The 2,800-Hour Studio

The designer Elliott Earls and architecture students at Cranbrook learn some valuable lessons on the job.

The Architecture Department at the Cranbrook Academy of Art

Learning to build while building to learn is gaining traction in architecture schools—a riposte to the Beaux-Arts mode of education—but letting students construct can be expensive. How many clients are willing to take the risk of bankrolling structures designed in a classroom? At the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Elliott Earls, an artist in residence and the head of 2-D design, recently took the gamble, staging a competition to create a summer studio on the bucolic shore of Lake Leelanau in Northern Michigan. After he gained assurance that his colleague Bill Massie, who leads Cranbrook’s architecture program, would oversee the winning structure’s design and fabrication, Earls chose one of 15 student proposals, wrote a check, and held his breath.

Earls describes his brief as, paradoxically, both directed and open: “I showed pictures of Chris-Craft boats, log cabins, A-frames, 1960s water-ski shows, swamp cedar trees, and the site, but I told them to do whatever they wanted, and that I would respect the design.” The winning scheme, by graduate students Drew Manahan and Tenzin Mochoe, took the A-frame and morphed it to respond to the location. Earls, Massie, and the students agreed that the entire structure would be built in the architecture studio at Cranbrook, disassembled, and trucked to the lakeside property. And according to Earls, the students promised it would cost no more than $33,500.

The perils and pleasures of DIY building taught Manahan and Mochoe some major lessons about how much a design transforms as it goes from pixel to timber. The students drew inspiration from Massie’s American House 08, a model of inventive digital design and fabrication approaches.
They were introduced to Massie’s plasma cutters in Detroit, and learned the fundaments of formatting, fabricating, and budgeting. The design changed as the space constraints of the Cranbrook studio became apparent. Manahan and Mochoe realized that the roof could not be lifted as one seamless piece without an interior crane, so they redesigned it into portable sections small enough to fit through the studio doors. On doing this, they noticed that the gaps between the roof pieces and steel structure could be filled with rib-like strips of glass, to let in more light—with sublime effect. Similarly, the students added an exoskeletal steel “roll cage” to the back of the building after realizing that their external stair-and-roof-deck arrangement needed more structural support. “The biggest challenge was the seventy hours of construction a week, for ten months,” Manahan and Mochoe said in a recent e-mail, “and finding a balance between academic research and the real-world concerns of building a building.”

Tensions were par for the course. Earls frequented the studio to discuss the evolving design and to air his material preferences (bamboo and insulated wood panels). At one point, the project ground to a halt amid cost overruns. “Smoke was pouring from my ears,” Earls says. “We had a series of difficult meetings to develop a plan forward. Given that I was the primary financial stakeholder, I spared them none of my fury.” To date, the project has cost Earls $46,400, but he values the fact that the young architects got to follow their “complete and untainted vision.” With the project up and operational, Manahan sounds both proud and shell-shocked: “The most valuable thing I learned through the whole process was the fact that we were able to do it.”

Massie confirms that this was, all-around, an educational experience, for both the designers and the client: “Elliott learned the trials and tribulations of home ownership and going through a construction process,” says Massie. “And the students were able to realize, academically, what happens in practice, without losing the ‘academic edge.’ If they can sustain that post-Cranbrook, they will rule the world.”

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