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Studio project teaches students the value of community building

December 03, 2013

For the 17 ASU graduate students on the Australia Project team, learning about each other’s areas of expertise and understanding how their unique contributions play into the overall success of the project are almost as important as learning about the needs of the client. 

In fact, learning how to collaborate and communicate effectively with their peers – all of whom represent a variety of professional disciplines unlike their own – is a learning curve they all must experience and pass in order to bring their project to life in the most meaningful and practical way for the client.

“The students are learning new skills and they’re learning about their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the power of group dynamics,” said Jack DeBartolo, faculty associate of architecture in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and one of the leads on the Australia Project, the focus of the fall semester’s international design studio. 

“We learn what we’re good at, we display more humility and we lean on the strengths of others.”

DeBartolo, who directed the Ethiopia Studio projects in 2010 and 2011, was enlisted to join the team by Australia Project director James Shraiky, assistant professor of architecture with a specialty in healing environments, who directed a similar real-life design project in Rwanda last year that included students from architecture and the College of Health Solutions. Together, they bring a wealth of knowledge to the team about ‘activist architecture.’ 

Shraiky, DeBartolo and their partner Gerri Lamb, associate professor with the College of Nursing & Health Innovation – who brings years of experience in interprofessional education, practice and leadership in health care environments – wanted to work with local leaders on a project that would benefit vulnerable populations while giving students an opportunity to travel internationally to gather useful information about health care delivery models that serve indigenous populations. 

“We went to Australia to look at the same questions from their perspective,” Shraiky said.

This year’s project – the beginning of a three-year partnership – brings together design, research, architecture and health care students to design affordable housing and a mental health clinic in downtown Phoenix to benefit Native American Connections, a local nonprofit organization that provides residential mental health facilities and affordable housing to underserved and vulnerable populations.

DeDe Devine is the CEO of Native American Connections. She and her colleagues manage the organization’s two residential mental health facilities, one located in an 1848 building and the other in a 1950’s building – both having been adapted for use. An upgrade to these facilities, perhaps by combining the two sites, has been on Devine’s radar for some time, she said, in order to lower costs and make their infrastructure needs more efficient. 

But the most critical component of a renewed location, she said, would be its focus on wellness and healing – an environment that respects the cultural and spiritual values of the clinic and its clients.

“The students are skilled designers and systems thinkers who are working together to translate DeDe’s vision,” said Lamb. “The students know they are doing something important for the community.”

While they are focused on accomplishing three basic deliverables – architectural and landscape design, completion of a research brief and an operational model – the students made sure to keep an open mind while in Australia as they spoke with locals, including health care professionals, decision-makers and residents. 

DeBartolo believes that these types of experiences add more to the students’ lives than to their portfolios that they typically fold up and put on a shelf.

“The cultural aspects of the projects are huge for the students,” he said. “They get excited when they can say they’re designing something that will change lives.”

Reid Mosman will graduate in May 2014 with his master’s degree in architecture. He learned about the Australia Project from Shraiky and DeBartolo through their respective international studio projects. He applied to be part of the project because of the professors’ reputations as activists in their field and the fact that the project will get built.

Mosman shared that many of his class projects are what he would call imaginary: design challenges that engage and strengthen conceptual and technical skills, but do not represent projects that would realistically get implemented.

“It is an incredible experience to participate in a project that is going to become a reality,” he said.

DeBartolo explains that architects and students typically focus on either the pragmatic, technical projects or the poetic, hyper-theoretical projects. His intention has been to show the students how to merge the two to make something special.

“Both are critical,” he said. “We need to be innovative and unconventional.”

Through the Australia project, he and his partners are trying to bridge practice with the academic world.

Stephanie Furniss is working on her doctorate in biomedical informatics while serving as a consultant in the electronic health care records field. Like her peers, Furniss is glad to be part of a real-life project that will benefit the community.

“Working with a large, diverse group of students is challenging, but I am passionate about serving a local organization and strengthening my community by providing access to quality health care and housing,” she said.

Jesse Westad is working on his master’s degree. As the only landscape architect on the team, he spends time thinking about environmental elements that will add value to the project, especially those that will contribute to the healing emphasis of the new space.

Considerations important to Westad include the topography, the sun’s arc, the amount of asphalt, noise pollution, whether rainwater is harvested with existing infrastructure, public transportation, parking and the balance between mature landscaping (requires more water but provides more shade) and desert-adapted trees (conserves water but provides minimal shade).

Westad shared that although professionals in his field will consult with others, they usually take the information with them and resume their independent work. Information sharing is typically done on an as-needed basis, which tends to limit understanding.

“You have a bias but never ask why, until we start working together.”

While it is early in the design phase, Westad said the collaborative, interprofessional nature of the project is an advantage. 

“It’s like we’re learning a different language, German and English, and we can communicate,” he said.  “They start thinking like us and we start thinking like them. The end product is going to be so much better.”

Denise Kronsteiner,
(602) 496-0983
College of Health Solutions
College of Nursing & Health Innovation