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Inside a design/build studio semester

Jade Polizzi is a Senior Instructor with the University of Colorado at Boulder Program in Environmental Design. Each spring, students in her design/build studio class collaborate on a hermitage cabin to be built on the grounds of the Lama Foundation’s retreat center near Taos, New Mexico. This semester we caught up with Jade and her class to learn about how today’s design students are utilizing SketchUp and LayOut to solve real world design challenges.

Inside a design/build studio semesterStudents gather at the Lama Foundation to present design concepts to Lama community members.

Jade, you are tasked with the job of training the next generation of industrial designers, architects, and outside-the-box thinkers. What are some of the challenges of working with students so new to the design field?

The primary challenge is that this is a real project that needs to be completed on time and within budget. Most students haven’t been part of a project from start to finish so they struggle to understand all the steps necessary to bring a design from inspiration to completion. We use many different tools for communication: scaled drawings, physical models, computer models, and even life size layouts to best understand the space and all of the processes that are necessary to understand when constructing the building. Having seventeen-to-twenty designers on a project can make it difficult to find a cohesive style but the benefit of having so many designers on such a small project is that we can investigate many ideas and develop beautiful details that enhance the design concept.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the collaboration between the CU ENVD dept and the Lama foundation?

The partnership between the ENVD and Lama Foundation began in 2013 when we shifted our curriculum to incorporate a Praxis Semester, where students apply their design knowledge and work with a local or regional partner with a stated need. The Lama Foundation is a 50-year-old community oriented retreat center in northern New Mexico. The Lama Foundation’s mission for creating a peaceful and sustainable environment aligns well with the philosophies of University of Colorado’s Environmental Design program.

What type of classroom preparation is necessary to get your students ready for the task of modeling to a constructable level of detail in SketchUp?

Our students have taken a building materials class prior to our semester and they are already familiar with many computer applications for the design profession. Typically they have used SketchUp as a massing tool. One of our assignments is for them to model each material that will be used in the building, 2 x 6’s, sheathing, windows, etc., as a component and to submit a booklet of all the parts and pieces that will be necessary to complete the structure. We call this assignment the Lego project because it creates a sort of manual for construction.

Here's an example of the Lego project curriculumWant to take a page out of Jade's book? Here's an example of the Lego project curriculum!

What is the process for determining which design you move forward with for your final project?

Each student spends about nine weeks designing a structure that fits the programmatic needs of that year’s project. Students design the form, the circulation sequence, investigate the intended materials and develop concepts for the furniture. Our clients, community members of the Lama Foundation, then visit Boulder to discuss the designs. They choose three-to-four projects that they bring back to the remainder of the community where a final form is chosen.

Once a project is selected we discuss the benefits and from there we often pull ideas from each student's work: a window detail from one, a chair from another, and materials we are attracted to from a third. At this point the project does not belong to anyone but is a true team collaboration. Many elements are fabricated in our workshop space and I encourage the students to get exposure to a variety of construction processes and become familiar with as many tools as possible.

students work to develop constructable SketchUp modelsBack at the CU campus, students work to develop constructable SketchUp models with the help of expert instructors. Click through to see the class in action.

Our final design was developed by Wenjie Yan. The structure appears to hug the ground and it is large enough to accommodate all the furniture without feeling cramped. This year’s structure will be a timber frame, with Tyler Schowengerdt heading up the task of structure leader. He is responsible for leading students in the mortising, pegging, and fitting together of the timbers.

Wenjie, where did you draw your design inspiration for this project?

My design mainly focused on the building-ground connection. The shape of the building anchors itself into the high side of the ground and the inside of the structure is narrow in the front and becomes wider toward the back of the building. The location of the porch and windows are placed to take advantage of the views of the surrounding landscape. My cabin has a unique form that consists of two rectangles that rotate outward. The interior has four 90-degree corners that make furniture layout easier and maximize of space. Using SketchUp to build the model in 3D helped me to visualize the unique form and focus on developing my concept. Moreover, SketchUp helped me to better understand the structure of the cabin.

Wenjie design

The Lama Foundation was attracted to this project because of the unusual form and the double sloping roof. 

Tyler, how does SketchUp allow you to express your design ideas in 3D?

SketchUp allows me to express my ideas in 3-D with a range of settings and tools that fit any problem I may face. It's a valuable tool because it can model a range of detail from broad design concepts to placing small objects, like screws, in a model. Being able to switch the camera view between perspective and parallel projection enables easy transitions between 3-D modeling and 2-D drafting.

Finally, Jade, what are the main skills you want students to develop by the time they complete the Tiny House project?

Most of our students do not come into the class with construction experience. When I have students with prior experience I don’t let them only rely on those skills. Instead, I give them a task that will challenge them. Building a small structure from beginning to end teaches the students a little bit about the full design process and all of the construction trades. What’s emerged from this class is that it gives our students the confidence they need to ask the important questions. The students are not learning to be contractors but they develop a knowledge of materials, sequence, and a love for craft and detail.

Stay tuned to see the finished results of the hermitage cabin, coming in the second part of our series on the CU Program in Environmental Design.

About the Author

Steven enjoys backcountry skiing, strong cups of coffee and biking to work. He can often be found riding the chairlifts of Eldora Mountain Resort with the SketchUp Ski Club or slacklining in the parks around Boulder. Originally from Monterey, CA, Steven joined the SketchUp team after studying at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Profile Photo of Steven Griffin