Architecture School Assignments Template

Image via flickr.

If you imagined you'd spend the first day of architecture school designing your dream home or imagining a skyscraper, you would be way off base. Depending on what school you attend, the flavor of your initial project will vary, but all will be designed to help develop your design-thinking and -making abilities.

The following are 23 common design prompts architecture school professors have given young minds entering the field of architecture, all of which have been recounted to me by current day architects. Some are brief while others, more lengthy prompts, but all are impactful for their ability to make one think and explore!

1. Paper and Sticks and more

Everyone is given a single sheet of a heavy stock paper, approximately 18 inches by 24 inches, and some balsa wood sticks with instructions to create curves using only those two items. After creating the paper form, everyone is asked to draw the curves as well as the negative space formed by the creations. This is the warm up exercise to get ready for the next critical step. “Go outside and find yourselves a nice twig (not too big) lying about on campus.” Once in possession of the twig, rotate it and draw the space formed as the twig rotates (not the twig itself but the actual volume of space formed). The next step is to make it three dimensional while limiting your model to two sources using no glue. 

2. The Conversion

The prompt was to take a simple object and make it complex. Reportedly, one young student turned in a crumpled up piece of paper for the assignment!

3. Regenerate Your Thoughts

Design a "regeneration unit," another term for a bathroom. The exercise is intended to get students to rethink a common place.

4. Translating Anatomy

Draw five independent translations of your hand.

5. The Onion

We were called over to a large work table where the professor placed a sweet onion. The professor said something to the effect of, “I’ll be back in 20 minutes and we will discuss the onion and how it can teach you about architecture.” We stood around looking at it until someone cut it in half, giving us more to think about as we now explored the interior layers as well as the exterior. The professor was very excited when he returned to see we had cut the onion in half.

6. The Circle

Students are instructed to get into small groups of 5-6 and draw a series of concentric, freehand circles on a large piece of paper (6’ square). The first student begins by drawing a circle in graphite, about the size of a fist. The next student is meant to correct the imperfections of the first circle by drawing one around it, also in graphite (1” bar of soft graphite). This continues until the circle is about 4-5 ft. in diameter. 

The exercise is meant to prompt discussion on the idea of circle. The project is simple in that everyone knows a circle, but most haven’t spent much time thinking about them. In just a few days, questions about the role of media, tools, drawing, ideas, geometry, history, and context arose and were returned to throughout the year.

7. The Walk & Sketch

With a 9 x 12 sketchbook and an HB pencil, we were instructed to walk for an hour through the campus and neighboring town. The catch was we needed to do our sketches while walking, never letting the pencil leave the paper. As we returned, we pinned up our sketches and had a lengthy discussion about each sketch and the patterns discovered in them.

8. The Tower

Instructions were to take 10 strips of paper, approximately 1” x 18” each, and a box of paper clips and construct a tower. No other items could be used.

9. The Cube Manipulation

This prompt is for a complex, multiple-day project involving the manipulation of two 4”x4” cubes to create one object. The assignment involves a two dimension (cruciform) pattern which is to be folded. The model was required to be watertight (no openings) and made of only white cardstock. 

10. The Differential

We were asked to create a model of an object whose “differential was the resultant of a tetrahedron.”

11. Interpreting Art

The professor walked in with a box full of reproduced prints by great masters. Students selected a piece of art and made a square representation of it. You could use any medium you desired but it needed to be six by six. Upon completion, we were instructed to then develop a three dimensional representation of the 2-D square representation, in the form of a cube.

12. One Into Many

The assignment was to create a single unit and convert it into many that would then become a new unit.

13. The Key Drop

Upon entering the studio, the professor requested we empty our pockets onto the desk. One common item each person had was a set of keys. We were instructed to pick up our keys, raise them above our head, and release them. Each set of keys dropped creating their own unique patterns. We then had to explore the patterns created looking at the spaces between the cuts, shoulders and bows through sketching.

14. The Eraser Project

Using a pink eraser and sandpaper, create something architectural.

15. Copper Art

We were handed a tangled hunk of heavy gage copper wiring and asked to create something beautiful. No other materials would be permitted and you would have four hours to complete the task. You were limited to bending, cutting and twisting only.

16. Scoring & Cutting

We were given a sheet of paper and instructed to create depth by scoring, cutting or folding.

17. The Transformed Sketch

We were asked to make 10 sketches a day of everyday objects for about a week. Then, we were instructed to choose one sketch, abstract it, and create a 3D model of the abstraction. One student made an abstract 20oz coke bottle out of cardboard.

18. Conceptual Photography

We were assigned to read Louis Kahn’s “Between Silence and Light,” and then go out and try to photographically represent concepts within the book such as Order, Joy, Touch, Site, and Wonder.

19. The Non Box

We were given three days to respond to the question "when is a box not a box."

20. Music Meets Computers

The professor walks into the studio, presenting a box of computer cards and a bundle of piano wire and tells us to make something architectural.

21. Not Exactly Technical

Find an object and create a technical drawing of said object. One student chose an x-acto knife and another drew their hand.

22. Add-Drop

We were all given an add/drop form which was used at the university to drop or add classes from your schedule for the semester. The professor instructed us to build a model both with the form and in response to it. We could not use any glue or tape. Joinery is key here in creating something worthy of discussion. If we were unable to complete the task we were asked to fill out the form and leave!

23. Brick Support

The assignment was to create a sloped platform with a flat top surface using the following three elements: chipboard, toothpicks and glue. The platform is required to support a brick.


Aric Gitomer Architect, LLC is a small, boutique architectural practice giving one on one attention to each individual client. Aric Gitomer, AIA principal has been creating solutions for over 30 years. He specializes in home renovation, new construction, additions and alterations.



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What are best practices for designing group projects?

What is true for individual assignments holds true for group assignments: it is important to clearly articulate your objectives, explicitly define the task, clarify your expectations, model high-quality work, and communicate performance criteria.

But group work has complexities above and beyond individual work. To ensure a positive outcome, try some of these effective practices (adapted from Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1991) or come talk to us at the Eberly Center.

Create interdependence

While some instructors don’t mind if students divvy up tasks and work separately, others expect a higher degree of collaboration. If collaboration is your goal, structure the project so that students are dependent on one another. Here are a few ways to create interdependence:

Strategy

Example

Ensure projects are sufficiently complex that students must draw on one another’s knowledge and skills. In one course on game design, group assignments require students to create playable games that incorporate technical (e.g., programming) and design skills. To complete the assignment successfully, students from different disciplines must draw on one another’s strengths.
Create shared goals that can only be met through collaboration.In one engineering course, teams compete against one another to design a boat (assessed on various dimensions such as stability and speed) by applying engineering principles and working within budgetary and material constraints. The fun and intensity of a public competition encourages the team to work closely together to create the best design possible.
Limit resources to compel students to share critical information and materials.In a short-term project for an architectural design course, the instructor provides student groups with a set of materials (e.g., tape, cardboard, string) and assigns them the task of building a structure that conforms to particular design parameters using only these materials. Because students have limited resources, they cannot divide tasks but must strategize and work together.
Assign roles (.doc) within the group that will help facilitate collaboration.In a semester-long research project for a history course, the instructor assigns students distinct roles within their groups: one student is responsible for initiating and sustaining communication with the rest of the group, another with coordinating schedules and organizing meetings, another with recording ideas generated and decisions made at meetings, and a fourth with keeping the group on task and cracking the whip when deadlines are approaching. The instructor rotates students through these roles, so that they each get practice performing each function.


Devote time specifically to teamwork skills

Don’t assume students already know how to work in groups! While most students have worked on group projects before, they still may not have developed effective teamwork skills. By the same token, the teamwork skills they learned in one context (say on a soccer team or in a theatrical production) may not be directly applicable to another (e.g., a design project involving an external client.)

To work successfully in groups, students need to learn how to work with others to do things they might only know how to do individually, for example to...

  • assess the nature and difficulty of a task
  • break the task down into steps or stages
  • plan a strategy
  • manage time

Students also need to know how to handle issues that only arise in groups, for example, to:

  • explain their ideas to others
  • listen to alternative ideas and perspectives
  • reach consensus
  • delegate responsibilities
  • coordinate efforts
  • resolve conflicts
  • integrate the contributions of multiple team members

Here are a few things you can do both to help students develop these skills and to see their value in professional life.

Strategy

Example

Emphasize the practical importance of strong teamwork skills.Explain the value of teamwork skills in (and outside) the workplace by offering real-world examples of how teams function and illustrating what can go wrong when teamwork skills are weak. One instructor asks students to generate a list of skills they believe employers look for. Often students answer this question with a set of domain-specific skills, such as drafting or computer programming. The instructor then contrasts their answers with the answers given by actual employers, who often focus on domain-general process skills such as “the ability to communicate clearly” and “the ability to work with others”. This activity serves to reinforce the process goals for group work assignments.
Address negative or inaccurate preconceptions about group work.If students haven’t taken group projects seriously in previous courses or if their experiences were negative, it may affect how they approach assignments in your course. Consider asking them to list positive and negative aspects of groups based on their previous experiences and then to brainstorm strategies for preventing or mitigating potentially negative aspects of group work. Also explain how you have structured your assignment to minimize problems (such as the free-rider phenomenon) they may have encountered in the past.
Provide structure and guidance to help students plan.Model the process of planning for a complex task by explaining how you would approach a similar task. Build time into the project schedule that is specifically devoted to planning.
Set interim deadlines.Break the project down into steps or stages and set deadlines for interim deliverables, e.g., a project proposal, timeline, bibliography, first draft. In addition to setting interim deadlines, give students a rough sense of how long various steps of the project are likely to take and warn them about matters they will need to attend to earlier than they might expect.
Establish ground rules.Create ground rules for group behavior or ask students to do so themselves. Group ground rules can include things such as: return e-mails from group members within 24 hours; come to meetings on time and prepared; meet deadlines; listen to what your teammates have to say; respond to one another’s comments politely but honestly; be constructive; criticize ideas, not people. You might then ask students to formally agree to these ground rules by signing a group learning contract (Barkley, Cross & Major, 2005). Find sample team contracts here…
Teach and reinforce conflict-resolution skills.Disagreements within groups can provide valuable opportunities for students to develop both better teamwork skills and better end products (Thompson, 2004). But conflict can also erode motivation. To help students handle disagreements and tensions productively, provide language they can use to voice objections and preferences constructively and reinforce listening skills. Structured role-playing can also be helpful: present students with a hypothetical source of tension (e.g., a domineering personality, a slacker, cultural differences in communication style) before real tensions arise and then ask them to work toward a resolution, improvising dialogue and actions. Role-playing conflict-resolution in advance can help students recognize similar issues when they arise and respond to them creatively and appropriately.
Alert students to common pitfalls.Point out potential pitfalls of team projects and/or your particular assignment. Common pitfalls may include underestimating the amount of time required to schedule meetings, coordinating access to labs, computer clusters, or studio space, getting research materials from Interlibrary Loan, obtaining IRB permission for research interviews, mailing reports to external clients, preparing presentations, revising reports, etc.
Foster metacognitive skills.

Encourage students to assess their own strengths and weaknesses (e.g., tendency to procrastinate, openness to criticism, strong oral communication skills) and to consider how these traits could potentially affect group dynamics. One instructor gives students a self-assessment survey and lets group members compare their answers. Find sample self-assessments here...

He then asks: What mechanisms could your group put in place to capitalize on these strengths and compensate for these weaknesses? Answers generated include setting hard deadlines (if a number of group members are procrastinators), developing a system of turn-taking to make sure that everyone has the chance to speak (if there are shy group members), using flow charts to represent the task (for group members with a visual orientation or weak language skills), etc.

Incorporate process assessments.Ask students to periodically evaluate their own or others’ contributions to the group in relation to a set of process goals, such as respectfully listening to and considering opposing views or a minority opinion, effectively managing conflict around differences in ideas or approaches, keeping the group on track during and between meetings, promptness in meeting deadlines, etc. Then give groups a chance to generate strategies for improving their group processes.


Build in individual accountability

It is possible for a student to work hard in a group and yet fail to understand crucial aspects of the project. In order to gauge whether individual students have met your criteria for understanding and mastery, it is important to structure individual accountability into your group work assignments.

In other words, in addition to evaluating the work of the group as a whole, ask individual group members to demonstrate their learning via quizzes, independent write-ups, weekly journal entries, etc. Not only does this help you monitor student learning, it helps to prevent the “free-rider” phenomenon. Students are considerably less likely to leave all the work to more responsible classmates if they know their individual performance will affect their grade.

To create individual accountability, some instructors combine a group project with an individual quiz on relevant material. Others base part of the total project grade on a group product (e.g., report, presentation, design, paper) and part on an individual submission. The individual portion might consist of a summary of the group’s decision-making process, a synthesis of lessons learned, a description of the individual student’s contributions to the group, etc.

One statistics instructor assigns student groups the task of presenting, synthesizing, and evaluating a set of articles on a particular topic. It is important to him that every group member have a firm grasp of the complete set of readings, even if they individually only present one or two. Thus, he builds individual accountability into the project by warning students in advance that he will ask each of them questions about the readings they did not present. This helps to ensure that students read the full set of articles, and not just the readings they present.

References

Barkley, E.F., Cross, K.P., and Major, C.H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R., & Smith, K. (1998). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Thompson, L.L. (2004). Making the team: A guide for managers. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

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