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Real-world experience-for real: IUPUI's Global Design Studio lets students tackle projects around the planet

March 31, 2008

New Orleans and Indonesia are worlds apart, yet linked by devastation from catastrophic floodwaters and by the outpouring of empathy that has ensued.

An effort launched four years ago on the campus of IUPUI to involve design students in actual construction projects is responsible for a portion of the good will. The Global Design Studio is helping to rebuild areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and, to a lesser extent, the tsunami. Its projects also include renovating a boarding house in Thailand and a bed and breakfast on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.

In all, the studio has been involved in 15 projects in four countries and three states. While most of those focus on assisting victims of disasters, other endeavors include community centers, schools and a YMCA.

Students pursuing interior design, architectural technology and construction-engineering management technology form partnerships with institutions from around the globe to gain valuable, real-world experience. The philanthropic exposure is critical as well, said David Jan Cowen, studio co-founder and director of architectural technology at Purdue's School of Engineering and Technology in Indianapolis.

"We're not here to step on architects' toes or take work away from them," Cowen said. "It's more humanitarian."

One of the major collaborations is with New Orleans-based FutureProof LLC, an architectural firm that is designing "template" homes for the Broadmoor neighborhood. Students this semester began drafting floor plans for houses going up in an area that sustained so much damage a city commission recommended it be converted to park land, before residents' protests ulti- mately prevailed.

Student involvement helps the Broadmoor Development Corp. keep costs down on the houses that will be sold or rented to low- and middle-income residents who call the neighborhood home.

Roughly 25 students traveled to New Orleans earlier this month during spring break on a trip organized by the local chapter of Engineers Without Borders to assist rebuilding efforts. EWB is a not-forprofit that helps developing countries improve their quality of life and is assisting the studio with a few of its projects.

Student Chris Meehan recounted his experience on the local EWB blog:

"This trip was the most amazing experience of my life," he wrote. "I met a family that has nothing, wants nothing and needs everything. You never think that you are giving them much, but they think that you are giving them the world."

Indeed, city residents appreciate the efforts of all volunteers, particularly student participation, FutureProof Principal Prisca Weems said. Their contributions help compensate for federal funding that has yet to fully arrive. Weems estimated that maybe half the Broadmoor neighborhood is rebuilt.

"It's exciting for the [residents] to have the students involved because it reminds them there is support from the outside," she said. "Between them and these nonprofits, that's the back on which everything has been done so far."

Exchange of ideas

Cowen, a Canadian native, conceived the idea for the studio in 2004 with a colleague of his at the College of the North Atlantic in Canada. Cowen left the school and had been in Indianapolis for about a year when both instructors began pondering ways in which their students could share architectural projects.

Designs and architectural drawings for real projects provide better educational opportunities than those the students previously had done for fictitious projects that never left the classroom, Cowen said.

Padding their portfolios with projects they can present to potential employers doesn't hurt, either, said Preston Ray, who teaches a design technology class. Still, FutureProof provides oversight because clients get "a little nervous" accepting work from college students, he said.

The collaboration with the Canadians since has expanded to the University of Gadjah Mada in Java, Indonesia. The IUPUI Office of International Affairs helped the studio establish an Asian presence.

Derek Ogle, an associate faculty member in the Department of Design and Communication Technology, has traveled twice to Indonesia. And Darrell Nickolson, a lecturer of interior design and architectural technology, has journeyed to Thailand.

Ogle conducted disaster reconstruction research to help rebuild parts of Indonesia following the tsunami in 2004 and the eruption of Mount Merapi in 2006. The floodwaters killed more than 280,000, and the volcano 5,000. Students have helped design homes in Indonesia but currently aren't working on any projects there.

Ogle, however, is working with Gadja Mada University to create an exchange program in which students can travel to IUPUI and New Orleans, and IUPUI students to Indonesia.

A group of Indonesian students this year is working on "skirting designs" for some of the raised houses in the Broadmoor community. That means making the elevated houses look less vertical and determining means of access to the upper levels. One of the Indonesian students will be selected to come to New Orleans this summer to intern with FutureProof.

Local firms involved

Nickolson's work in Thailand involves rebuilding a large, dilapidated boarding house in the northern part of the country. The final design will be chosen from five April 28 and will be presented to Indonesian students sometime in May via videoconference. The local EWB chapter then will begin fund-raising efforts to complete the project.

Cowan led the renovation of the Caribbean bed and breakfast, but since has passed it off to two students who the owner, an Indianapolis resident, selected to do the interior design.

Local architectural firm A2SO4 is advising students on the Thailand project. An A2S04 associate who formerly taught at IUPUI got the firm involved with the studio. Students trek to its office in Union Station about once a month to have their work critiqued by professional designers. Floor plans, elevation studies and selections of materials are among the design facets in which students receive feedback.

"It's a very intriguing opportunity for the students and the university," A2SO4 co-owner Sanford Garner said.

Another local company, Rowland Design Inc., is helping on the Thailand project as well. Following foreign building codes is an essential part of the experience, Principal Eric Rowland said, because they differ greatly from U.S. standards.

Both A2S04 and Rowland Design hope to continue their affiliations with the studio. By all indications, it should grow in stature. Besides the Canadian and Asian alliances, agreements with schools in Australia, Africa and Europe are expected to follow.

Expeditions to the Big Easy should continue as well. The studio has a 10-year agreement with the Broadmoor community corporation to work on community service projects. But Cowan said so much work remains that students could be there twice as long.
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