High school students design better communities alongside architects

Ortega build the block

With the help of Oswaldo Ortega, AIA, a Chicago high school student evaluates his community's needs while playing "Build the Block," a new interactive game that teaches the design process.

At an AIA and Chicago Ideas youth lab, teenagers discovered how architects collaborate to build stronger communities.

For most high school students, getting to know an architect is a rare opportunity. Many may have only ever seen one in a movie or briefly met one at a career day, but AIA is committed to changing that. Building on the success of a 2018 workshop to envision safer schools, Chicago Ideas and AIA brought students and architects together once again for a second youth lab, this time with new technology in hand. More than a dozen high school students from around Chicago gathered at Gensler’s downtown office at the end of July, where they were met by architects ready to walk them through the process of designing a community building.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to do is develop tools that help people understand what architects do and how they make a difference in their communities,” said Peter Exley, FAIA, AIA’s Vice President-elect, introducing students to “Build the Block,” a new tablet-based game.

Game play begins with an architect briefly describing the task at hand: design a building that addresses the needs of your community. Students are then each assigned a role to play such as client, mayor, local business owner, or another community member like retiree or firefighter. At July’s event, Oswaldo Ortega, AIA, and Jose A. Esquinca, Assoc. AIA, joined Exley in the role of architect, each queuing up the design challenge within their small groups of students and describing the empty site where the project would be built. Unsurprisingly, each group determined to place their buildings in neighborhoods around their native Chicago before jumping in to discuss what type of structure to build and sketching their ideas.

Community concerns such as housing, education, safety, health, recreation, and business all factored into the decision for what type of project to pursue. The options? Affordable housing, a hospital, or a school. As the game progressed, architects facilitated dialogue and project planning, demonstrating the way they work every day. When the design phase came to a close, students presented their ideas using the game’s digital interface to display photographs of drawings they had made.

Exley’s group chose to design a three-story affordable housing complex with senior housing and parking. Students emphasized the importance of generating revenue and increasing security as primary drivers behind their choices. “I wanted to stress safety and a strong community,” said the student playing the part of mayor during a final presentation.

AIA 2020 Vice President-elect Peter Exley, FAIA, discusses different building types with a student playing the role of client during gameplay.

The other two groups—led by Ortega and Esquinca—opted to build hospitals in their community. Students selected wellness as a primary goal, advocating that their design must reflect the needs of a diverse group of residents. “When we were thinking of what we need in a community, we wanted to help out the elderly,” said a student who acted as a client. The two teams proposed public green spaces as well as private and public activity areas that would encourage mobility and mental health.

Offering some feedback about the game, the teenage participants said they found their first experience working with an architect to be productive and rewarding. The “client” students, in particular, said that the architects taught them to consider everyone in the neighborhood and how their choices could potentially impact them. “They made you think about the people surrounding the building,” one said. “They helped us understand cause and effect,” said another, adding that the architects listened and responded to their ideas with understanding. “They stayed where I was and helped me and the group build the building how we wanted it to be."

“Build the Block” is the latest way AIA is engaging young people through in-person events so they may become more aware of architecture and learn enough about the field to consider becoming architects themselves. AIA chapters across the country engage K-12 students through a variety of in-school and out-of-school programs like summer camps and workshops. AIA hopes to replicate events like the one in Chicago across the country in the future, bringing more young people and architects together with “Build the Block.”

"They helped us understand cause and effect." - Chicago high school student

To develop “Build the Block,” AIA worked with Integrated Computer Solutions (ICS), a Massachusetts-based company that has created interactive games and digital experiences for organizations including Boston Scientific and the New England Journal of Medicine. “Build the Block” was an opportunity for ICS to branch out. “This is the first project we’ve worked on that is specifically aimed at high school students,” says Scott Lozier, director of development at ICS who led game play design and project management. “The AIA team allowed us to try some new ideas, integrate exciting game-play elements, and create a learning experience that would resonate with players long after the game itself concluded.”

Part of AIA’s Blueprint for Better public awareness efforts include partnering with mission-driven organizations like Chicago Ideas, a unique nonprofit fostering connectivity that crosses industry and social boundaries. “We believe that is important for the community to connect with diverse people and ideas,” says Amanda Salhoot, vice president of strategic partnerships. Youth programs like the one held at Gensler are at the core of their mission. Last year, Salhoot says, they engaged over 1,900 students from under-resourced communities. The multi-year collaboration with AIA has resulted in connecting hundreds of Chicago area residents with architects. “Together we have created immersive experiences that build awareness about architecture and the vital role it has in sustainable community development and growth,” she says.

Looking forward, it’s events like the AIA and Chicago Ideas youth lab that will continue to improve the pathway to more equitable design practices and a more diverse profession. Those improvements start with tools like “Build the Block” and meaningful connections between architects and young people.

“Hopefully it will give some insight into what architects do, how we impact communities, and how we work with people to build a better future,” Exley said.  

Learn more about AIA’s commitment to strengthening the path to architecture through K-12 initiatives as well as our efforts to build stronger communities with the Blueprint for Better campaign.

Kathleen M. O’Donnell is a writer/editor at AIA, specializing in practice and professional development topics and Institute coverage.

Image credits

Ortega build the block

Chicago Ideas

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