Construction and Technology in Architecture School - What Should You Be Learning?

Melonie Bayl-Smith is the Director of BIJL Architecture, and adjunct professor at UTS. Melonie's BuildAbility research project "investigated construction education across Australia and includes findings and recommendations about practical experience during studies, design-build projects taken on at various Universities, and recommendations for improving curriculum in Australia." We chatted to Melonie about her discoveries.

Q. This report focuses on 'construction and technical skills education' in Australia. What does this term entail? 

Effectively it entails the engendering of construction, structural and fabrication learning through specific subjects, as well as through integrated design studios and electives.

 Q. Are Australian Universities currently approaching this area of learning in a similar way? 

No, I think its quite varied. Some schools teach students with a more systematic approach with details and sectional drawings the focus, while some schools continue to pursue design-build or experimental studios – sometimes with real clients or external collaborators. Meanwhile, others are focused on tectonic explorations through robotics and digital fabrication techniques – but I would point out that these digital investigations can be very time consuming and more in-depth learning can often only happen in electives or Masters studios.

 Q. How do we compare to tertiary programs overseas? 

Many architecture schools overseas have a more extensive focus on construction and structural teaching through specific face to face subjects, however in many instances this is not carried through to design studio deliverables or integrated design projects. The best schools of course offer all sorts of design build studios, live projects, deep immersion systematic construction and structural learning, and integrated design studios – to do this often takes a lower student to tutor ratio, more face to face lectures, a lot of external support and collaboration, and a larger teaching faculty that includes experienced practitioners alongside research academics. These are all challenges for Australian universities particularly on the last point as we simply are not as well-resourced as many European, UK and North American schools. We also seem to still have an aversion to appointing current and experienced registered practitioners as part-time staff, partly due to the focus on academic research that is an expectation of the University executive management.  

 Q. There are so many ways that this area of learning could be taught. Did you find certain approaches or projects more effective than others?

I do think that a range of approaches is important for a well rounded construction and technology curriculum and is likely to be most effective – this was evidenced throughout my research project and in my own teaching and the observations of others’ teaching since. By this I mean that we all learn in different ways, and in some ways more quickly than others. Architecture is so demanding of the senses that I think students can learn an enormous amount through visiting projects in construction, undertaking a design build studio, learning to draw details, taking ‘behind the scenes’ tours of completed buildings, learning about heritage and material cultures… all sorts of things really!

 Q. What areas of construction education should be taught at University, and what should be learned on the job? How do we find that balance?

I think that the key aspects of construction / structural  concepts, materials and basic tectonics should be part of focused subjects as well as interwoven with design studio at various points. However, understanding details and the coordination of construction systems is more complex and is often better understood within the context of specific project needs.

 Q. What were some of the key recommendations that came out of your research?

Effectively to create or take hold of opportunities to introduce construction education in an integrated way – there is or should be no barriers, in my opinion, to teaching students about construction, structures and/or fabrication through the design studio, in environmental, history and theory studies and/or other subjects. Architecture, through its very nature as a tectonic practice, allows us to speak of it through several lenses simultaneously  - so why not teach it this way also? It was clearly evident, through the many schools that I visited, that integrated  - rather than isolated – approaches to architectural education allowed students more opportunity to investigate and absorb a range of ideas. I also proposed that design-build studios be part of every architecture students experience – not to learn how to be a builder, as such, but rather to experience the process of building and the management and thinking that must go into the construction of a design. Another recommendation was to get students out of the studio and visiting sites and completed buildings, having guided tours around the ‘guts’ of buildings to learn how the physical realities and the ‘life’ of architecture can bring about very direct and immersive learning about how buildings are made.

 Q. Thanks so much for your time, Melonie - it's an excellent report. We'd like to finish with a more personal question; what advice would you give to your younger self when you were facing your first architecture job? 

Focus on your strengths and be confident of what you bring as a person, and don’t work for lousy employers. The story? I was feeling pretty bruised by the end of my final year of architecture school, so I took the first job I was offered which was with a practice with a reputation of having a “revolving door” due to its notoriously temperamental director. Not only was I given zero mentoring and no chances to make rookie errors, but I also I pretty quickly learned what ‘office politics’ meant and soon enough found myself looking for work again – which at the time as a fresh graduate was incredibly frustrating and stressful.  

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