AD College Guide: CAED at CalPoly San Luis Obispo

The economy is an issue on everyone’s mind and has been since the Crash of 2008. People around the world are cognizant of global issues precisely because we have all finally realized that nations do not and cannot behave as independent economic entities. The multiple economic crises reverberate through economies on all continents. 

Given this situation, professionals in the architecture field—practitioners, teachers, and writers—have each tried to address the subject in meaningful ways that acknowledge the hardships while reassuring their colleagues and potential students that, eventually, things will be alright.

That said, there are still practical issues that remain entrenched and prohibitive in the architecture field. Amongst them are the feast-or-famine, hire-and-fire business models, the lack of business acumen amongst practicing architects, and of course, that crippling debt all newly-minted designers and architects must pay off, often upwards of €68,394.24 EUR , on a before-tax pay of, say, €11-€17 EUR an hour.

Hanging Bench built by students in a design-build studio. © CAED

Still, many current and prospective students are eager to add their voices and visions to the overall architectural discourse, whether through projects, teaching, or writing. The social and cultural sophistication necessary to work in any of these three subfields of architecture requires that students receive an education that embraces cross-disciplinary training.

That is precisely the goal for the College of Architecture and Environmental Design or CAED at CalPoly San Luis Obispo. This program is uniquely positioned to address those issues laid out above. For one, the collaborative work conducted by professors and students address a wide range of issues, including alleviating Human Rights problems in the wake of natural disasters, working with real clients to develop projects from concept to fabrication, and the community design studio, directed by the Assistant Department Head, Professor Thomas Fowler, IV. A program that “involve students directly in the research, design development and sometime construction of a range of projects, These projects are integrated into the academic projects that are provided in the studio and are offered as intense 3-4 days design workshops that do involve meeting (many times via Skype) and presenting to actual clients and consultants for input.”

Another Design Village student structure (© CAED)

Another example is CAED’s d[Fab]Lab where the research includes versioning, a new definition of design/build where everything happens in the lab—no contractors needed. The work is not just theoretical, either. In fact, this is where the Flat Pack Emergency Shelter was developed, a shelter for people who have been victims of natural disasters. Explains Professor Fowler, “it is run by students who also train new students who come on board to work. This d[Fab]Lab provides advanced technology (CNC, laser cutters, etc) for a Fabrication Certificate Program (will evolve into a minor) for the Architecture Department. Students are able to work with faculty involved with the Fabrication Program and students are able to design and fabricate these scaled down skin mock ups.”

An example of a shelter project for Cal Poly's annual Design Village competition in which student-led teams from all across California build and then live in their structures for one weekend in the area just outside campus known as the Poly Canyon Experimental Structures Lab (© Courtesy CAED)

As alluded to above, CAED is dedicated to providing students with meaningful opportunities with real clients: “The SLO Gen Table was developed by Professors Doerfler & Cabrinha and three architecture students and Gensler LA to design and have fabricated (outside fabricator) a lobby desk for Gensler LA's new downtown office. Students generated the design alternatives and received input from Gensler the client with input from faculty working with the students to have this project built and installed at Gensler.” Then there is the academic internship program which allows students to acquire hundreds of IDP hours. Specifically at CAED, up to 930 of those can be earned throughout the five year undergraduate degree. Even better, these hours can be applied to any area except leadership and service. This is a significant boon for all students interested in acquiring their licenses.

The genesis of the program might have something to do with its commitment to providing practical skills: “Cal Poly Architecture Program is that it actually grew out of an Architectural Engineering Program (Structural Engineering). Because of this there is quite a rigorous structural engineering sequence that all our architecture students need to go through. From my exposure to other architecture programs, it seems that it is one of the more rigorous structural sequences.” This is further advanced during students’ fourth year, during which students can enroll in a “Professional Studio”: “students an opportunity to both work part-time as an intern along with having the opportunity to take an actual academic design studio within the firm for academic credit, typically taught by the principles of the firm. In many cases - like the SOM San Francisco High Rise Studio, students work in teams and are able to consult with the design and engineering staff for projects.”

The CAED program is more than just an architecture-practice based program, however. What makes this program unique, however, is that it has three Master’s programs of a year each and all are focused on developing skills that help new graduates use their design skills effectively. There are three, the Master’s of Science in Architecture, MBA, Architectural Management Track, and the Master of City and Regional Planning. Each of these Master’s degrees are designed to impart practical skills to students, skills that complement the design skills acquired as architecture students. That means these degrees are not intended to impart more design skills to students, but are focused on imparting management and business skills to students.

Students build living structures

The M.S. Arch degree has three subfields: CAD, Architectural Science, and Facilities Management. At 1.5 to 2 years, each of these subfields offers students opportunities to explore deeper research directly connected to industry professionals. The MBA and MCRP are equally committed to connecting the design skills students acquire for their B.Arch degrees with the contacts and skills necessary to realize what can often appear to be mere design pipe dreams. The MBA program imparts critical business skills to students who too often graduate without any idea how to deal with clients, how to negotiate fees and contracts, and how to reasonably predict timelines for project phases. This will help. The Planning Track is similarly designed for students interested in tackling the real issues involved in city and regional planning rather than simply dealing with the imaginings in their own minds. Even more appealing, the graduate student population is modest, at 15-20 students, meaning that there is a lot of opportunity to learn and grow. And students enrolled in the B.Arch CAED program can complete a significant amount of their coursework simultaneously as B.Arch students and then officially apply for admission to any of the Master’s programs

Here are the details. There are 47 faculty members for around 800 students. Of those, roughly 20% receive financial aid from the university, meaning not student loans but scholarships, grants, awards, and for graduate students, fellowships. That said, the tuition is distinctly on the inexpensive side, at $4689.00 for undergraduate residents and $5,751.00 for graduate residents. For non-residents, the price almost triples, to $14,859.00 or €11275.60 EUR. Because it takes one year to establish residency, non-resident tuition would only need to be paid for one year. And at roughly five- and six-thousand a year, the price is pretty good. What’s more, housing around San Luis Obispo is inexpensive.

About this author
Cite: Rodrigo Frey. "AD College Guide: CAED at CalPoly San Luis Obispo" 27 Dec 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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