Today’s architectural education is facing challenges from modern construction industry and undergoing a difficult transition.

Some universities in China have been exploring and reforming their teaching systems over the past several years. Southeast University was conducting architectural education involving a practical team exercise focussing of architectural technology called the Industry-Education-Research Cooperation (IERC) education mode. Let’s take a look at a real-life case adopting this mode to gain a more intuitive understanding of IERC.

Emergency construction

“Emergency construction” was the first attempt to use the IERC education mode for a graduate design project in architecture school at Southeast University. Architecture students were required to design and construct a small building, providing an effective and timely solution for housing after a disaster. The objective was to design a shelter that could be delivered to site three weeks after a disaster and could be used for at least one year.

The house needed to be able to be more readily transported and constructed than permanent houses. It needed to perform better physically than tents as well. Ease of prefabrication, transportation, assembly, use, demolition and reuse were thus of paramount importance. The final learning outcome was a real-life building that was exhibited on campus.

Based on the aforementioned requirements, aluminium was chosen by students as a structural material. All the prefabricated components of the building were connected with bolts that were tightened with a simple wrench, making it possible for students to assemble the structure by themselves. The envelope system was composed of aluminium panels whose outer skin was aluminium and inner was foam concrete and glass-fibre net. This envelope assembly was the first practical application of a patent resulting from research in the architecture school. The experiences of students in the design/build exercise contributed to this research program as well.

Teaching procedure and building process

There were two phrases of this course. Phase one was taught formally in school via seminars and workshops, whilst phase two was in the factory. There the teaching mode was practical and experiential.

In phase one, students were divided to several groups. Every group (consisting of four or five undergraduates) had a postgraduate as group leader. The groups then developed their own designs based on the aforementioned requirements and with the guidance of teachers in building science and technology. The teachers chose one design that best met the requirements of the exercise. The design included architectural design, materials selection and a technical proposal. This procedure took seven days.

The chosen design was submitted to a civil engineer to make sure the structure was safe. The building was then divided into four parts: structure, envelope, interior, and equipment and furniture. Each part was allocated to a group of students, and each group was responsible for detailing, organising and constructing their own work. To facilitate the construction process, groups used parametric software (Revit and Naviswork) to develop their designs from “design drawings” to “building process drawings”. This took 14 days. In general, phase one took about 20 days.

Drawings were submitted to the factory and work progressed to phase two. The teaching venue moved from campus to the factory. The students can track the whole construction process in the factory. Here, the skilled workers at the factory first produced prefabricated components with CNC machines based on students’ drawings. This process lasted four days. After production, every group assembled their part of the building with the assistance and guidance of skilled construction workers. This process took seven days. Finally, the building was delivered by a container truck from the factory to the campus. A mobile crane was used to position the building for exhibition. After the exhibition, the building was delivered back to the factory for future application and promotion.

The learning and building process required every group to produce “building process drawings” and to simulate the building/construction process using Navisworks. Drawings needed to be more detailed than the construction drawings normally prepared for academic purposes; they needed to support production, prefabrication, assembly and transportation.

Through this process, students and teachers became aware of gaps between theory and practice. In many cases, students’ drawings could not be fabricated or assembled. They became aware that some issues cannot be represented on drawings and were easy to overlook. For example, they were not aware of the need to control manufacturing tolerances to ensure that components could be accurately assembled. Little attention was paid to these issues in the design stage, but when it comes to off-site construction and accurate assembly, architects need to be aware of and cater for these issues.

Of profound importance to this course was that the project leader and workers in the factory were seasoned construction professionals. They played critical roles that could not be replaced by university academics. They took on the roles of the “masters” of the groups while the students effectively became “apprentices.” This teaching mode is very different from a simple internship on a construction site. The students were real builders instead of passive participants. They updated their “building process drawings” in a timely manner to make sure they corresponded to the building and construction processes actually used. This provided the students with powerful learning experiences of applying their construction knowledge. It helped them to bridge the gaps between digital representations and reality. The exercise was thus practical and experiential.

Architectural education is inextricably linked to construction education. The two complement and rely on each other. It is impossible to see them in isolation. Southeast University proposed an alternative approach and realized it through the IERC education mode. This mode not only teaches architecture students how to design buildings, but also guides them through the process of how to build them.