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Architecture students do-it-themselves


Architecture students do-it-themselves

A one-of-a-kind project is seeing the University's architecture students design and build infrastructure that is bringing benefits to the Kielder community.

A unique collaboration between Newcastle University’s School of Architecture and the Kielder Art & Architecture programme is serving to better prepare students for employment.

It is also helping to deliver Kielder Water & Forest Park’s long-term ambition to develop tourism as a key way of boosting the local economy.

Testing Ground, which has run for about seven years, teams architecture students with local communities or organisations seeking temporary or permanent structures that will support community needs. This is while also enabling the wider public to enjoy the local landscape.

Students take on the entire process of delivering the structures, from working with clients to develop their brief right through to carrying out the physical build.

Testing Ground has developed into a substantial ‘live’ pedagogical and design research programme and is unique within architectural education in the UK.

Professor of Architecture Graham Farmer says Testing Ground has improved students’ career prospects.

The Blakehope Nick Pavilion, part of the Live Build Project, 2019.

Students who have contributed to these projects tend to do pretty well when it comes to employment,” says Graham.

“That’s because practices actually enjoy and respect the fact that students have been involved in projects where they’re responsible for the whole design and construction process. This includes having to manage the projects and taking them through planning permission or building regulations approval.

“Employers are also coming back and saying, we really value those sorts of graduates, can you send some more our way.”

A 'bottom up' approach

Testing Ground is the brainchild of Graham and Peter Sharpe, an independent art and architecture curator who is responsible for Kielder Art & Architecture.

It's a programme that commissions structures and delivers other creative activities within the Kielder environment for the public to visit and interact with.

Practices actually enjoy and respect the fact that students have been involved in projects where they're responsible for the whole design and construction process.

Professor Graham Farmer

To date, Testing Ground has completed 13 projects, six of which are temporary structures – including exhibition spaces and a pop-up café – that have given students the chance to practise their design and build skills.

Of the seven permanent structures, three have been built in collaboration with local villages within Kielder Water & Forest Park, which is managed by the Kielder Water & Forest Park Development Trust.

Taken together with the adjoining Northumberland National Park, this combined landscape is also the biggest International Dark Sky Park in Europe.

Testing Ground’s first project, in 2014, was to build a stargazing pavilion for one local village.

The second project, for the community campsite in Kielder, was a ‘warm room’. This structure offers stargazing campers a warm, dry place where they can get out of the wind, talk to fellow campers, cook and charge their laptops while waiting for the weather to clear.

Away from dark sky tourism, Testing Ground has also built a wildlife hide from where visitors can spot red squirrels and also watch ospreys nesting.

Its most recent project is a sculptural shelter for visitors situated within a remote upland nature reserve.

How it works

A group of seven to nine students is brought together to work on each project and most of them don’t have any construction experience.

To start with, they need to set up a series of meetings with their client group to tease out and write a brief for the client to agree on.

Peter says: “It can be a bit alarming for students to start a project with such a blank sheet of paper, as they’re much more used to being given a brief and told what they are going to do for the next eight to 10 months.”

When starting out in the workplace, new graduates would normally be given more guidance at this stage, but this doesn’t happen on Testing Ground projects.

That’s to encourage them to build their listening and communication skills.

“These are really key in commercial practice,” says Peter. “It’s very easy to come out of university speaking a language that most of the population doesn’t really understand.

"But then you’ve got to get something through a planning committee and you’ve got five minutes to explain to a group of local councillors, using clear and accessible language, why your project should get planning permission.”

Other skills students learn include how to work with colleagues and clients, how to negotiate and resolve conflict, budgeting and project management.

The first four to five weeks of a project can be a worrying time for students as they try to understand the motivations of the client and construct the brief.

“It’s really interesting to watch people go from ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing’ to starting to get a handle on it, to realising they’ve got ideas coming together and then, eventually, discovering that they are capable of making a building. It’s a great journey,” Peter says.

Measuring impact

Testing Ground has been a hugely successful collaboration for Kielder Art & Architecture, helping it to fulfil its remit as an educational programme and to deliver physical infrastructure for the public to enjoy.

Now, Peter is conducting a study on behalf of Newcastle University into the impact the initiative has on students’ careers and on the communities where the projects have been built.

“The idea of impact – what difference our research and teaching might make beyond the school – is becoming more and more important in universities,” says Graham.

“The most important motivation for us is probably that Testing Ground is making a difference somewhere.”