USF's Design Build program: Architecture as community involvement

When people think of architects and architecture, community involvement is usually not the first association that comes to mind. For decades architects have willingly cloistered themselves away, keeping the communities in which they live at arms length.  The end product of this line of thinking is the rise of the  “starchitect”, architects whose goal is movie star-like celebrity and the creation of buildings that often have little to do with community building, or the communities in which they’re built.

That's why it’s refreshing to see the projects coming out of the Design Build Program of the University of South Florida's School of Architecture and Community Design.  Under the tutelage of Associate Professor Stanley Russell AIA (who’s also the Design Build Program Director) and his dedicated students, the program has become a regional tour de force for budding architects-to-be to acquire hands-on design and construction experience on projects that make a difference in the everyday lives of Tampa Bay residents.

The latest project of the Design/Build Program is called “Noah Nothing Caring and Teaching House”. This project is currently under construction in East Tampa and is scheduled to be completed this spring. The project fills a community need and is also innovatively sustainable: "USF architecture Professor Stanley Russell and students in his design/build class took reclaimed shipping containers for the structure that will house a food pantry and multi-purpose space at the Church of the Kingdom of God in East Tampa. Though constrained by a very modest budget, the organization is getting what it needs to meet its mission, which is 'to meet the physical and spiritual needs of men, women and children with a center that provides food, tutoring, and other services so that those who are hurting can become fully functioning members of society. "

To underscore the idea that community involvement doesn’t mean sacrificing design quality, this project made the shortlist for the prestigious World Architecture (WA) - Community Award.

Another Design Build project by Professor Russell and his students, the 2008 Riverfront Park Pavilion, was built in my own city of Temple Terrace. For this project the team partnered with the City of Temple Terrace to design and build the main pavilion for the cities new 150 acre Riverfront Park. The city and its citizens cherish this pavilion and it in turn received extensive coverage by the press.  This was also an award winning project, taking the “Award of Excellence” from the Hillsborough County Planning Commission in the “Green Projects” category. The pavilion employs laminated beams the students constructed themselves, a rammed earth wall , bamboo roof struts, and benches made out of recycled wooden palettes.

The USF School of Architecture and Community Design’s advocacy of good architecture and green and sustainable building in the Tampa Bay community has been sorely needed for a long time. It was for this advocacy that the school was listed in Architect magazine’s “Architecture Schools Guide 2009” for excellence in Community Design. The magazine states that “community design is not just a current interest of the architecture faculty at the University of South Florida — it’s part of the institutional DNA.”

Architecture combined with community involvement, though not as common as it should be today, is an idea some architecture schools are coming back to. For instance, Auburn University began its seminal Rural Studio program in 1993, "to teach students about the social responsibilities of the profession of architecture while also providing safe, well-constructed and inspirational homes and buildings for poor communities."

The USF Design Build Program is at the vanguard of architectural education as we jettison the "starchitect" narcissism of recent times for more connected, more involved, more local community interventions that make a difference to the everyday lives of the people in the community, and in the process expand design toward a greater relevance.

Evidence this is a growing trend is found in the increasing number of recent books on the subject such as Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises which "recognizes that the greatest humanitarian challenge we face today is that of providing shelter."  Another book, Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism, "presents a new generation of creative design carried out in the service of the greater public and a greater good."

USF’s program proves that access to good design really ought to be for everyone, not just those with a healthy bank account, good connections, and a country club membership. Often times what is needed for client and designer alike is the willingness to try alternate construction techniques, experiment with different materials, build and think in a different way. The Tampa Bay region can only be enriched by having such a forward thinking program in it’s own backyard.

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