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By Vincent Baudoin, TSA M.Arch 1 ('15)

Vincent Baudoin is a two-year advanced standing graduate student who received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Virginia in 2007. He is working with me throughout the semester on a series of Dean’s Blogs and other related research. 

Kenneth Schwartz, FAIA
Favrot Professor and Dean

Rachel Boynton (right) cuts siding with the help of Jessica O'Dell

Rachel Boynton (right) cuts siding with the help of Jessica O'Dell 

URBANbuild, a design-build program of the Tulane School of Architecture, is now in its ninth year and continuing to produce impressive work. Each year, a student team designs a project in the fall semester and then builds it in the spring. Conceived in 2005, but delayed a year by Hurricane Katrina, the program built its first house in 2006; it has since completed a total of seven houses and a neighborhood market. With an eighth house currently under construction in Central City, program director and NewDay Professor of Social Entrepreneurship and Carnegie Fellow Byron Mouton, AIA, and construction co-director Sam Richards have clearly found a formula that works. I spoke to members of the team to find out more. 

The first word that comes to mind when talking with the URBANbuild students is confidence. Rachel Boynton, a fourth-year student, grins as she shows off her biceps. “Before I started URBANbuild, I wasn’t sure I’d be up for it physically,” she says. After two months of construction, her muscles have adapted to the work, but the confidence goes beyond that. The students are heavily involved in the construction scheduling, producing a timetable early in the semester and adapting to changes due to weather and other factors. They learn to work together and to anticipate and solve problems.

Noah Conlay (left) and Jake Gamberg dry-fit a window before installing it.

Noah Conlay (left) and Jake Gamberg dry-fit a window before installing it

Mouton, a Professor of Practice at Tulane, calls URBANbuild the “great equalizer.” Students who struggle in design studios find unexpected strengths during the house design and construction process. The program is structured to allow students to step up to various team roles as needed. Aside from the leadership of Mouton and Richards, who split supervision of the construction site each day, there is no fixed hierarchy. Students may be assigned to teams, or given a list of tasks for the day and allowed to self-assign roles. Those with a desire to lead or with relevant experience step up to make sure everything runs smoothly.

As Mouton explains, URBANbuild emerged in part from a desire to teach students the materials and methods of building. It is very effective. Aubrey Keady-Molanphy, a fourth-year student, says that participation in URBANbuild has made “all of the tech classes that I’ve taken make so much more sense” The students look at drawings and details with new understanding: a difference of ¼” or ⅛” that might have seemed insignificant in a design studio can have great importance in the field. At the same time, mistakes that seem daunting can be overcome. Boynton describes a concrete pour in which a foundation pier was overlooked. The team got together, analyzed the problem, and modified the floor framing to correct it. 

According to Mouton, this agility is what helps the construction go smoothly: “These are smart students, and they think like architects.” Sometimes the team wants to think through design decisions and details in greater depth than the construction schedule allows. There is a balance between the educational value of these discussions and the need for efficiency. When I ask Mouton how much he drives the design, he agrees that he pushes the team hard but adds that very often, the design ambition comes from the students’ desire to match or exceed the work of previous years. Students extensively research the body of work that URBANbuild has established, so, Mouton says, “They start from the point of view, ‘I can do that.’” 

Aubrey Keady-Molanphy (left) measures while Jake Lazere looks on

Aubrey Keady-Molanphy (left) measures while Jake Lazere looks on

To establish this body of work, Mouton, Richards, and their many collaborators had to find a sustainable model for a design-build program. Mouton credits, in part, the synergy with his professional practice, which gives URBANbuild access to contractors and suppliers that it might not otherwise have. And he points out other ways in which URBANbuild is unique. It is one of the few successful university design-build programs to operate in an urban environment. Because it does so, students learn to operate with constraints and deal with city agencies, neighbors, and other participants. Working with infill lots, they must take into account the urban context, even without directly copying it. Indeed, Mouton argues that these constraints lead to creativity, generating “new ideas and hope” for neighborhoods that have struggled both before and after Katrina.

A key feature of URBANbuild is the way the houses are embedded in a neighborhood. When the first house was under construction in Tremé in 2006, Mouton says, it met with some initial skepticism. But as people saw the end result and realized that the program would continue year after year, they grew very accepting. The program has changed, however: in its first four years, the URBANbuild program was under the umbrella of the Tulane City Center, and as Mouton says, “We wanted input from anyone who would talk with us.” Now community engagement comes largely through a long-term partnership with Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), a non-profit organization that funds the construction and sells the house once completed. The team works with a focus on issues important to NHS, including affordability, innovation, and sustainability. “It’s about creating affordable housing,” says Rena Foster, a graduate student. “Students have to let go of pre-conceived ideas” in order to make the design work within budget. 

The students I talked to credit Mouton, Richards, and their fellow students for this year’s progress. “We have a really good group,” says Foster. Keady-Molanphy agrees. “The team has been very good to work with. Sam and Byron never make you feel like you’re not capable of doing something.” As far as motivation, “Byron likes to keep us feeling like we’re always a little bit behind,” says Boynton, but he also jokes around and improves morale. On rainy or difficult days he can be heard saying, “We are so lucky to do what we do!” 

This spirit becomes important as the the team spends long hours on site: typically six full days a week, or more if trying to catch up from delays. Though the work is demanding, the students have a tangible goal. Foster says, “We’re willing to work hard to finish on time because there’s a finished product at the end.” They are well on their way: the house has been dried in and the installation of mechanical and electrical systems has begun. “Honestly, this has been one of the most fulfilling semesters that I’ve had at Tulane,” says Boynton.

Read more about the URBANbuild program and past projects here, and also in previous Dean’s blog entries here and here.

 The house, with roofing, sheathing, and housewrap in place, is ready for the last few windows and doors to be installed.

The house, with roofing, sheathing, and housewrap in place, is ready for the last few windows and doors to be installed