Lessons grounded in reality

Times Staff Writer

Ben Ross is at the center of an academic movement that honors the hands-on tradition of Arts and Crafts architects, welds the goals of those who design a house with those who build it and offers real-world experience to new grads stepping into the workforce. Yet to hear him tell it, he just has a weird job.

As a caretaker of a remote 12-acre site in San Luis Obispo, the 23-year-old shoos away tryst-seekers, mows wild grass and even fixes the public restroom. His compensation is free rent in a fishbowl house that straddles a mostly dry creek bed and gets poor TV reception.

A good gig? Ask him and he’ll tell you he’s hoping to stay as long as he can; there’s a two-year limit because of heavy interest in the glass-walled house with views of a nighttime sky full of stars and a brilliant orange “smiley face” sun each morning.

Poet? Naturalist? No. Ross is an architecture student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and one of two caretakers of a canyon in the hills on campus where undergrads have been designing and building full-size shelters for 40 years.


About the size of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, the Experimental Building Facility site in Poly Canyon makes this state university unique: It’s the only campus with an expansive outdoor lab dedicated to student projects, and its longtime emphasis on letting “paper architects” experience the real joys and woes of seeing their ideas succeed or fail from the ground up is being adopted by other schools.

Last month, a trio of Cal Poly students set their drafting tools aside and assembled a stretched-fabric shelter that looks like a handkerchief floating in the breeze. The 20-foot-tall tensile tent is next to the first experiment, a geodesic dome inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s visit to the campus and moved to Poly Canyon in 1962.

The sloping land is dotted with buildings aptly nicknamed Shell, Stick, Spider and Pole. Ross’ Bridge House, which was built in 1968 of then-uncommon Corten steel struts and solar-reflective glass, is within sight of the Underground House, a stucco mound that is only partly buried and is often called Alien because its projecting light shafts resemble antennas.

Some parts of the canyon look like graveyards scattered with the skeletons of incomplete or failed projects; says one professor, “Thank goodness they learned those lessons there and not in your neighborhood.”


A movement is born

The practical approach of bringing together everyone involved in an architectural project from the conceptual stage through construction didn’t have a name when Cal Poly and a few other schools started teaching it decades ago. But it’s now called “design/build,” and there are books, magazines and professional firms that specialize in it.

Schools, which have treated architecture and construction as distinct fields since the 19th century, now see the merits of orienting students early to real-world collaborations. Design/build programs were offered at 10 architectural schools a decade ago, and at least 40 schools have since embraced the movement, says William J. Carpenter, author of “Learning by Building: Design and Construction in Architectural Education.” (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997).


A few colleges -- notably the Rural Studio associated with Auburn University in Alabama, and the Yale School of Architecture -- have long-established design/build programs in which students create solutions to community needs, from low-cost housing to libraries. Students are given a project to design, an off-campus site to build it on, a budget and a client. They then get their hands calloused and their fingers smashed working alongside the construction crew.

“You can talk to students about the value of a nail, but it doesn’t mean much,” says George Elvin, assistant professor in the school of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has a two-acre plot on campus for experiments. “But when they pound two pieces of wood together and see how hard it is to take it apart, they understand the sheer strength of the nail.”

Without design/build, he says, architecture students think the world “is like ‘Sim City,’ and they get to be the god of it all.”

Cal Poly’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design has the luxury of acres of campus space as well as 1,839 students enrolled in five related disciplines: architecture, architectural engineering, landscape, construction management, and city and regional planning.


A requirement for graduation at this polytechnic university, as with the one in Pomona, is a senior project. Students earn credits by working for design firms, contributing to community projects such as Habitat for Humanity and sketching renderings for hoped-for clients.

But over the years, some have taken on more ambitious projects that have them scrounging for donations and working well past graduation: They build modern structures in Poly Canyon, a spot so rural that confused cows bump against the student-installed glass windows and walls.


Street signs become shingles


Discarded, discounted and donated materials make up most of the 40 permanent structures in the canyon. The blocky Modular house, where the second caretaker, Seth Pare-Mayer, makes his home, is shingled in old street signs, and the teak floor in the living room is crafted from inch-wide slats used in patio umbrellas.The newest structure was built for less than $600 out of pocket, with the building team receiving more than $9,000 in cash and $10,000 in PVC-coated polyester roof fabric, turnbuckles and other materials. It’s impossible to estimate how much time was given by students and faculty in the design and construction departments, as well as outside professionals.

This year’s team selected a tensile structure because every piece is necessary -- no ornamentation or frills here -- and yet it’s an elegant form. Architectural engineering graduate Kieran Kelly-Sneed, architecture student Royce Chow and landscape architecture graduate Theresa Zaro spent a school year making models, planning the construction process and enduring the heat of the welding torch to make three precisely angled steel poles. Along the way, there were adjustments and compromises -- exactly what those working in the industry experience.

“It’s not the easy way, but it’s the real way,” says K. Richard Zweifel, Cal Poly’s interim dean of architecture.

Ross was enrolled at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa when he heard about the projects in Poly Canyon. Each spring, Cal Poly hosts Design Village, for which a few hundred community college students bring portable shelters into the canyon for a weekend of judging based on design, craftsmanship and cost.


In 1999 the theme was “Disaster Relief,” and Ross and seven teammates created a floatable shelter made from marine foam and plumbing pipes, with bunk beds cobbled together from plastic pipes and chicken wire. They won the People’s Choice award, voted by the other 14 teams and visitors.

Ross transferred to Cal Poly and lived his first year in a 120-year-old Victorian in downtown San Luis Obispo, where he didn’t make a single improvement. Since moving into the 1,000-square-foot Bridge House three months ago, he has been a working example of the university’s learn-by-doing philosophy, in which students dig deeper to understand concepts if they see a direct benefit.

Ross has yanked out the once-cherished linoleum and carpet, and painted the concrete floor a dark burgundy to match the rusted Corten steel exterior, bronze reflective windows and all-too-real earth tones of the surrounding landscape. And by trial and error, he has remodeled the spartan kitchen. Bottled water boiled on a barbecue and microwaved Hot Pockets sustained him during construction. “I knew I was home when I installed a fridge and could finally have a gallon of Moose Tracks ice cream on hand,” he says.

Another example of putting academics to the test is coming soon: The third-year architecture student will complete his senior project requirement by bringing better TV reception and high-speed Internet connections to the canyon’s two occupied houses. Says the deprived “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” fan, “I must learn how to make a satellite.”



Poly Canyon

Where: A 20-minute walk from the parking lot at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 1 Grand Ave., San Luis Obispo

When: Open to the public during the day


Contact: For more information about the College of Architecture and Environmental Design, call (805) 756-1311;