know your thoughts. If you missed it, watch it on YouTube. The next talk features Alfredo Brillembourg, who shared a Golden Lion award at the 2012 Venice Biennale and was lauded this week by the New York Times architecture critic. For more information click here.
Michael Speaks set the scene. Before an audience of educators, professionals, and students, he kicked off the RSA/RDA’s Fall 2012 lecture series, NEXT: Four Takes on the Future of Architectural Education, by explaining that education and architecture are each facing crises. Schools across the country, including the University of Kentucky’s College of Design where Speaks has served as dean since 2008, are feeling the effects of the economic downturn. State funding has been cut, and you can’t ask surrounding communities for support since they’re crunched for cash as well. Meanwhile, the field of architecture is confronting the question “what’s next?” Ideologies come and go, and supposed next-things like parametricism are not the answer (actually, far from it—Speaks calls it “the most horrible thing that has happened to architecture”). The good news: these challenges present a nexus of opportunities, and Speaks has a compelling case for how to take advantage of them that cannot be summed up in a short blog post.
But when the floor opened up, audience members raised some pointed questions and concerns that highlighted exactly what’s at stake.
Speaks argues that in these economic times, educators need to be entrepreneurial. Partnerships with local businesses are a win-win—they lead to a source of funding for school projects as well as revive a local economy. They also help prepare students to be entrepreneurial themselves. As far as the future of architecture, Speaks believes it might involve a different way of looking at the design process. Instead of focusing exclusively on the final product, emphasize the body of experience and knowledge gained through prototyping and exploring multiple problems as well as multiple solutions. Speaks calls this deliverable “design intelligence.”
His model of how these two ideas come together is his College of Design’s 2009 collaboration with the University’s Center for Applied Energy Research, entitled Houseboat to Energy Efficient Residences (HBEER). Funded by grants and local corporations, the project involved students and faculty translating work from a previous solar decathlon competition into modular, cheap, energy efficient, and locally sourced homes. Local houseboat manufacturers who were hit particularly hard by the recession were hired to build the final housing prototypes, which had already hit the market with potential buyers earlier this year. The future demand lies in adapting these prototypes into multi-family homes or portable classrooms, according to Speaks.
This business plan, by and for entrepreneurially minded educators, prompted some audience members to question what is at stake for students. Speaks noted that when taking an entrepreneurial approach, student work has to transition from fantastic designs into prototypes the market will bear.He also spoke to whether students in these partnerships are, in a sense, unpaid labor (actually, paying labor) who take a backseat while others might profit. A separate issue seemed to emerge about whether, as these partnerships are negotiated above students’ heads, their education is almost a byproduct of the process, rather than being the deliverable. No doubt, partnerships between colleges and area businesses can do amazing things for all parties involved, but they should ultimately be judged by how well they serve the students, right? Students will likely gain invaluable experience and a critical resume booster. In an inspiring project like HBEER, they will have made social, economic, and environmental contributions to their community. They may even see their designs boom in the marketplace. But they won’t see a paycheck.