Gulf Coast DesignLab
The DesignLab at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture is a one-semester advanced design lab with accompanying investigative seminar that focuses on dynamic change occurring in coastal communities. The program is open to creative and resourceful students in architecture who would like to test their design skills using a first-hand approach. Through field-based research of building what they design, students are offered the opportunity to expand their abilities through a poetic design approach. In responding to climate change taking place, not only on the Texas Gulf coast but worldwide, students test their design ideas through a built project as a means to environmental activism. In this interconnected approach, students are encouraged to challenge their own design priorities while learning to become an effective catalyst for change.
Sea-level rise brought about by climate change, subsidence, wetland habitat loss, industrial pollution and increasing development are significant issues facing residents of the Texas Gulf Coast today. There is the real need to build consensus among coastal communities to better understand and adapt to their rapidly changing environment. A first step towards that is environmental education aimed at the public, meant to nurture a deeper understanding of locale and how dynamic change might be implemented in ways that make not only better places to live, but thriving natural habitats for all. Working closely with community stakeholders, DesignLab students design and build a specific environmental education project each semester. Using these outdoor structures, teachers, biologists, artists and ecologists work with the public through hosting school and community events, engaging them in hands-on activities that address pressing environmental issues and encouraging them to become better stewards. Nurturing greater respect benefits coastal communities effected by inevitable change–if they are going to thrive in what is one of the world’s richest, if not most threatened environments.
Multidisciplinary Approach and Applied Research
As part of this multidisciplinary approach, DesignLab works with individuals who are knowledgeable in their respective disciplines to develop effective applied research strategies. People practiced in their field typically outside the realm of architectural design—ecologists, marine biologists, artists, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and meteorologists, just to name a few—have been part of the program in a cross-disciplinary approach. Through applied research, students work with conditions at hand—anything from global weather patterns, to collaborating with those who specialize in extracting heavy metals from soils, or using the geomorphology of a site to better inform the design, even studying the heartbeat of oysters as a way to gauge the health of an estuary.
As part of their role as earth’s citizens, design students may be called upon to gather trash on the beach, plant grasses in threatened wetland areas, or speak to high school students about community gardening. This benefits the making of more resilient communities, while making students more mindful of ecosystem sensitivity in the locale which they work.
Coleman Coker is director for the Gulf Coast DesignLab. He is the Ruth Carter Stevenson Regents Chair in the Art of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. Teaching for decades now, Coker is a recognized practitioner whose work is regularly acknowledged for its design excellence. As principal of buildingstudio, he has over forty years experience in design, thirty years of that as principal of his own firms. His lifelong commitment to design excellence, his belief that through thoughtful building we’re brought closer to the world, and his love for passing on what he’s learned to the next generation gives students a foundation from which to explore their own unique interests as they achieve a meaningful educational experience.