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Student-Made Shelters Warm Up TED Conference in Vancouver

A model for sustainable, community-minded, and hands-on design education.

Attendees at the TED Conference in Vancouver earlier this month were greeted by a pair of structures that had a backstory worthy of their own quick talk. The two ELEVATE warming structures, large, curved, wooden-framed hoods that riffed on the look of high alpine shelters you might find in ski resorts overseas, were fabricated and erected by 16 area students as part of the local DBR design-build program. They’re symbols of how the program, started by local architect Michael Green, seeks to add sustainable, community-minded, and hands-on design to the curriculum.

"I see a real flaw in the education system," he says. "You talk with students in 6th grade, and ask those who can draw to raise their hands, and everyone does. A few years later, almost nobody does. By the time you graduate, few kids feel like they have design skills and creative capacity."

Known for his work with tall timber construction, Green helped start the DBR design-build program in Vancouver in 2014 to help change the concept of design education. The program builds structures, including a series for TED that all have legacy uses; this year’s structure, 16-by-30-foot shelters built with laminated veneer lumber, will later be re-assembled at an outdoor recreation area in British Columbia. While the program currently serves undergrad and graduate students, organizers plan to expand to middle and high school students, utilizing outside professor and instructors to help encourage hands-on design. Green believes architecture and design education should run "from grade 6 until you’re dead."

"Many students think the definition of success as an architect is Gehry, Zaha, and the front page of magazines, and making these iconic buildings that may not touch the community," he said. "Then they become disillusioned. Most students aren’t going to work in offices that make those kind of works, but they’re also not doing community work. We’re trying to shake those systems up."