What makes a good architecture school? Clearly there is no single factor that comprises a good, or even a great, architecture school. Different aspects are important to different people. Students often cite access to well-known faculty members—otherwise known as “starchitects”—as an important feature. Professors and instructors mention their school’s outreach programs, pioneering studios, technologically innovative labs, and exchange programs. All of these are valid and important.
Of course, these factors must be weighed against practical considerations that include tuition, the cost of housing, and other expenses. Why? Because in Western Europe and North America, tuition can be measured in the tens of thousands. What’s more, in the U.S., student loans aren’t forgivable which means your survivors can inherit up to US $90,000 worth of debt. And if the current economy has taught us one thing, it is that it’s cyclic.
So before investing all that money, it’s important to determine how a school will help you succeed. What are the practical and critical skills the school’s curriculum will impart to ensure a) your professional success, and b) your personal success (that means your overall quality of life). Because upon graduation, the goal is to gain skills to support yourself well while doing what you enjoy.
Read our CASE profile after the break
One key element to a good school, no matter what type, is whether and how it teaches critical thinking skills. That’s because critical thinking will help you become more professionally agile and give you more options, especially when, not if, the global economy dips again. It also gives you the ability to assess whether a design is good or not: what makes it good and how can you replicate that process successfully. In short, critical thinking allows you to evaluate design, as well as your overall professional trajectory not only from an aesthetic standpoint, but culturally, ecologically, historically, and most important, practically.
An excellent way to develop this skill is through a cross-disciplinary education. Enter CASE or the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute. CASE is a collaboration between Rennselaer and SOM (Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill). It’s part of the Built Ecologies concentration that emphasizes research development in new building technologies. What does that mean? Everything, from building materials (using agricultural by-products) to innovative technologies using solar and wind. And while some schools may boast one or two of these investigations, CASE at Rennselaer has them all under one figurative roof.
As expected, the faculty covers a wide cross-section of academic disciplines. For example, there is founding faculty member and center director Professor Anna Dyson who specializes in building technology innovations (she even holds some patents). Professor Mark Mistur is an architect who helps students learn about performance-based design and building systems. But CASE also gives students several opportunities to work with scientists such as Professor Peter Randolf-Hazard Stark, a Physicist who teaches students about the science of PV design and fabrication, and Professor Ivan Markov, a Civil and Environmental Engineer who is an expert on concrete and steel structural analysis and design. Then there’s the Aerospace Engineer, Professor Michael Amitay, who studies vehicle aerodynamics, wind turbines, and building-integrated wind and heat transfer control.
This defines a comprehensive education. Because while many programs offer perhaps a single course on structural engineering or a one-time elective on PV construction, few schools have permanent faculty representing this scope of relevant fields. And together, they challenge students to exercise creativity and analytical skills on research-based, grant-sponsored projects.
The results are exciting, important, and applicable today. These projects won’t end up in a garage somewhere gathering dust. Instead, these endeavors, accompanied by stunning images and products, are aimed at providing solutions. Says Jason Oliver Vollen, architect, professor and Co-Director of CASE: “The next generation of problems in the built environment will be global, local and interdisciplinary, and our education model must adjust accordingly to tackle the intertwining complexities of this century as a built ecology. At CASE and the Built Ecologies program we are committed to developing the next generation of researchers, practitioners, and scholars who will confront the challenges of how our future buildings will metabolize resources.”
So what are some of their investigations? One is the “Advanced EcoCeramic Structural Systems,” which examines different ways to produce and use ceramic masonry systems. The “Integrated Concentrating Dynamic Solar Facade,” explores next generation solar systems for buildings while the provocative “Agricultural By-Products” proposes different building materials like coconut husks for hot humid climates. And the program has the support of some very influential entities including the US Dept. of Energy, Empire State Development’s Division of Science, Technology and Innovation, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to help fund their research.
If you want to know how to pursue either an M.S. or Ph.D. in the Built Ecologies concentration or an M.Arch II in Performance Design at Rennselaer’s CASE, you’ll need to fulfill some basic requirements. Conveniently, Rennselaer provides an easy-to-read checklist. The requirements includes such items as the general GRE, a portfolio, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and transcripts, all for Fall admission only. Tuition for full-time students is $41,600.00 per year while part-time tuition is based on credit hours costing $1,733.00. What is encouraging in the face of such a steep tuition is that Rensselaer offers Teaching Assistantships, Research Assistantships, and Fellowships for graduate students, something not available in most other architecture programs, even those that are part of large universities. And as we began this article, and was reiterated by Professor Vollen, the goal is to impart a set of skills that will allow people to pursue many different professional opportunities. Opportunities that will, ideally, enrich all our lives while doing something you enjoy.