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Architecture for Engineers

New courses help engineers see design from architect's perspective.

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September 9, 2009 | by Matt Paolelli

Jeff Meissner is no architect--at least not yet.

The McCormick senior had a longstanding fascination with architecture, but never had the opportunity to explore his interest in the classroom. That changed last fall when the McCormick School of Engineering began offering a three-quarter sequence of introductory architecture courses.

"To be honest, I didn't know what to expect coming into the classes," Meissner said. "It's been a good break from engineering and it's stimulating in a different way."

Laurence Booth, clinical professor of civil and environmental engineering and a working architect himself, wanted the architecture coursework to force engineering students out of their comfort zones by taking a more creative approach than they are accustomed to in their general engineering classes.

"They've spent all these years answering questions that were very specific and now here's an ambiguous question that has many answers," Booth said. "It's a question of engaging their imagination, engaging their artistic skills and seeing how much fun they can have solving real problems."

The first class in the sequence gave students free reign to imaginatively design a 400-square-foot meditation space without any design limitations. Students crafted small-scale models of their edifices as well as hand drawings and computer renderings of the blueprints.

To up the architectural ante for the second class in the sequence, Booth asked them to design a fictitious building that would house an architecture department on Northwestern's Evanston campus. Students had to design spaces for specific academic uses and were forced to adhere to strict municipal building codes.

"It had specific requirements--six studios, an auditorium, a computer lab, social space, an exhibit space and offices for the enterprise," Booth said. "So now they had to deal in actual requirements including fire stairs and ceiling heights."

Student designs were confined to a plot of land on the west side of Sheridan Road that is currently occupied by several tennis courts.

"Being an architecture building, you wanted it to be a cool building," Meissner said. "I tried to think functionally and aesthetically and tried to mesh those together, but it's difficult. For one person to try to design an entire building is a really big challenge."

The challenge continued in the sequence's third quarter, as students designed a large building for the "Evanston of the Future." Imagining an era in which the university and the city are integrated in downtown Evanston, students designed their buildings for a five-million-square-foot space for residential, university and light industrial use. To complete the assignment, students combined their growing architectural knowledge with their previous training in civil and structural engineering.

Course offerings will continue to grow and change as more students work their way through the initial sequence, said David Corr, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Additional classes on related topics such as sustainable building design are already in the works.

Booth said he hopes more engineering students with an architectural bent will take advantage of the introductory courses when they are repeated in the upcoming academic year.

"What we want engineers to do is to think creatively, to help solve the problems and to bring more to the design team than simply calculus and solving formulas," Booth said. "We want them to solve conceptual problems and to be comfortable with it, and to understand that it's fun and it's also very important to be able to do as an engineer."

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