UC Takes a Building Block Approach to Train the Next Generation of Architects

Students at UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning learn to think outside of the computer and to keep their options open.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Architects focus on more than just the physical buildings we inhabit. They consider human interactions with and within each space and how a space fits in context with the rest of the street, city, and world. Within the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), the School of Architecture and Interior Design (SAID) takes a—pardon the pun—building block approach to training the field’s next generation.

“Our focus, especially at the undergraduate level, [really goes] back to basics—critical thinking, design thinking, problem-solving—that are much more universal components,” says Melanie Swick, DAAP’s undergraduate architecture program coordinator and an assistant professor. “Then when you’re in a particular project and looking to solve some of the basic challenges, you have the tools to do that.”

Those basic tools are built into freshman year “foundations” courses and elemental design labs that the rest of undergraduate coursework is predicated upon. “All first year, everything is done by hand,” says Sam Sepaniak, a second-year architecture student. “It makes sense, because it teaches you a different way to design, rather than being trapped in the computer, which I like a lot.”

DAAP’s bachelor of science in architecture program features an intense, four-year curriculum, with three required semester-long cooperative education experiences. The co-op itself—which sends students to spend a semester working 35 hours a week in paid positions—is a UC invention, dating back to 1906. Students get their first assignment in the spring of their sophomore year, then alternate semesters working and doing coursework thereafter. The real-world experience and exposure to prospective employers make co-ops attractive for students considering DAAP, which in 2012 was ranked the No. 3 design school in the world by Business Insider. “It was a huge drive for me that UC had co-ops because I feel like nowadays you can have the grades and the projects and everything, but what makes you stand out to [prospective] employers is your experience,” says Sepaniak.

Preparing students for the real world in-house is a delicate balancing act. Hand-design skills are important, but so is learning how to use software like AutoCAD, Revit, and Rhino, while remembering the field’s fundamental purpose is putting roofs over our collective heads. “The obvious changes [in this field] are digital fabrication, technology, how work is produced,” says Ed Mitchell, associate professor and director of SAID. “We don’t see ourselves as just technical people. We’re trying to create themes and narratives that guide design decisions. That’s a really difficult thing to learn, but a fundamental skill to an architect.”

Architecture principles bleed into other design fields, and an increasingly expansive educational approach—a new architectural engineering degree in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, for example—helps broaden the horizon of post-graduate career options. “Some DAAP architect graduates go into landscape design or experiential design and pop-up shops,” says Sepaniak. “People design sets for Coachella and music festivals. There are lots of different opportunities for architects these days.”

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