When students ask if I will work with them on their 5th Year Graduation Project, I ask them to write a “learning contract.” The learning contract (1.) poses and architectural question that they want to explore, (2.) lists and prioritizes learning objectives, (3.) suggests possible projects that they could build that will allow them to explore their research question, (4.) provides a reading list, (5.) proposes a schedule and deadlines, (5.) describes the outcomes. The purpose of this approach is to make the student accountable for his or her own learning. The contract is then sign by the student and me, and provides the foundation for how we approach the coming year.

Yuhai, Jizhou and XU Chen each had special interests. Yuhai wanted to explore how to define space. Jizhou wanted to explore the use and fabrication of curved surfaces. XU Chen (a late comer) wanted to explore prefabricated panelized systems. They could have each done their own project. But, they decided that they wanted to work together, each of them taking their own approach to a common project. The first half of the year was spent doing research, meeting bi-weekly for a kind of seminar discussion on what they learned. During this time they also began to define the problem they wanted to explore and began looking for a project. Fortunately for them, ZHU Wenyi (who was dean at the time) proposed a project for them: a wall, in a prominent location, to display the magazines published by the school and related discussion space. Yuhai began research into the ergonomics of reading, defining space, and preferred postures. Jizhou began experimenting with different materials, how to bend them, and their physical limits and strengths. XU Chen began looking at panel systems and assembly processes. A conceptual design was proposed, and a 1:1 mock-up was built to test the idea. The project was approved and funding was provided by the school.

The following months were filled with activity. The students decided on a concrete panel wall, a glass display box with PDF readers mounted on custom designed adjustable arms, a bent plywood canopy, a laminated wood table and a metal “pin-up board. The concrete wall required over 60 custom make molds, all individually fabricated by the students from MDF using the CNC and using a heat press to laminate a polycarbonate liner. They experimented with numerous concrete mixes and add-mixtures to formulated the right color, surface finish and tensile strength. They build a custom wood press to bend and laminate the curved plywood canopy. The design the structure on which to hand the concrete panels. They designed the structure and hardware for the glass box. They sculpted the table and inserted a LED’s so that it could function as a light table. They integrated the existing electrical and heating systems. They make design decisions that made their work complementary to the existing building. They invited friends and classmates to help out. They documented everything, including making assembly drawings and shop drawing for machining custom hardware. The researched materials. They found a glass supplier who donated the glass and offered valuable advise. The worked hard. And they made something truly wonderful, that they are proud of, and that student continue to admire.

In addition to being awarded top honors by the School of Architecture and the Tsinghua University for their excellent graduation project, their project won a design award from a regional design magazine.

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