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CONTACT: David F. Salisbury, News Service (415) 725-1944;

Experimental course trains a new breed of master builders

Robert Alvarado stands before a large computer screen that displays a striking-looking building situated on a lakeshore with snow-capped mountains in the background. On the table before him is a detailed wooden model of the same building, split in half to show the interior. At the back of the room. the building's blueprints are exhibited, surrounded by large posters of the structure's unusual features, which include sides that slant outward and a cylindrical skylight.

The University of California-Berkeley architecture student is describing the building-design project that he and three Stanford students completed last spring as part of an experimental civil engineering class taught at Stanford (CE 222/122). The class, which will be offered again this winter, uses the latest computer and telecommunications technology to adapt the old master-builder approach to designing and constructing modern buildings.

"Multi-site, cross-disciplinary, project-centered and team-oriented" is how Renate Fruchter ­ the civil engineering lecturer who has been the driving force behind its creation ­ describes the semester-long course, a collaborative effort between Stanford's civil and environmental engineering department and Berkeley's architecture and civil engineering departments.

The Engineering School building design shown above was created by a student team consisting of an architect, engineer and constructor as part of an innovative Civil Engineering course.

AEC222.jpeg Graphic courtesy of CE222/122.

The primary purpose of the course is to train professionals in architecture, engineering and construction who can work together as a team to design and build new buildings.

For centuries, a single individual, called a master builder, was in charge of all aspects of a building's design and construction. In the mid-19th century, however, as construction became increasingly technical, the master builder was gradually replaced by three people: the architect who designs the building, the engineer who figures out how to build it safely and the "constructor" who oversees the construction. This threesome is abbreviated A/E/C in the trade, and each has worked in increasing isolation from the others. In recent years, this sequential design and construction process has broken down, leading to costly redesigns, project delays and a lot of litigation.

"The construction industry has been in a crisis for the last 10 to 15 years," said Gregory Luth, a structural engineer at Krawinkler, Luth & Associates, who has worked in the industry for 21 years. "There hasn't been much progress until now."

The amount of knowledge and expertise involved in designing and building a large structure today is too much for any one individual to master. But, instead of approaching the process as a sequential one of design, engineer and build, the Stanford course is training the architect, engineer and constructor to work together in an interactive team.

"Does design get watered down? It can happen," Alvarado said. "But maybe some things should be watered down. It can certainly save a lot of time."

Five sites

In last year's course, Alvarado and his teammates were assigned to design an engineering school building complete with classrooms, laboratory, auditorium and offices. Each of five teams had been assigned the same basic building, but each was given a different location: on a Sacramento river, on the Boston shoreline, on the Oregon Coast, on an island off the Florida coast and on a mountain site near Lake Tahoe.

On the "mountain ridge" team, Alvarado designed the building. Mark Heller, a graduate student in structures and geomechanics, engineered it. Sheryl Staub, a graduate student in construction management, planned its construction and calculated its cost. Gina Sandoval, an undergraduate in civil engineering, did a special study of the life-cycle costs of the special spectrally selective glass that the architect wanted to use in the skylight.

ci.jpeg Photo by Linda Cicero

Renate Fruchter is instructing a student in Civil Engineering 222/122 on the use of special software developed for the course.

The team used advanced computer-aided design (CAD) tools to design the building and to plan its construction, and they used virtual reality software to "walk through" the structure to give a sense of what it would look like. They priced construction equipment and materials through the Internet and used advanced project management software to work out a detailed construction schedule.

Alumni of the course added realism by playing the role of the project owners: If the students wanted to change the footprint of the building or add features that would raise the cost of the project, they had to negotiate such changes with the owners.

Industry representatives who sat through the five class presentations were impressed by the practical nature of the course. "This stuff is superb," Luth said. "It would do credit to anybody in business today, and is better than 95 percent of the practice in the market." Jim Stehr, an architect with Helmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, said that "the models are so much more realistic than those used in the old educational experience that these are the kind of people I'd want to hire."

Design-build movement

The integrated approach gradually is catching on within the industry. Architectural student George Elvin, who acted as the architect for the river team, did his doctoral thesis on this movement, called design-build. Ten years ago, about 3 percent of new buildings were constructed using this approach. Today the number is closer to 30 percent, but architects are dragging their feet because they are afraid of losing control, he said.

Luth and the other professionals agree that the public would benefit from the design-build approach. Improved quality in the built environment, lower costs (particularly a substantial reduction in the 20 percent of the project cost spent on post-construction litigation) and newer and more creative use of materials are among the potential benefits.

The course is taught by a team of teachers. In addition to Fruchter, Stanford civil engineering Professors Raymond Levitt, Helmut Krawinkler, and Martin Fischer and Berkeley architecture Professor Yehuda Kalay instruct and supervise the students.

Mentors like Luth and Stehr also play a key role, Fruchter said. The course is structured along the lines of a master builder's atelier. The mentors serve the role of master builders, sharing their practical experience and knowledge with the students. The graduate students roughly fit the role of journeymen, and the undergraduate students act as apprentices.

"There has been an iterative growth each year in what the students have done," said Michael Martin, a professor of architecture at the University of California-Berkeley, who has been involved in the course since its inception. "This year, for the first time, I get the sense that it is not the architect, the engineer and the constructor representing their own professions. I get the sense that each one was making architecture."

New Project-Based Learning Laboratory

One reason for the progress is the new Project-Based Learning Laboratory in Terman Hall that Fruchter established, equipped and now directs. The lab is specifically tailored to allow architects, engineers and contractors to interact productively. It was made possible by funding from the President's Fund; the Commission on Technology, Teaching and Learning; and the National Science Foundation; and hardware and software supplied by Sun Microsystems, Intel Corp., Autodesk and IntelliCorp.

The floor of the laboratory is gridded with power and network connections so that workstations can be set up in any location. The special, trapezoid-shaped furniture can be combined in a number of different ways, ranging from large hexagons for group discussions to "Y" configurations that provide three team members with individual desk space, plus a common area where they can talk and exchange information. Web-based tools allow geographically distant team members to participate via videoconferencing and by exchanging documents, drawings and computer-aided designs.

In addition, Fruchter has designed some specific groupware, called the Interdisciplinary Communication Medium, that makes it easier for the students from the different disciplines to interact. The basic interface is a shared CAD program. When the user clicks on a specific object, such as a curtain wall or support truss, a box pops up that provides basic information about the part. Also, if one of the team members changes an element in the design, the program automatically notifies the other members.

In addition, lab workstations are equipped with several commercial software packages designed to encourage team interaction. Using a web-based program called MediaWeaver, students in the lab can peruse complete documentation of the design and construction of the Harris Concert Hall in Aspen, which is used as a case study in the course.

In one way the new laboratory may have worked too well. "Despite the phone, fax and e-mail," confessed Anne Elliot, the Berkeley architect on the island team, "I used the gas and drove the miles so that we could work together. I needed extra help using the tools. The [Project-Based Learning Lab] is great. I wish they would set one up in Berkeley."

Next year's improvements

Fruchter and her colleagues plan improvements in this year's course. The biggest change will be to open up the course to students beyond Stanford and Berkeley. "This will give a new dimension to our exciting learning environment and test its scalability," she said.

Fruchter also plans to add enhanced videoconferencing software to support remote students, and will introduce improvements in the software used to manage the class's shared web workspace so that students in other parts of the country can use it more easily and it can better capture the way that the projects evolve.

The mentoring program is also being strengthened by adding industry experts on additional subjects, such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, that previously have been treated generically.


By David F. Salisbury

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