Thursday, June 11, 2015

Architect students build outdoor classroom, playground

By Meg Whalen

To the adult eye, it might be a giant pumpkin or the crown of the “Queen City,” or — its original design inspiration — an apple. To the kindergartners at Chantilly Montessori School, the new structure on the playground suggests limitless possibility.

“We love it!” said blond-headed Ruby.

“We can pretend it’s like a school or a house,” added her friend, Vanessa.

Ashley Girth leads UNC Charlotte's AIAS chapter.
“It’s an igloo!” a boy called out.

“My friends call it the drum station,” countered another. “They drum on the seats.”

“It’s so rewarding to see the little kids using it,” said fourth-year architecture student Ashley Girth, watching the children play on a bright April afternoon. A parade of feet stomps along the sturdy wooden and concrete benches that encircle the structure’s interior. Black patent leather shoes, Batman sneakers, floral fabric flats and pink Disney princess boots suddenly leap off and run across the playground to a wooden deck platform with seats, railings and planting boxes.

Both the play structure and the “outdoor classroom” in the Chantilly Montessori playground were designed and built by UNC Charlotte students and faculty. They are the most recent projects completed by Freedom By Design, a program of the University’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects Students (AIAS). Girth is the program’s current president.

‘Radically Impact’

As the AIAS community service program, Freedom By Design encourages architecture students to use their skills to “radically impact the lives of people in their communities,” said the AIAS website. The UNC Charlotte School of Architecture started a Freedom By Design program in 2007 under the mentorship of architecture faculty John Nelson, Greg Snyder and David Thaddeus.

The playground is popular with students.
The first projects, said Nelson, were about “designing something that restores freedom to movement.” The students replaced stairs with ramps, widened doorways, rebuilt porches — projects that helped older people regain mobility within their homes. Nelson said the projects are not only about community engagement but an educational opportunity.

“Most architecture students don’t have construction experience. If we are going to design buildings, we need to know how to put them together.” While architecture faculty consistently provide guidance and resources, the program is “student initiated and student led: We tell them ‘we are not going to do it for you,’” Nelson said.

The relationship with Chantilly Montessori began more three years ago with the design and construction of the outdoor learning space.

“It’s been amazing to work with the students at UNC Charlotte because of their enthusiasm and their willingness to embrace the thoughts, concerns and ideas that we had at Chantilly,” said Heather Simpson, a teacher at the school who oversaw the first project. “The design of the outdoor learning space kept morphing and morphing as we (teachers) gave input.”

The space is used not only for playtime but for science lessons, especially environmental science activities. “It’s been used by at least 11 classrooms,” Simpson said.

Nature’s Design

The playground doubles as an outside classroom.
After completing the outdoor classroom in the spring of 2013, UNC Charlotte continued its relationship with the school by beginning the design of the playhouse. After two planning meetings, the Freedom By Design students chose a concept based on an apple — not only for its metaphorical association with education but because of the inherent structural stability of nature’s design. At one planning meeting, students grabbed apples and carving tools and began to “interrogate” the form.

“We wanted to explore new construction methods to achieve the apple form and create opportunities that allowed us to expand our architecture and design/build experiences,” said Girth. Months later, people passing through Storrs architecture building could see huge wooden arcs lying on the floor and propped against walls — glued, laminated timber “ribs,” bent to form the apple-shaped structure.

On Jan. 17, Girth, Nelson, architecture professor Greg Snyder and more than 20 students who included Snyder’s Design Build 1 seminar class gathered at Chantilly to assemble the main structure of the playhouse. As a team, they worked together to put each rib up one by one. As the first rib went up, Girth couldn’t watch.

“I was so afraid it wouldn’t come together. But once they were all up, I was like — wow! That’s what we designed. It was pretty neat.”

The final touches were completed in March. In keeping with the Freedom By Design mission, the project was done at no cost to the school. Funding came from the School of Architecture and the Charlotte chapter of the American Institute of Architects, with in-kind donations from Lowe’s, Home Depot and Faulk Brothers Hardware.

“As a leader through the design and construction phases of the project, I can’t believe how many great people I have gotten to work with and how much I have been encouraged to continue doing projects like this in the future,” Girth mused, viewing the children gallop in and out of the apple/igloo/crown/drum station/fort/playhouse. “There were definitely some difficult moments, but finally seeing it finished — every bit of work has been worth it.”

Meg Freeman Whalen is director of communications and external relations for the College of Arts + Architecture.

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