Community Design: Interactions in a Virtual Studio
Tim B. Castillo, MArch | University of New Mexico
Overview: This critique method is developed for a community-based architectural studio. The pandemic forced a recalibration of traditional, community-engaged design research, and a new virtual critique model was adopted to allow community partners to engage in the design process.
Level: Fourth Year (seniors) in the Bachelor of Arts in Architecture program.
Duration: 4 hours, 3 times a week.
Learning Objectives: To simulate a professional services model, in which students engage in a client and designer dialogue. The studio format is developed as an iterative design process that allows students to engage in critique where professional architects and end users contribute to the development of design solutions for future implementation and development.
The University of New Mexico has developed an incubator for communities across the state to explore design opportunities for architectural solutions that contribute to economic development and community sustainability. The COVID crisis required changing the usual in-person outreach format to virtual platforms where students interacted with community partners.
The critique format in a virtual space allowed for new tools and interactions, with both students and clients given greater agency in the design process. The ability to have multiple interactive tools, such as notes, digital recordings, and shared screens, created a new environment that was highly productive in a community-engaged design processes.
In community engagement design it is essential for students to understand both the geographical context and the cultural identity of the people who inhabit the area of study. In a pre-COVID scenario, we would travel with students to the location and engage in a process of documentation to better understand the economic, political, and geospatial forces influencing the architectural program to be developed. The length of this process could range from one day to a week. Due to COVID-related travel and in-person communication restrictions, this documentation and interview process had to be transferred to an online virtual model.
The recalibration of the virtual studio was structured using the online framework of the Virtual New Mexico Project, which includes a database documenting the historical evolution of people in communities throughout New Mexico. Researchers created an interdisciplinary community-based data repository, using Google Earth as the backbone infrastructure for aggregating data. The repository contains cultural data sets developed in a multi-media, open-source platform that serves as an interactive tool for accessing historical, infrastructural, geographic, cultural, and economic information (see Image 1). The data was intended to help communities understand the historic evolution of place, and engage in global conversations about preservation and the sustainability of traditions unique to New Mexico. The Virtual New Mexico Project research team developed an online format that allowed a new framework to be utilized in remote settings across the state. (Forbes-Isaias & Castillo, 2015 )
Image 1: Virtual New Mexico data model diagram
In replicating this format for the virtual design studio, we developed an online repository of geospatial data, architectural models, community interviews, historical maps, and 360º site documentation. The website included hyperlinks to a variety of sites and publication, and students had access to the data as they developed initial site studies.
The new production and critique format for the studio was established as students iterated on the design problem. Utilizing online whiteboard platforms such as Miro and Concept Board (see Image 2) along with Zoom video conferencing technology (see Image 3) created a fluid critique environment. The production of design deliverables such as maps, digital models, and precedent studies was prototyped and critiqued on a daily basis. Additional sketching tool software on the I-Pad (Autodesk sketch) interfaced with Zoom, allowing the instructor to critique through real-time sketching interaction with each student (Image 3). This visual interaction and deliberation is essential as students work to develop their projects. Because physical prototyping is essential as well, students were asked to produce haptic investigations in a variety of formats, including 3d printed and analog models, to further understand the design implementation.
Image 2: Example of student work exhibited in Concept Board.
Image 3: Example of integrating Zoom and Concept Board to facilitate a synchronous critique with students and outside professionals.
In working with a variety of community partners, Concept Board and Zoom became essential tools to garner feedback and direction from the client. The ability to reflect professional design production and client interaction allowed the students to gain “real world” experiences. Client partners found it easy to plug into the Zoom technology and interact on Concept Board on their own digital platforms (mobile phone, computer, tablet). The ability to record the Zoom video in the feedback sessions was beneficial to the students in the extracting key points discussed by community partners. In addition, Zoom allowed for notes in the chat room space to be scribed as each student presented their proposal, enabling the students to review the notes after the presentation and pick up on criticism that sometimes can be lost in a traditional in-person critique session.
Integrating these digital platforms into studio made it possible to get feedback from architects from the community and across the globe. Our studio was able to invite architects and designers to critique and give students innovative recommendations in developing their designs. The opportunity to harness designers and architects into a digital space is a tremendous resource. The architects were able to utilize the sketching tools in Concept Board to critique in real time with each student—something that rarely happens in an in-person review, as reviewers are often hesitant to draw on final production material. The benefit of the virtual environment enhanced learning potential, with students understanding through a visual discourse rather than a verbal translation of the criticism.
The opportunity to harness new methodologies in design practice as technology evolves has enhanced the learning experience. Our studio benefitted from community and client interaction that was more personal in that each student received direct feedback of their design. In the traditional community presentation format, students present in a gallery environment where the products (models, maps, and drawings) are presented on the wall and community members walk around and talk to the students. In that format, many students struggle in seeking input from the community. In the virtual studio space, each student can be given the opportunity to present individually. This also allows the designer to understand the community perspective and empathize with the client/community to better the design for the future.
Forbes-Isais, G. F. & Costillo, T.B. (2015). Cultural cartographic archive: Empowering communities through archi-digital technology. Considering Research: Reflecting Upon Current Themes in Architectural Research, 419.