Up to Speed

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s design-build curriculum makes a difference—fast.

Fast-track construction is usually associated with budget-squeezed corporate architecture, but in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Lafayette, Louisiana, the idea has taken on new meaning. On the grounds of the Acadiana Outreach Center the participants in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Building Institute have hit upon speedy project delivery as an effective method for building community.

One of a growing number of design-build programs inspired by Samuel Mockbee’s legendary Rural Studio, the four-year-old Building Institute emerged from a relationship between professors Hector LaSala and W. Geoff Gjertson, and Valerie Keller, executive director of Acadiana, a nonprofit organization focused on alleviating homelessness and drug abuse. Since the institute’s founding in 2002, LaSala and Gjertson’s students—undergraduates at the university’s School of Architecture and Design—have worked on a continually evolving master plan for the outreach center and have completed 16 small-scale design-build projects on the organization’s grounds.

Because of scarce funds the institute’s interventions on the site began small; and for fear of losing momentum after completing each updated master plan, they began fast. “We wanted to keep the energy going,” LaSala says. This strategic decision grew into a philosophy: calling their approach “accelerated fabrication,” LaSala and Gjertson embraced fast action as a pedagogical tool, both to train students in independent thinking and to offer communities a taste of tangible change. Each semester about 15 students work on three or four projects that they develop programmatically with the center’s residents and staff. The students then sketch out design ideas and move immediately to the site, experimenting with materials and scale. “They gave us so much trust,” fourth-year student Beverly Istre says of Keller and her professors. “And by trusting us and letting us fail, they really allowed us to develop a sense of ownership.”

This trust nurtured a “just do it” mentality among all the participants that not only installed hospitable public spaces on the outreach center’s physical grounds but also changed its way of operating. By involving the entire community in the energetic push to improve the center and its neighborhood, the Building Institute influenced Acadiana to make collaboration an essential part of its mission. And four years of thinking on their feet in league with the institute paid off in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: underfunded and overwhelmed with refugees, Keller and her staff were able to reorganize their space quickly to accommodate a refugee support center, hire survivors to run the effort, and drum up fiscal contributions.

In LaSala’s view, interacting with such a responsive, group-oriented client is a large part of the Building Institute’s educational value. “We’re teaching the students the importance of collaborative partnerships,” he says. “We’ve all been changed by the process.”

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