Architecture students revive spirit
of Thoreau in design-build project © May 29, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Architecture students assembled the “T-box” in Norwich’s Kreitzberg hockey arena.

photos by Jay EricsonArchitecture students assembled the “T-box” in Norwich’s Kreitzberg hockey arena.

Norwich University’s cavernous Kreitzberg Arena, normally home to a hockey rink, dwarfed the wooden building that nine architecture students were trying to assemble on its concrete floor one spring afternoon.

But this structure, a unique, one-room shack designed with quirky angles and a three-pitched roof, was impressive in its own right. Built and designed entirely by students, the structure is the next stage of the School of Architecture and Art’s efforts to encourage the use of screw guns and hammers in learning—not just pencils and drafting software.

Even in an unfinished state, it was a solid piece of construction.

“The building is very, very strong,” said Meredith Hankins, a senior from Bridgeton, N.J. “This morning I was hanging from one of the trusses, and it wasn’t moving.”

Senior students help secure a roof panel to the structure they created in a Design-Build studio class.

Seniors Meredith Hankins and Leanne Waterman [plucking the chalk line] help secure a roof panel to the structure they created in their Design-Build studio class.

That afternoon, the students borrowed a few other people, who were working on another architecture project nearby, to help haul the largest roof pitch into place. They gathered around the wooden rectangular section and lifted it, straining, to waist-height.

“Spin it 90 degrees, this way,” shouted senior Jeff Cooper of Trumbull, Conn., as others laughed. “The other way.”

Eventually, students propped one edge of the roof panel on the building frame. Two climbed up on a makeshift shelf built quickly to give them a better angle. Working together, they carefully slid the section into place, and soon were driving screws to secure it.

The April 2009 deadline for finishing the structure was looming, and students kidded each other about whether they were getting any sleep. Their plans were to sell the building through a silent auction in two weeks, and use the money to benefit the school’s Design-Build workshop—a third- and fourth-year studio elective that allows students to learn about construction through hands-on projects.

Some of the students have never swung a hammer, according to Cooper, who has done some framing work and knows a bit about carpentry. They all benefit from the opportunity to use their own elbow grease in transitioning ideas and drafts into lumber and concrete, he added.

“As much as you draw, you can’t understand how badly things can go,” he laughed. “... or how great things can go.”

“We learn from each other,” added Leanne Waterman, a senior from Gray, Maine.

In fact, students said they made 50 or 60 changes to plans before they even began to assemble the materials. Called the “T-Box” in tribute to the Spartan home built by environmentalist pioneer Henry David Thoreau, students set out to construct a simple, flexible-use building made of local materials that was both practical and interesting. Several designs were put to vote among their friends and colleagues.

Students in the program have taken on a variety of projects, from writer’s shacks to a mobile classroom built from an old school bus, usually to other organizations’ specifications. The idea to build and sell an original design, however, is new. Proceeds from its sale will pay for growth of Design-Build, with the idea they will gradually take on bigger projects.

“If we want to build a house, we want to be able to do that,” said Waterman. “But we have to start with the small projects.”

Danny Sagan, professor of architecture and advisor to the Design-Build program, dropped by the building site, where he drew students into brief, informal conferences and sketched out ideas on a scrap of 2-by-4. Over time, he said, they’d like to spearhead their own funding for Design-Build by offering “pre-funding” to nonprofit organizations that would pay them back for finished projects through grant money.

He said the T-Box proves they offer a quality service.

“I think, for its size, there’s a lot of architecture here. I like it,” said Sagan. “Who wouldn’t pay $4,000 for this? ... It’s very well built.”

He added that plans can be attributed to the work of a lot of people, and were created in an atmosphere of cooperation rather than competition. He believes it illustrates the idea that collaboration doesn’t necessarily water down inspiration.

“I think it’s great value we’re providing,” said Sagan.

The T-Box, which eventually sold for $4,000 at silent auction, was designed to be unbolted and transported on a truck. It was made of wood, metal and Plexiglass.